Archbishop Richard Smith led a Holy Land pilgrimage for 78 pilgrims from Alberta, BC and Nova Scotia, Nov. 21 to Dec. 4.


Archbishop Richard Smith led a Holy Land pilgrimage for 78 pilgrims from Alberta, BC and Nova Scotia, Nov. 21 to Dec. 4.

December 21, 2015

John and Lorraine Caldwell found it difficult to describe what it is like to stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus himself once walked and first called his disciples.

"It was just unbelievable that we were walking in his footsteps," said John. "It's just hard to describe the feeling of that experience."

The couple, from Edmonton's St. Joseph's Basilica were among 78 pilgrims led by Archbishop Richard Smith on a pilgrimage to Israel and Jordan Nov. 21 to Dec. 4.

The Caldwells were looking for a special trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary but they found much more than a trip on the 14-day pilgrimage.

The pilgrims started off in the Galilee region, including Nazareth and several stops by boat on the Sea of Galilee. They went far north to the Syrian border to a place called Caesarea Philippi then spent some time at Mount Carmel.

They travelled south to the Jerusalem area, to the Dead Sea, Jericho and Masada, then crossed into Jordan to Mount Nebo and Petra. They went to the Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and even visited the pool of Beth-zatha, where Jesus healed a man who had been crippled for 38 years.

All the sites were moving but the one that affected them the most was walking along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, in Old Jerusalem. The walk ended with a Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

"Every site was unbelievable because of the fact that Jesus was there, at that spot," said John. "But this was really special because this was where he became our Saviour."

Lorraine and John Caldwell stop by the Sea of Galilee.


Lorraine and John Caldwell stop by the Sea of Galilee.

Fellow pilgrims Larry and Debbie Jackson of Dapp in Westlock County were also moved by the experience.

"I don't think there were a lot of dry eyes in the church that morning," said Debbie.

Reading the Gospels in the Bible is one thing, she said, but to actually see the places they visited in the Holy Land, brought the Gospels to life. "Somebody called it the fifth gospel, and that couldn't be closer to the truth."

The pilgrims took part in daily Mass and Smith's explanations of the situations, culture and way of life in Jesus' time at each place they visited also added clarity to the Scriptures, said John.

"Archbishop Smith was just an exceptional teacher," he said.

Smith, who has led pilgrimages to the Holy Land before, was also moved by the experience.

"The experience has left us enriched with an unparalleled experience of the wonder of the faith," he wrote in one of his daily blog posts.

"It's been very moving to see and hear how the Holy Spirit has been working in the hearts of the pilgrims, often in surprising ways."

For Larry and Debbie, the work of the Holy Spirit started the day they opened the WCR and saw the ad for the pilgrimage.

"It's no coincidence. It was meant to be, to see that ad and go on that pilgrimage with the archbishop," said Debbie.

The Holy Spirit was "palpable" throughout the experience, she said. "I could look at the faces of people and knew they were feeling something far beyond what you could ever read."

The pilgrims experienced a range of emotions, said Debbie. One highlight was the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel, where they saw a statue of Mary and Elizabeth facing each other.

"They both have little pregnant bellies and you could just feel that happiness, the extreme joy," said Debbie.

Debbie and Larry Jackson overlook the city of Jerusalem.


Debbie and Larry Jackson overlook the city of Jerusalem.

Now back home in Dapp, everything is different for the couple, from watching specials on the Holy Land on television to the readings at Mass in their parish.

"Christmas is going to be very different this year, everything will be different," said Debbie. "We go to church and we listen to the readings and we just look at each other when something comes up and go, 'Yeah, we know where that is, and we know it in a different way.'"

Pilgrimage coordinator Christine Foisy-Erickson said pilgrims usually have a profound experience of the Gospels when they can make associations with the actual places and the Scriptures.

Pilgrims are able to see that the Gospels are not just an accumulation of bedtime stories their grandparents told them, but they are founded on real places in real time, Foisy-Erickson said.

"Although we know that, when people see it, that visual connection is very powerful."

As well as pilgrims from the Edmonton Archdiocese, the group also included people from Lethbridge, Vancouver, Calgary and Nova Scotia.