BY CHRISTINE HOGAN
The sign at the gate to the holy site at Capernaum was clear. "No dogs, no 'cigarets', no guns, no short clothing." The order seemed a little out of whack to me. To say nothing discriminatory against any short clothing wearing, gun carrying, chain smoking, dog lover who might have wanted to visit this renowned Christian site on the shores of Galilee.
Of course, anyone with even a fairly rudimentary religious education knows that this was the home of Simon called Peter, and his mother-in- law... Here, Peter fished this beautiful sea, saw Christ walk on the waters, and watched as the sick man was lowered down into the house with Christ so he could be healed.
I knew Christ had been here on different occasions, and I often wondered why he had made this place such a feature of his peripatetic life. Having seen it, my question would now be: why wasn't he here more often? This is an exquisitely beautiful place – quiet, calm, reflective and meditative. Not even the sight of an African Franciscan on his mobile phone, or the sound of a speed boat dragging an unstable water skier behind, could affect the mood of seeing the landscape on the far shores that Christ would have seen.
There are Franciscans all over the place in the Holy Land, a tradition which harks back to the time when the order was considered a trustworthy custodian of terra sancta. They are also the guardians of this place, where a church commemorating Pietro, santo, apostolo, has been built over the footings of a house said to be his. Certainly, the late 4th century Spanish traveller Egeria wrote about the location during her travels.
Our little pilgrimage group sat in the church and listened while one of us read verses from the Gospels which referred to Christ's time here. Hard not to be moved in such a spiritually rich place.
Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, is modern day Migdal and close to Capernaum as well, so we called in there on our way to lunch to have a look at the Magdala Centre which is being built here. Fr Juan, from our guest house in Jerusalem, is hoping that the church under construction will be completed and consecrated next year, in time to mark the end of The Year of Faith. The altar he is planning will be a barque, another reference to St Peter.
Capernaum was just part of a fairly intense couple of days for our inaugural CathNews pilgrimage. We had been from the rocky and unpromising terrain around the Dead Sea to the green softness of Galilee, taking in Masada along the way.
Given we arrived in Tel Aviv only a week or so after the crisis between Israel and Gaza was put on hold, Masada seemed to some of us in some way a metaphor for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. A group of around one thousand on this rocky plateau withstood a siege which went on for more than five years against vastly superior forces.
Masada is bare, baked and bereft of almost any life now except tourists, cats, and its dramatically feathered indigenous birds, Tristram's Grackles. The afternoon we were up here, a bar mitzvah group was here as well – adolescents mixed with their gloomier elders who managed to crack a smile occasionally when they were overrun by high spirits.
On the afternoon of the day at Capernaum we came home through Yardenit, and that was something to see. Dozens of pilgrims, all in white robes, going down to the Jordan, to be fully immersed in the water where John baptised Christ.
Hard to know what to make of this... Given the age of those in the water, these would have been mature age baptisms for some, but more likely it was a renewal of baptismal vows for the most part. There is a celebrity wall of the rich and famous who have visited, and I tell you, without any comment at all, that they include Trinny Woodall and Suzannah Constantine and Benny Hinn.
At the exit to the site – which is owned and operated by kibbutzim – there is an extraordinary, huge, supermarket of all things religious. Coach drivers stood at the exits, smoking. A dog wandered past, sniffing the air for traces of animals on the farm across the Jordan. People in wet, transparent clothing emerged from the waters stunned. I didn't see a gun. Things are a bit different at Yardenit.
Christine Hogan is the Publisher for the faith-based publications produced by Church Resources. She is currently on the CathNews Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is blogging regularly for the duration of the journey.
Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.