Episode 10: Pilgrimage – A Sacred Experience

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Episode 10: Pilgrimage – A Sacred Experience


October 2, 2019 Duration: 32:50:00 Guests: Fr. Jim Gardiner & Fr. Ben Owusu

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Episode Description In episode 10 of Following Francis, we learn that a pilgrim is more than a tourist, and a pilgrimage can expand a person’s spirituality in many ways. Fr. Jim Gardiner and Fr. Ben Owusu join host Christopher Dwyer to discuss the spiritual impact of a pilgrimage, the significance behind the journey, and the importance of making time to take this trip of a lifetime.

“We say this prayer every day…’help me become a permanent Pilgrim instead of a passing tourist’. These pilgrimages are metaphors for life. Life is a pilgrimage. And I think that you either live your life or you just kind of skim through life.” – Fr. Jim Gardiner


Chris Dwyer: [00:00] Welcome to Following Francis. I’m Christopher Dwyer, your host coming to you from the Franciscan Monastery in Washington D.C.. Today, we are looking at being a Pilgrim and what that entails. And in particular, what is it like to be a Pilgrim in the Holy land? we’re very fortunate. We have two of our friars here to join us. We have Fr. Jim Gardner and Fr. Ben Owusu. Fr. Jim is actually a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement out of New York, but he lives here in Washington, D.C. along with Fr. Ben. You’ll notice also with Fr. Ben, he’s originally from Ghana, so you may pick up on his accent there. But both of them here, one is a actually a Pilgrim leader and the other is a Chaplain. So we’ll get into that a little bit, during our conversation. So welcome Fr. Jim and Fr. Ben.

Fr. Ben: [00:59] Thank you very much for this opportunity.

Fr. Jim: [00:59] Thank you.

Chris Dwyer: [01:02] Why don’t we start with the different, cause we’re talking about pilgrimages. What’s the difference between a pilgrimage and we’ll say a tourist trip?

Fr. Jim: [01:11] Well, there are major differences, but there are also major similarities. They all need that infrastructure of, you know, flights, accommodations, meals, etc, itineraries. But I think that the big difference between a pilgrimage and a tour is that a tour just goes to attractions, sites, whatever historical sites or whatever. Whereas a pilgrimage is essentially a spiritual exercise that is about prompted by the sites that you go to. I remember that a couple of years ago I went to this conference at the United Nations was running and it was on the differences between precisely this, the difference between pilgrimages and tours and how the point was made. I’m happy to say I was able to make the point that tourists have spiritual needs as well. So you bet it shouldn’t be too clean on that separation. You know, people want to go to mass, people want to go to pray, people have needs, etc. And I, so I mean, the separation is clear, but not always.

Chris Dwyer: [02:21] Well in fact, you and I were talking before the recording here and I was over there on business working here at the Monastery. So they had me over there. But even on business, I had that spiritual need. So I needed to go to mass and…

Fr. Jim: [02:32] Confession too.

Chris Dwyer: [02:33] Yes, yes, we all need confession. Don’t we father?

Fr. Jim: [02:39] Speak for yourself.

Chris Dwyer: [02:41] So what is the average day look like over there for a Pilgrim?

Fr. Jim: [02:47] An average day is their long days. I mean in the sense that, they usually start early. I mean, you always see the groans of when people say, well, tomorrow, wake up will be six o’clock. And that’s a late call because you want to be downstairs, luggage outside the door, and breakfast on the bus at certain time. Because you want to avoid traffic and you know, if you like traffic, stay home and enjoy it here, you don’t have to go overseas to get it or go to the Holy Land. But I mean, you want to, you don’t, you want to get, get to places on time. And in, in a timely manner. And so the days the days are pretty full. We always have mass in some shrine every day. I mean it could be, an in the Holy Tomb or it could be on Mount Nebo, Mount Tabor, I mean it could be in any of these places, Jericho, all these places that you heard of. We will go there obviously for mass every day we always stop some place for lunch. If you want a hint or a tip, the best place for lunch is the Casanova in Bethlehem. They have the best pasta any place you would imagine. We always stop and we usually returned to the hotel in time for supper. But in the meantime, it’s filled with more than just sightseeing. We have a guide. Fr. Ben is a great guide because he knows all this stuff that I don’t know about and he shares that with people. What happened to you? Why are we celebrating here? What we do with Cana, what happened at Cana, what didn’t happen at Cana? You know why you shouldn’t buy Cana wine because there isn’t a winery around there. Jesus did that. That was 2,000 years ago. We changed the water into wine. You know what I’m saying? But now people try to sell you Cana wine. Excuse me. It doesn’t exist, you know, I mean there’s no winery, but I mean there’s all these interesting places to see and to stimulate your thinking and your prayer life.

