By Fr. Erik Esparza
This past May I was blessed to celebrate my 10th Anniversary of priesthood. As part of the celebration I was fortunate to lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome and Assisi. Forty-three pilgrims embarked on a journey of a lifetime. For many of the pilgrims it was the first journey to the two most important places for Catholic Christians: the Holy Land and Rome.
The 13-day pilgrimage was planned to originate where everything began. Being able to visit the location where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and she said ‘yes,’ to the place where Jesus died and was buried made for such an amazing experience. Walking the very land of Jesus’ birth provided, even in the midst of busy and full days, opportunities to reflect on all that Christ accomplished for us. Everyday made for a mixture of emotions. Despite the occasional tears we shed, overall the joy we felt could not be contained. Even with the Holy Land being the amazing experience it was, we were not finished yet. It was time to go to Rome!
The next leg of our journey led us to where the Church was able to be true to the call of Jesus to go forth and make disciples of all nations. The Roman Empire was in many ways the center of the world and it was to this center that St. Peter would go. Using the means of that time, including language, structure, and means of communication, the Church, while enduring years of persecution, would persevere with the help of the Holy Spirit to transform the world. To this day Vatican City is a sight to behold. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Gardens, and the Sistine Chapel are just some of the highlights. Another highpoint for us was an audience with the current resident of Vatican City, Pope Francis. Thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square just to get a glimpse of Pope Francis as he passed by and offered words of wisdom at his weekly Wednesday audience. Every day we were blessed to celebrate the Holy Mass at some of the holiest sites including the tomb of Pope St. John Paul II. The culture, food and architecture made for wonderful experience in the eternal city. If Rome wasn’t already enough, a short journey to Assisi made for icing on the cake. All the pilgrims wished we could have stayed longer in this peaceful hometown of two great saints, St. Francis and St. Claire. Even though brief it was a powerful visit.
If any of you reading this now are ever given the opportunity to go to the Holy Land and/or Rome/Assisi, please go. Do not hesitate to make the journey. You will not regret it. For those who may never go, know from this pilgrim, that it is all so true! Know that indeed our God sent His only Son Jesus to be born of a young virgin named Mary. Know that Jesus did live and walk this very earth. Know that Jesus taught us in unexpected ways the will of God. And know that Jesus our Lord died for our sins only to be resurrected and provide us new hope and everlasting life. Oh, it is true indeed! The most amazing thing of this story is that while it is a blessing to walk the very land of our Lord, in reality, it is not necessary to travel clear across the earth to encounter Jesus. We can encounter Jesus most powerfully in the Sacraments especially the Eucharist. Next time you go to Mass encounter the Risen Lord and be grateful for all the many ways God loves you. Remember Jesus is inviting you to make a difference in the world.
Now go forth and be a joyful witness!
Fr. Erik Esparza is Associate Director of the Office of Priest Personnel in the Diocese of San Bernardino.