By RENEE WEBB
Scripture came alive in a new way for a Sioux City woman and her preteen daughter who visited the Holy Land earlier this year.
Fran O’Tool, a parishioner and director of religious education at Blessed Sacrament Church, said initially she was just going and then she and her husband thought their 12-year-old daughter would like to as well. While Fran was somewhat nervous about bringing Kate on the trip due to continual reports of violence in that region, the chance to walk in the footsteps of Jesus overrode it and reassurances from trip organizers calmed fears.
“On our trip, we visited the places where Jesus was born, lived his young and adult life, practiced his ministry and suffered his Passion, died and rose again,” said Fran, who noted the trip was more profound than she had expected it to be. “It was amazing to visit these places, confirm that they truly exist and are, in fact, spectacular. To be able to share it with Kate was wonderful.”
Kate acknowledged that in Scripture, she often just “thought of it as words, but when we were there and we were at the places they talked about, I realized they really are places and real things that happened. It’s not just a story. That has helped me grow in my faith.”
They were both in awe at several spiritual sites with the realization that Jesus had actually been there.
“The Sea of Galilee was one for me where it hit me,” said Fran, who explained she was raised on a lake and had fished all her childhood. She became very emotional as she thought about what kind of equipment and boat she would use to fish, realizing Jesus thought about those same things. “There were times throughout the entire trip where we were able to connect in a real way to Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the disciples.”
Kate recalled being moved to tears at St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem, the birthplace of Mary. Calvary was another very profound experience, knowing it was the site of Christ’s crucifixion.
St. Anne’s was also very touching to Fran as it had a small sanctuary set up in the spot that was believed to be the birthplace of the Blessed Mother. As a mother herself, she said anything connected to Mary was moving such as walking the Via Dolorsa, believed to be Christ’s path to his crucifixion.
Kate, who is an altar server at Blessed Sacrament, was able to serve at daily Mass including unique locations of the site of the Sermon on the Mount, the church of the wedding site at the Feast of Cana, the Shepherd’s Cave and the Church of Lazarus in Bethany. She lectored at the Holy Sepulcher, the site of the crucifixion.
“It was really cool that I was able to serve in so many places because here in the United States, I’ve served in just two places. Over there, I served in a different place every day,” she said. “They were all really holy places.”
“On our daily excursions we went from one incredible site to the next,” said Fran, who noted that sometimes she wanted to stay longer at a certain site. “After reflecting, I realize that there is no amount of time that would have been enough. All I could do was love the fact that I was there.”
That perception of religious tolerance helped Kate and Fran feel at ease in the Holy Land. What also helped Fran feel safe was the care she witnessed given to the most vulnerable in society – children, the elderly and animals.
One day, Fran said, they saw about 50 children – some with Spiderman backpacks on – passing by talking to each other as they walked to school.
“They were laughing, would wave at us. They were not uncared for and I thought if you are caring for your children in that way, then you are caring for each other too and I can feel safe here,” she said.
The trip, which they both view as more of pilgrimage, was held in February and led by Father John Vakulskas. It was both education and inspirational for Fran and Kate.
“I didn’t think it would be as advanced as we are. It really didn’t feel that different from being in the United States,” said Kate, noting her surprise at how modern society was there. And while she had been nervous about going initially, Kate noted once there she felt safe in spite of the armed military presence.
Witnessing the faith
Having time for all of the experiences of the pilgrimage to sink in, Fran noted some major concepts have unfolded as she has reflected on how her faith was impacted by the pilgrimage.
First of all, she learned “loving God is all we need to get along with others.” At the beginning the trip, the 36 pilgrims were strangers and yet they got along, cared for one another and have met up with each other since coming home.
Another thing that stood out for Fran was the religious tolerance.
“In Israel, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexist – sometimes peacefully and sometimes not, as we often lean in the news,” she said. “However, they approach religious difference in a way that exemplifies what it means to be tolerant.”
Given the profound experiences the two had on their pilgrimage, they recently shared their story and photos after Mass at Blessed Sacrament. Kate, who recently completed the seventh grade at Lawton-Bronson Middle School, was also able to reflect on her experiences while doing a social studies report.