Chris Dwyer: [04:41] You raised a good point. Fr. Ben is a licensed guide, which is required over in Israel. So, you’re actually the chaplain for the group.

Fr. Jim: [04:50] Yes, that scares some people.

Chris Dwyer: [04:55] So, what is your role as a Chaplain? What does that person do?

Fr. Jim: [04:58] First of all, the Chaplain does the mass every day. That’s one thing that’s done. But you know, I’ll tell you, I think the role is evolving and it’s, and I’ll tell you why I say that is because most people, they don’t get a chance to talk to their priest in the parish at all these days because of the ratio of, of priests to parishioners and times for confession times for that. So we make the time by going everywhere with you and not monitoring what you do. But we’ll go with you and if you have extra questions where you want to talk about something, we make the time to talk about, people often say we don’t do many things. We rarely do anything at night. So in other words, when you get to the hotel, at the end of the day, you’re there for supper and then you can chill. Some people want to go to bed, some people want to process what they’ve seen, what they felt, what they learned. Some people want to talk. And it’s a great time to talk and the bar at the hotel is a great place to do it. And you’d be surprised how much I call it business gets done there. Because people feel free, comfortable and you have something in common to start off.

Chris Dwyer: [06:14] Well, you’re outside the structure of a church, you’re there together, they’re perceiving you as a Pilgrim as well, and you come off, I’m sure that way as does those Fr. Ben. So they feel you’re one of them. And that makes you approachable.

Fr. Jim: [06:30] I think so. I mean, I think, and this is gonna sound, maybe it won’t sound the way I’d like it to sound, but you want to take advantage of that, you know, and not hide in your room. There are days when you just wish you could go, just go upstairs. Not even come down for supper, you know what I mean? But, and that’s the other thing, you know, the meals are borderline lavish. You really have to learn to control yourself because you see all this wonderful fresh food and fish and things like that. I mean say, well, this is just too good to be true. You know what I mean? But it’s an important thing to do, you know, because you sit, you try not to sit with the same people. I always encourage people, you know, OK. I mean, I don’t want to break up any marriages or things like that, but I always tell people, you know, sit with different people, they find out about them because we are blessed in this sense that, at least the pilgrimages that I’ve been privileged to go on, there’ve been people from across the country, even from other countries, here and, you know, I think it makes for interesting conversations.

Chris Dwyer: [07:42] And Fr. Ben, I know you’re a licensed guide over in Israel. Can you tell us a little bit about what the role of the guide is?

Fr. Ben: [07:52] Being a guide, a pilgrim guide to be specific, a Franciscan Pilgrim guide has to do with you know, welcoming the pilgrims in the first place. and taking through the spiritual journey, which is mostly linked to the sites which we are in charge. I mean, you know, keep in the Holy Land and the detail of our work is to let the Pilgrim relive his or her faith, walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It is broad, but we limit ourselves mostly to what is done in the parishes. In the parishes, we leave over the year, the mysteries from Christ’s birth to death. We go through that all the time in the parish, but now you are in the site, in the place and so you become part of the reality of the Holy Land. And so the guide will take you through these places, giving you historical background about the sites, archaeological details and the present detail. And besides that gives you the opportunity to meditate on the places. And so, backing everything with the scripture is very much important. And so having done all that, you know, during your talks, you leave the people, you give them time to reflect, to lift their spirits. In fact, the pilgrimage of today is so short. We take 10 days, which is very short. It’s supposed to be a month. I wouldn’t want to go back to history, but they’re supposed to be at least a month because it is about being part of a reality, an event that occurred and is still occurring. So the guide, Franciscan guide in this sense is to take the individual to go through the spiritual experience.

