A few years ago, I went to a family reunion in Pennsylvania. Besides the great Italian food and the simultaneous shouting at one another (what we Italians call “conversation”), one of the highlights of the trip was visiting the old family farm. While I had heard the stories, I had never been to the farm before. As the old wooden door was pushed aside and I set foot into the barn, it was like I had stepped right back into the 1920s, when the farm was in its glory days. The summer sun peered through the cracks of the wooden planks, which members of my family had surely looked upon years ago. An iron (the kind you have to put on a stove in order to use) sat lonely and rusted, unattended on a shelf, whose white paint had mostly flaked off. The floor was littered with straw, and a couple of buckets containing nails and screws were hanging from the wall, still waiting to be used.
They were right here. I am standing right where members of my family used to live and work. I had certainly heard the stories, but the experience of stepping onto the property where my ancestors had walked, connected me with my family in a way that the stories had not. The experience didn’t make the stories any less real, but being “at the spot” gave me a unique lens by which to meet my family in an entirely new way. I could see what saw. I could walk where they walked. As my parents and some other family members looked around the barn, I felt moved to go off on my own for a moment, and offer a prayer of thanks for this experience of connection and relationship.
I felt a similar sense of gratefulness and awe this summer while on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Along with Brendan McAleer, C.S.C., I traveled to Israel in order to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and to study at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem with Fr. Virgil Elizondo, Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C., and a group of graduate students from the Theology department at the University of Notre Dame.
My time in the Holy Land was packed with travel. Of course we visited all of the significant sites associated with the life of Christ, including the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To my surprise, however, one of the most moving moments of “connection” came not at a church but at the Sea of Galilee. Here there is no great cathedral, no specific “spot” crowded with pilgrims. In place of stained glass and mosaic tile is the beautiful landscape of majestic green and blue water, and a hilly, mountainous border. Unlike many of the other pilgrimage sites,this one has not changed much since the time of Christ.
As I walked to the shore of the sea, and stepped into the water with my bare feet, my mind was racing. He was here. He walked here and fished here with his apostles. The Son of God was in this water. The Son of God WALKED on this water! I submerged my hand in the sea and blessed myself. Then I noticed that fish were starting to gather near my feet. I felt the warm sun and the wind on my skin. I could feel the presence of Jesus with me. I could imagine him walking the shore and calling his first apostles by name. It struck me how risky it was for them to leave their way of life behind on these shores and follow Jesus. There most have been something extraordinarily special about him. I continued to imagine the scene with Jesus and the apostles when I suddenly became acutely aware of the fact that Jesus was calling me by name. Right then and there. It was as though my imagining the scene necessarily placed me within it, and there I was, face to face with Jesus who knew me and called me by name. He was asking me in a particular way to recommit myself to him as his disciple. I could not help but respond with a joyful YES! In this moment and through this experience, I understood why the apostles would drop everything and follow him. He is real and his words are true. This powerful experience of prayer remains one of my most treasured memories from the Holy Land.
It’s easy for us to think of the Gospel stories as cute little fables, ancient accounts that are nice but really have no bearing on our daily lives. At times we can even forget that the Gospel stories are actually about real people! Yet those people are our ancestors in the faith, our family members. Their story is our story! What happened then still happens in our midst today. Just as we value anecdotes about our grandparents and our great-grandparents that have been passed down to us, the stories in scripture hold a special place in the heart every Christian because the Gospel story is our story. Visiting a place with historical or religious significance can be a transformative experience, not because the places are important in and of themselves, but rather because the places reflect real people, real relationships and loving connections that continue to be living and true. Encounters such as these can help us transform the stories that we’ve heard time and time again, and give us a new sense of identity and purpose.
Whether at an old family farm or at the Sea of Galilee—wherever we find ourselves—the most transformative encounter with the Lord and the deepest engagement with those who have gone before us takes place at every Eucharistic celebration. It is there that our most ancient family stories are told. It is there that we recall why we were created, we remember where we come from and for what (for whom) we are destined. At every Mass the entire family of disciples reunite, and no one less than Jesus himself reaches out and calls each of us by name.