Franciscan Joy: Leading pilgrims in the footsteps of Jesus
BY FR. ALEX KRATZ, OFM
Ever since my mom read me stories from my Illustrated Children’s Bible, I’ve been fascinated with Middle Eastern culture. The colorful and exotic clothing imprinted itself deeply on my memory until years later, when I read about St. Francis meeting the Sultan in Egypt, an almost imperceptible homing device welled up in my spirit and drew me to the Middle East.
The opportunity arose when our seminary, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, included a segment of study in the Holy Land for those who had concentrated – as I had – in Biblical Spirituality. We were stationed in Bethany. Amazingly, like Jesus, I became friends with a family who lived there. They personalized the Holy Land for me in a way I had not anticipated.
I went to the Holy Land gung-ho on biblical archaeology, but I soon got hooked on the people – especially the forgotten faithful, the Christian "living stones." My axis of interest shifted radically from places to people. The Holy Land changed from something of a biblical Disneyland for an inquisitive seminary student to my second homeland – the homeland of Jesus and our Family of Faith.
That was in 1997, and the love of the Mother Church of Jerusalem never left me. I later volunteered to help the Christians of the Holy Land by selling olive wood and preaching to sponsor Christian students in the Catholic schools of the diocese of Jerusalem. But this was not enough, and so I got permission from my Franciscan province to go study in the Holy Land for one year.
From 2003-2004 I lived in the West Bank to learn about the culture of the Palestinian Christians, since 99% of the faithful were such. While there, I was asked by some friends to be the chaplain for their pilgrimage, and so I spontaneously commented on each place from the biblical point of view. I received positive feedback, especially on how I related the Bible to each place – from Joshua entering Jericho, Jesus being born in Bethlehem or crucified on Calvary to Our Lady giving her fiat – "Let it be done" – in Nazareth.
The "spirituality of place" as we walked in the footsteps of Jesus (and Moses and Mary) was a powerful experience that proved life-changing for many a future pilgrim. By 2008 I co-founded Terra Sancta Pilgrimages with a Secular Franciscan colleague, Patti Giangrande. Our mission: We seek to combine a deeply Franciscan-biblical spirituality with exposure to the local church. Having Mass in the Tomb of Christ or in a cave of the shepherds, renewing our Baptismal Promises in the Jordan River (on the Jordan side where it really happened) or meeting Palestinian students at the only Catholic university in the West Bank – Bethlehem University – is a transformative experience that forms adult Christian faith for life. We visit 19 of the 20 places of the Rosary. The net effect is that the sacred mysteries of our faith come so alive that memories last a lifetime and many tears flow when pilgrims now attend Mass or pray their Rosary.
I never thought I would be doing this bridge-building ministry with the Holy Land, but am grateful to God I can lead such pilgrimages twice a year. When we arrive, I feel what the medieval pilgrims used to sing: "I have reached the place where God walked in the flesh."
(Stationed in Detroit, Mich., Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM, serves in ministry of the word and is spiritual assistant for Secular Franciscan fraternities.)