Chris Dwyer: [10:31] What I found fascinating when I returned because it was so short and I was there almost two weeks for my trip, when I came back, that’s when the reality really set in. It was when I would hear the scripture on the weekly mass. And that’s when everything that I just experienced became so real. Those images came right back.

Fr. Ben: [10:53] Yes. Because you become part of your experience. You know, so it is no more going to know or to see and touch. It becomes your reality. And so the gospel is no more distant message, but something that you have lived. Makes it a more a life.

Chris Dwyer: [11:14] For me it was like meeting a relative that I had never met before. And then when I met that person, I had a whole different relationship with that person afterwards. And that’s what I have now with the gospel. Because I’ve now met that image, that whole site. Which has been awesome. So how do you two work together in terms of as a Chaplain versus a guide? You’re doing mass in the morning Fr. Jim.

Fr. Jim: [11:39] But then I correct him all the rest of the day. Well, Ben and I have not worked together yet. We have our maiden voyage in April. It’s something to look forward to actually. But I mean, when the times that I’ve gone, I’ve had a Palestinian Christian layman as a guide. Very knowledgeable. And, and I find the guides easy to work with that you compliment and supplement one on another, you know, and so I mean there are two different roles, but they do overlap.

Chris Dwyer: [12:21] Okay. And how many are on a pilgrimage? Are we looking at small groups, large groups?

Fr. Ben: [12:26] Well, lately our number is increasing, so it’s always between 30 and 45-50.

Fr. Jim: [12:33] It’s limited by the bus really, you don’t want to get into a second bus.

Fr. Ben: [12:41] Mostly our minimum is, I mean the bus has a capacity of 60, and then we are somewhere within 50. So the number is, you know, improving while we try to stay within reach. And also, if you want to celebrate mass in the Holy Sepulchre if the group is big, it becomes a problem. So we limit ourselves between 35 and 40/45.

Chris Dwyer: [13:09] Okay. If I wanted to go on a pilgrimage, what would I do? So decide I’m going to come on a pilgrimage, I look at our website at the Monastery, which is Holylandpilgrimages.org. See what the itineraries are in the one that’s appealing to me. I then contact the Monastery?

Fr. Jim: [13:28] The one that fits your schedule. You know, and then it’s the process kind of takes over. It’s really simple. And at the end, the other thing I think, you know, that a lot of people think, well, how safe is it over there? You’re safe over there as you are here and you might even be safer. I mean, the when I’m looking at the papers, I mean, the things that are happening here, they’re not happening over there. And I think that people gotta get it out of their heads that it’s, unsafe.

Chris Dwyer: [14:01] Well, you’re also with very experienced guides and with friars.

Fr. Jim: [14:04] Experienced guides and there are, you know, your guides, you guys know stuff that even the state department here doesn’t know, right? They can smell trouble or if there is trouble in there and they end up, you give the guidance, the opportunity to change the itinerary as needed. You know, if you, I remember going, the first time I went we had Fr. Garrett was our guide and I thought we were going to be in a wreck because he told the bus driver, no, no, keep going, keep going. Because I forgot what the site was, but he saw that the parking lot was just jammed with buses. He said, skip it, we’ll go to the next one and then we’ll come back. And we did and by the time we got back we passed all those buses going to the site we had, you know what I mean? You have be a little flexible. The problem that comes out as some people would go with the itinerary and they hold in their hands. I keep telling him, put that away. Just experience this, you know, and the same thing, people, I think they make a mistake when they say, what should I read before I go, you know, then what are you going to do? Check your knowledge out, it’s not an exam. It’s an experience.

