Fr Jason Middleton, who is associate pastor at Southport, on the Gold Coast, travelled to World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid recently with a pilgrimage through the Holy Land led by Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane. Fr Middleton wrote this reflection on his experience
“JESUS is my Bus-Buddy.” Why begin a story on a World Youth Day pilgrimage through the Holy Land to Madrid with such an obscure quote?
It all began when we flew into Jordan for the first leg of our pilgrimage.
Getting onto the bus from our long flight from Brisbane, as a means of making sure everyone was present throughout the trip, our co-ordinator made a point of asking everyone to have a “bus-buddy” who they would make sure was not left behind.
I got the nod to make sure I made myself the Archbishop’s bus-buddy. So I sidled over to him and said casually, “If you don’t mind, I’m happy to be your bus-buddy.”
Archbishop John slyly replied: “Oh, I don’t know about that, not sure I need a buddy. Jesus is my bus-buddy.”
Consequently this became the catch phrase for the rest of the trip. With Jesus as your bus buddy you can’t go wrong. As it turned out only Jesus truly could be his bus-buddy, because even for a man of such a distinguished age, only Jesus could keep up with him.
This is a man of such extraordinary resilience and strength, that he walked unassisted to the top of Mount Sinai (a perilous six to seven-hour trek), when others much younger could only dream of such a feat.
Our group of 50 pilgrims was made up of young people from across Queensland, who were not only seizing the opportunity of travelling to the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of Christ, but of also seizing this last chance to walk with Archbishop John Bathersby on his last WYD pilgrimage, and most likely his last trip to the birthplace of our Christian faith.
As our spiritual guide, the Archbishop led us to our first site for prayer and Mass, at Bethany, beyond the Jordan.
This was the baptismal site of Jesus, and almost seemed like a scene from any Australian outback reed-lined creek.
When reflecting upon our own baptismal call, and our share in the life of Christ through baptism, we knew this journey would go deep into our hearts, challenge our preconceived ideas, stretch us spiritually, physically and emotionally, and ultimately transform us into the future.
From the dusty, dirty and barren plains of Jordan we continued over the border into Israel – and that’s when the fun really began.
Don’t be deceived. The security personnel all look young and friendly, but they are clinical in carrying out their work.
My smiling face was quickly replaced by a reserved, “stay calm” attitude when requested for a body search.
Then they went through my entire luggage in detail, questioning why I was carrying a Mass kit and holy oils for anointing.
Perhaps next time I shall dress in my clericals for that trip.
After this experience of being processed by customs and border protection, it was like entering the Promised Land.
On the other side were fertile green vistas with an eventual view of the Sea of Galilee when we returned to our bus on the way to our accommodation.
A good night’s sleep saw us up the next day for the first of many full days that were to come on our three-week trip.
The Holy Land is a beautiful and multi-faceted place; a culture of religious and social complexity, a country filled with sacred mysteries, buzzing with a growing modernity, offering glimpses into an ancient past.
Having been invited to accompany this pilgrimage group with the Archbishop, I feel truly privileged to have seen and experienced the places of Jesus’ life, ministry and death.
Early on into the pilgrimage we realised just how stunningly majestic this part of the world could be.
We looked out over the Sea of Galilee from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes, feeling the gentle breeze upon our faces as we celebrated Mass.
Those breezes were a little more forceful as we remembered the encounter of Jesus walking on water, as we floated on the Sea of Galilee during a “boat Mass”.
Perhaps these are memorable, not just because they were tangible encounters with the story of Jesus and his disciples, but because they were cool moments in an otherwise hot and acrid climate.
When we travelled to Bethlehem, to celebrate Mass in the chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria, it was one of the hot days.
Then we made that sacred procession into the Church of the Nativity, a Greek Orthodox church, which is built over the place of Christ’s birth.
Within this dark, humid grotto, we knelt in reverential prayer and awe-struck silence, overwhelmed by the power of this space.
Such were the kind of experiences we were destined to enjoy.
Being up Mount Tabor for the feast of the Transfiguration was a sight to behold.
On the mountain top, outside next to the church, our pilgrim group celebrated Mass in an open chapel.
As we listened to the gospel of Jesus meeting his spiritual forebears and his encounter with God the Father in the cloud, we heard the strong winds blow, and saw the trees sway, as if God was trying to make known to us an enduring presence that would never leave us.
There were moments when we tangibly felt and knew the presence of God with us.
There were, of course, other moments of human weakness, either from tiredness and exhaustion, heat, sickness or the challenges of the spirit, where we may have felt like God was distant from us.
It was in these times of struggle that we would need to be reminded we were indeed “pilgrims, not tourists”.
Ultimately, though, our time in the Holy Land fuelled within us the spirit of God’s profound love for us in Jesus Christ, and the transformative power of his life, death and resurrection.
Then we made our way from the lively old city of Jerusalem, a bustling mixture of religions, cultures, lifestyles, amidst the ancient and the new, towards the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and of course Egypt and the grand pyramids.
Our short stay in Egypt gave us a glimpse of the dusty, chaotic and frantic place it could be.
Then, setting foot in Madrid, one could feel a different vibe. Already it seemed something truly enlivening was happening there.
Interestingly, one came to the conclusion very soon that we had to park our expectations at the door, based on our Sydney 2008 experience, because this was going to be a different story.
Was there disorganisation at times? Yes.
Were there millions more people than the previous WYD? Yes.
Could things have been better communicated to international pilgrims? Yes.
Were there people turned away from events, particularly the final Vigil and closing Mass? Yes, myself included.
However, even with the extreme heat, pilgrims fainting around us at the opening Mass, trying not to lose members of our group amidst the pushing crowds, the fringe protests from some local groups, and the obvious heightened security, our spirits were high.
Not even a drenching from a heavy storm at the end could drown our hopes to make the best of this WYD experience.
In the midst of these challenges, I cannot speak more highly of our own Queensland organisers, for the competent and tireless way they went about assisting all of our pilgrims.
Their commitment to genuine pastoral care went above and beyond the call of duty.
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