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Leaven reporter recounts ‘life-changing’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Nearly 100 pilgrims journeyed to the Holy Land from Oct. 18-28 for the Catholic Foundation of Northeast Kansas’ 30th anniversary pilgrimage. Above, they visit the Israel Museum to see a model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

by Moira Cullings

The night before I left for the Holy Land, I found myself pondering a deep and philosophical question: What had I gotten myself into?

A million thoughts swirled through my mind as I waited desperately for sleep to come before a 4 a.m. alarm blared through my phone.

“Who will I hang out with? What will my workload look like? Will I be able to appreciate the sites we visit or will I be too overwhelmed to even try?”

Or, more importantly: “How will I survive 10 days without my famous home-cooked meals of cereal and Eggo waffles?”

And, finally: “Why did I decide to go on a trip to the Middle East with mostly strangers?”

Pilgrims prepare to step down into the area where it’s believed Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

As you might guess, I was a bundle of nerves when I arrived at Kansas City International Airport the morning of Oct. 18 for the Catholic Foundation of Northeast Kansas’ 30th anniversary pilgrimage to Israel.

But my anxiety slowly melted away when I ran into Michael Podrebarac, the archdiocesan consultant for the liturgy and sacramental life office and a familiar face from the chancery, right at the front door.

It turns out Michael didn’t know how to print his boarding pass (I’m guessing he wasn’t the only one on the trip), so I felt relieved that I was at least one step ahead of a fellow pilgrim. 

I discovered that Michael was facing similar fears as I. Although we chatted nonchalantly about running out of the airport as quickly as we could and trading the trip for the safety and comfort of home, we ultimately took a leap of faith and stepped onto the plane.

Mike Scherschligt, founder and executive director of the Holy Family School of Faith, explains the history within the Wedding Church at Cana.

It was a moment that couldn’t have been further out of my comfort zone.

I was given the opportunity to attend the pilgrimage, organized by the Holy Family School of Faith and Trinity Travel, thanks to Lesle Knop, executive director of the Catholic Foundation of Northeast Kansas.

My initial role was to take photos for social media channels of both CFNEK and The Leaven.

I quickly realized once I arrived in Israel that I would also be the group photographer for the pilgrim blog since Rich and Trudy Boynton from Trinity Travel, who normally take those pictures, were unexpectedly unable to attend at the last minute.

But despite the additional responsibilities, the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Within the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are what is believed to be the site of the crucifixion and the burial place of Christ.

And regardless of my initial reservations, I couldn’t be more grateful Lesle gave me the chance to try out my photography skills in a place I never dreamed I would visit.

Working while attempting to take in the sites wasn’t easy. In times of stress and exhaustion, subtle encouragement from Lesle, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, and trip leaders Cari and Chris Hillyer kept me going.

Their example made me eager to walk in the footsteps of the Holy Family.

Roman Enriquez, a parishioner at Church of the Nativity in Leawood, lights a candle inside the Tomb of the Virgin Mary located at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

During the trip, I walked in the footsteps of Jesus and his apostles in the company of one of their successors, Archbishop Naumann, which I can only describe as surreal and humbling.

I visited the towns where Jesus performed miracles and walked inside what is believed to be his tomb. My feet touched the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.

Many pilgrims set their alarms in time to catch the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee outside their hotel in Tiberias.

I pondered everything I thought I knew about the Catholic faith as I knelt at the site of the Crucifixion, then photographed my fellow pilgrims as they venerated the spot where Jesus died. 

“How the heck did I end up here?” was a constant thought in the back of my head. And then, “I wonder what the people from the Bible would think of me, just chilling here, thousands of years later.”

I listened as Mike Scherschligt, School of Faith director and guide to the pilgrimage, explained the significance of each site to us and then prayed the rosary at these places so essential to the faith.

I walked alongside the Garden of Gethsemane and touched a tree branch filled with thorns.

A tree filled with thorns sits outside Dominos Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

I ate ice cream with Archbishop Naumann and experienced his dry sense of humor and authentic concern for the people around him.

I shared meals with strangers twice my age who I now consider my friends.

I gained arm muscles I didn’t know I had as I carried my Nikon around for eight days straight.

I proved that someone an entire foot and four inches shorter than the archbishop can still keep up with him enough to get a decent picture or two.

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann celebrates Mass inside the Cave of Gethsemane.

Most powerfully, I witnessed what was once a distant land full of mystery become a tangible reality for people who traveled far and wide to see the sites where Jesus changed the world.

Of the 4,323 photos I took during my time in the Holy Land, above are a few of my favorites. I hope they help you see the truth of the Catholic faith and God’s love the way they have for me.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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