Chris Dwyer: [15:14] Is there anything you would recommend to prepare to go on a pilgrimage?

Fr. Jim: [15:18] The Bible. Period. The daily readings, you know, get in the habit of doing the daily readings. I mean, because chances are that those are the things that are going to come up.

Fr. Ben: [15:29] Actually what we try to do is to, we have already prepared, the biblical references to the site we go. So I give it out to the groups. I mean to read on their own because we have a website which has all the, the scripture references and before you go, at least you should prepare yourself physically because it involves a lot of walking. Honestly, there are some areas you need to, you know, climb and all those things. So at least, one hour a day of walking, you know, to get yourself fit. And then because it’s for example, the Old City you don’t have a car going there and so you need to really depend on your legs.

Chris Dwyer: [16:21] And they are all cobblestones. So those they are crooked streets and you better be prepared. And also the temperature, it can be quite warm.

Fr. Ben: [16:30] Yeah. It depends on which season one is, you know, going, now summer is almost over, but you still have the sun. So if you are in November is perfect. Yes. But a lot of people. So these are some of the things to take into consideration. And mostly before the pilgrims start, there is a publication, the agency will send a secular letter given indications as to what to bring, you know, the basic things, even plugs electronic gadgets and all those things. And so, we give up to date information. And the other side about safety is you know, today, honestly we cannot say this side of the world is safer than the other side. I had a group from Canada and it was a mix up group, Italian and English. So a lot of them were afraid to come. And in the process what happened was a bomb in Canada, in the parliament. It wasn’t a good news, but it was something nobody expected. So in terms of safety, it is quite safe or I would say from my experience is quite safe over there. Because it’s a place where we are so conscious of violence and so, you have securities all over the place and the places we go, you have police all over Holy Sepulchre has a police station right there. So in terms of safety, it is quite safe. And, but you know, personal preparation you look at for comfortable shoe that you could, you know, wear and things like that. And then also the dressing. People from the West, you know, could dress anyhow. But over there, they are more sensitive to the way you come and visit the churches and things like that. So you draw the attention when you, you know, go with shorts above your knee and things like that. So all of these things we make mention of them. Ladies could put up, something on their shoulders, respectful. We make it quite possible for people to feel free respecting the place.

Chris Dwyer: [19:12] Exactly. I think father, the other thing that that folks have to prepare for is a little bit of patience because I know that the sites can get very crowded and the wait can be very long. So at least in my case, I stood in line for the Holy Sepulchre for about two hours.

Fr. Ben: [19:31] Yeah. It’s, patience is one of the virtues we really have to put into practice on visiting the Holy site, especially in peak season, like between now and, November through 15th of December, because everybody wants to go to the Holy Land to meet the good weather. And so this is really a time where the sites are packed. And for that reason, we have to be patient. Once we got to Bethlehem, since last year, October, I had about 44 people. And when they looked at the crowd, get in to waiting to go to the, an Activity Grotto, they told me father, we better go back. So in our case we only, you can only wait and we, the Franciscans have this sort of privilege. We have sit in masses which are reserved only for the friars. And so I just sent a couple of emails to Fr. David to try book for that mass in the cave in the Activity Grotto. He got one for October and not for November, but if we get this mass, we spent 25 minutes exactly celebrating in the cave. And so that will give us, you know, the, the privilege to be there to celebrate there and also to visit at the same time. And that saves us. But the cost is to wake up as early as three o’clock in the morning. You know, but it’s worth it. So we try to find ways to, you know, beat that crowd. We have the masses booked for the tomb and that is another way to beat it. Otherwise patient. Even having that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t wait in another corner.

Chris Dwyer: [21:46] And it’s not just at the shrines, it’s also in the hotels. You’re lodging areas when you’re waiting at that buffet, patience is important.

