Canon John Cooke has recently returned from leading a 12 day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This pilgrimage group (mainly from the Fareham & Portchester Parish) was one of the first to return to the Holy Land since the COVID lockdowns and their travel was postponed from 2021. He shares news of the pilgrimage with us…
One very big blessing the group enjoyed, by taking the risk to travel, was the absence of big queues at the Holy Sites. For those who have been able to travel to the Holy Land, you may appreciate that being able to venerate the rock of Calvary, then being allowed to walk straight into the Tomb at the Holy Sepulchre, and being able to spend as long as you wish in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity are all things that are unheard of under ‘normal’ circumstances! It is fair to say that the COVID PCR testing requirements before travel, the form filling and the compulsory PRC test on arrival at Tel Aviv did add a certain level of anxiety for the group but, fortunately, this did not cause any major delays or changes to the itinerary and everyone was happy to oblige with the requirements of wearing masks and being careful with handwashing which meant the group of 25 kept well and returned home safely.
The last time Canon John led a group in the Holy Land was in March 2020 and they were one of the last groups to leave Israel as the country locked down and, sadly, were not able to visit Bethlehem as that border had already closed. At that time, so little was known about COVID and, on reflection, shows what a lot has happened in our world during those two years. The group were able to financially support the Christians in several ways: by our group donations at each of the Holy Sites, by their shopping in Bethlehem (being one of the first groups to return to the Christian Co-operative to purchase souvenirs that, in turn, helps support 40 of the local families), and by donating to the McCabe Educational Trust when booking to travel. All the hotels and businesses have really struggled during the pandemic, and the locals were so grateful to see pilgrims making the return. The group found everyone they encountered to be helpful and there was a real presence of joy during the whole pilgrimage. A highlight for some of the group was a chance encounter with Fr Mike Schmitz in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre!
Travelling with McCabe Pilgrimages, the trip was for 12 days at three centres – in the Negev desert (staying on a kibbutz), at the Notre Dame Guest House in Jerusalem just outside the Old City walls and finally residing in a hotel in Tiberias right on the Sea of Galilee. From journeying with the Patriarchs in the desert, through the wilderness to Masada & the Dead Sea and on to Jerusalem – with a day trip to Bethlehem – the group finished the pilgrimage by following in the footsteps of Christ at the Holy Sites around the Sea of Galilee.
There were 3 main focuses of prayer during the pilgrimage – peace (especially given the war in the Ukraine), for priests (especially those who are unwell at this time), and for vocations for our Diocese. The group had many other personal intentions that were offered during the pilgrimage and became a comforting link with events unfolding back at home. This was Canon John’s eighth pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his seventh in collaboration with the local guide Oliver, who is now not just a guide but a trusted friend. Plans are already unfolding for the next pilgrimage in Lent 2024, for the Glory of God!