He didn't wear a fedora or carry a bullwhip, but Msgr. Paul J.E. Burkard did lead an adventurous expedition into a historical land as Our Lady of Victory took its annual pilgrimage. This year 22 pilgrims traveled to the Holy Land, visiting Israel, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The May 9-19 pilgrimage carried the theme of "In the Footsteps of Jesus" and that is exactly how the group traveled. They arrived at the Tel Aviv airport, then quickly made their way up along the Mediterranean Sea, where they visited Cana and Nazareth, then headed inland to the Sea of Galilee. Then they made their way south to Jerusalem. The most exciting portion of the pilgrimage was having Mass in the tomb of Jesus.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem stands on what is believed to be Calvary, the site of Jesus crucifixion. The church is thought to stand directly over Jesus' tomb. It has been a popular pilgrimage site since the fourth century.
"It's a pretty rare thing to be able to do that," explained Msgr. Burkard, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna. "Not too long before we got there, they had just finished some physical reconstruction of the area. The tomb, inside this big church, is situated within a small cubicle and needed to have some serious repair to the fabric of the tomb. Now it's open, so we were able to have Mass inside there. The actual place where the altar is in the tomb is only as big as two people can stand in - the priest and a server. Then, in an antechamber outside that area is room for about 20 people, which is just the right size for our pilgrimage. So, we were able to get in there to say Mass."
The Mass had to take place early in the morning to avoid crowds. The tomb is open all day for visitors, but only in the morning for Mass.
"It was a special privilege for us," said Rick Heist, the just retired executive director of Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity. "We were pretty cramped in to the very small quarters."
Mass is a daily part of these pilgrimages. The touring company they used, Peter's Way arranged for Msgr. Burkard to celebrate Mass in various churches at each stop, such as the Church of Primacy of St. Peter in Tabgha, the sight of multiplication of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus told Peter, "Feed my sheep."
Heist and his wife renewed their wedding vows in Cana. The pilgrims also participated in the Way of the Cross through Via Dolorosa, following, literally, the footsteps of Jesus as he marched to his crucifixion. They also visited Jericho and the Dead Sea during days where the temperatures rose over 100 degrees, as well as Mount Carmel, Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation, and Mount Taber, the sight of the Transfiguration.
A typical day began with Mass at their hotel, followed by a bus trip to a specific destination. Pilgrims have time to have lunch or do some shopping. Heist said they took particular care to shop at markets run by Palestinian Christians, typically the poorest people in the region.
"A lot of the Palestinian Christians are very poor, so in the trips I've been to Israel, we try to support the Palestinian Christians," he said. "So, we stopped in a shop run by the Palestinian Christians. It enabled our group to get items from Bethlehem."
Msgr. Burkard, who has been leading these pilgrimages since being named pastor of the parish in 2007, described this trip to Israel as the most unpredictable he can remember. Plans had to be changed nearly daily due to the political situation at the time.
"We were there on the day that they moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We were there on Israeli Independence Day, which is always a hot issue day in Israel. And we were also there for the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting," he said. "So we were in Jerusalem for three of the most important days of the year, I guess."
The pilgrimages have been an annual activity for Our Lady of Victory's Homes of Charity for over three decades. Each year a popular place in Christian culture is chosen. Rome, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal have all been seen in the past. Invitations go out to the over 55,000 donors who contribute to the Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity, begun by Venerable Nelson H. Baker as a fundraising arm of Baker Victory Services. The pilgrimage, however, is open to any one who wishes to come.
Israel was chosen this year, as it was one place Heist wanted to see again before his retirement at the end of June.
"On this particular trip, I was really looking forward to going back because going to the Holy Land is the apex, the peak of pilgrimage places in the world. I would say that of the places we have been to, the places that have probably been the most popular have been Rome and Italy, and Israel," he said. "First of all, it's very inspirational. Every trip that I've been on has renewed and refreshed and reinvigorated my faith, every trip. There is always something new too. It's very difficult to absorb all of the information. In addition to that, the beauty of the places we have been to, the inspiring artwork."
Even for a priest, seeing a historical church never gets old.
"These are some of the most important Catholic sights in the world, so it's always inspiring to go there," said Msgr. Burkard. "I'm very interested in the history of these places. It's always exciting to learn more of the history of the shrines. Since I run a shrine here, I'm always interested in the people running it and how they're doing it."