Fr. Ben: [21:54] A lot of people and you know, you just have to, you know, follow the friars and things like that. People could easily get lost and you know, underground things come to mind and then we draw people’s attention. But thank God so far we’ve never had any problem. You just go in smoothly. We do our thing. There’s time for coffee break. There is time, you know, so it, and then we include a bit of fun, you know?

Chris Dwyer: [22:24] At least there was when I was there. It was a fun, fun time. Well, in addition to the major sites where you mentioned about Holy Sepulchre and, and also Bethlehem, what are some of the other sites that you visit?

Fr. Jim: [22:40] Mount Tabor. That’s an incredible experience. I think just going up there. You go halfway up on the bus and then you have to get out the, the bus can’t go the rest of the way and you have to take these like 10, 12 passenger vans and they race along these hairpin turns up to the top of the mountain. I mean, by the time, if Jesus took the disciples to the top of that mountain, they had to be in really good shape to get up this thing because it’s steep. It’s very steep. But it’s extremely well, well worth it. The other, if you’re, if you take, if you’re out of your pilgrimage, did you go to Jordan? You’d go to Mount Nebo. And that’s another incredible site. I mean though, the bus takes you all the way up there. So that’s not bad. But you know, but just these different places that, that you hear about. I love going to Jericho. I mean, so you’ll see this a tree that the guys tried to tell you that, that it’s, I don’t know the son or daughter of the tree that, you Zacchaeus was told come down out of, you know, but it’s, it’s only about 5 or 600 years old, you know, so it can’t be the tree. And but then, you know, you go to the Tel and you see all the levels of civilization and the excavations that are being done there. You come back to a Good Shepherd Parish and I like having mass. There is a, it’s a small church. I think they have 60 families to keep this thing going. It’s the only Catholic Church I think in town there, I mean, and two incredible schools that we’ve on occasion had a chance to visit. I mean it does something to you. It just, it renews your enthusiasm for what the church can be and do, you know, and just a small group like that. Then of course we go someplace and have a nice lunch, you know? I mean, and that was that. That’s worth it to, you know, the great couple of great places there. But I mean, all the, all these sites and they’re all different.

Chris Dwyer: [24:44] And the friars are the custodians of these sites.

Fr. Jim: [24:49] Most of them, right?

Fr. Ben: [24:52] About 90% or 99%.

Chris Dwyer: [24:54] So their job is actually to look after these various shrines, make sure that they’re well-kept and also help us with the Good Friday Collection here in the United States to support those various shrines.

Fr. Ben: [25:06] One thing I would like to add about in a pilgrimage brings people together. It’s a way of bringing us who are from this side to meet, if you would like our Christian brothers on the ground who are really the living stone of the Holy land. You know, many, many times we are here, we think everybody there is a Muslim or Jew, but you have Christians day and how do you meet them because on one of our pilgrimages you cannot stop on Sunday. He made mention of you know, a Christian guide who was, who used to take his group. And that is another way of getting to you know, meet these Christians who speak Arab around because the idea language today and that contact getting exposed to what we do, what the support we get from here is useful. It’s also going down on the ground, we sometimes take them to some of the projects the Custody is doing like the schools, the parishes or housing projects. And so it’s a way of really going to visit your Christian brothers who live, you know, in the Middle East. And whether we like it or not, they are the inheritance of the apostles.

Chris Dwyer: [26:34] And as you said these are folks who all coming together probably from different places around the United States and they’re now meshed into this one group of 40-45 people who at least in my situation have remained friends until after the pilgrimage. And I think that’s a great opportunity to that has happened through the Monastery here. We set up, in fact, we have a Facebook account. It’s a closed group, but people can join that group and continue to interact with the pilgrims who either they were on the same pilgrimage or other pilgrimages, but they’ve all been on that same experience, which is a great coming together again to help support the friars.

Fr. Ben: [27:12] In fact, I have had about six, seven people of my positive June group who had come to this Monastery. Maybe the last week of Friday, no, Tuesday there was one here. She came with a friend. The friend who had been to the Holy Land earlier said, or if I knew the Holy Land was here, I’d come here first.

Chris Dwyer: [27:33] And that is the option. I mean, certainly Washington does provide that possibility for folks who can’t travel abroad. We do have many of the shrines represented here. So people can get a taste of the Holy Land right here in Washington D.C. It’s a nice opportunity for folks. Anything you would want pilgrims to know or folks to know about becoming a Pilgrim and maybe it goes beyond the Holy Land?

Fr. Jim: [28:01] I, think, you know, don’t put it off. When people say, no, I really, I put this on my bucket list. No, that’s a way of sometimes of saying, you know, of shelving up something. Let’s say don’t put it off. Make plans. You know, if you have to save money, save money. If you have to save up vacation time, plan to save up vacation time, you know, do it. I mean, just don’t say, I think this would be something I ought to do. No, no, get serious about it because, but get serious about it. But be prepared to have your life changed because I really and this is the, you know, we get notes from people when they get back, you know, and they say this, this really changed my life. You know, and you know, I don’t acquire to say, well how, how so or something like that. But this is a common expression from people.

Chris Dwyer: [28:59] Well that’s also the difference between a vacation or just going as a tourist, you’re actually investing in your faith and so to set aside extra time now to do it. And it’s not like a vacation club. You can put the investment out there now.

Fr. Jim: [29:16] You know, we say this prayer, every day and one of the lines in the prayer I just think is so great because we all say help me become a permanent Pilgrim instead of a passing tourist. Because I mean these pilgrimages are metaphors for life. Life is a pilgrimage. And I think that, you know, you either live your life or you just kind of skim through life. We had a professor in college just to tell us in this college seminary and the unexamined life is not worth living, you know, and it’s true yet, you know, this is a metaphor for life. A pilgrimage is.

Chris Dwyer: [30:00] Excellent. Well said. Fr. Ben, any thoughts that you would have for Pilgrim who’s maybe putting off that trip?

Fr. Ben: [30:07] Yeah, if it is about security, don’t worry about it. Just leave your hand. I mean your has yourself into the Lord’s hand because even here, a lot of things that I’ve seen here, you know, scares me. But, that aside, it’s an experience. If we could at least make it once in one lifetime and it’s good to make it when you can walk.

Chris Dwyer: [30:32] It’s tough to get a wheelchair through that. That is very difficult.

Fr. Ben: [30:39] It becomes very difficult for me to, you know, going through it, that’s really difficult. One day I met a lady she was 95 years and said she wanted to see the Holy Land before anything could happen to her. And I told her, you’ll be fine, you’ll go back. And she did enjoy the place and therefore you don’t have to say tomorrow, right. Because you don’t know what happens tomorrow. Especially now that we’ve enjoyed a bit of calm in the region. And you know, you take advantage if you can.

Chris Dwyer: [31:21] Absolutely. Well thank you. both of you gentlemen for coming by today. You, you want me to, I want to go back. I definitely want to go back after day. So, I’m sure there’s many folks who have listened today would want to go on a pilgrimage and I would direct them back to your Holylandpilgrimage.org website and they are, they’ll get all the information they need. So thank you gentlemen.

Fr. Jim: [31:43] Thank you.

Fr. Ben: [31:43] You’re welcome.

Chris Dwyer: [31:46] For more information about the friars pilgrimages, please check out information on upcoming trips to the Holy Land on our Holylandpilgrimage.org website. On that site, you’ll see itineraries and tips for the pilgrims. Really any information you would need to take a pilgrimage with the friars. Please also check out the other activities of the friars on our website, Myfranciscan.org as well as information on upcoming events and activities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you haven’t already done so, please subscribe to our podcast and share the link with friends. And thank you again for joining us today. I’m Christopher Dwyer and I appreciate you listening. On behalf of the Franciscan Friars, I extend to you the Franciscan blessing peace and all good.


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2019-10-02T11:12:16-04:00October 2nd, 2019|Categories: Following Francis Podcast, News|Comments Off on Episode 10: Pilgrimage – A Sacred Experience