CULTURE | CATHOLIC STANDARD
Author of An Irish Pilgrimage Guide to the Holy Land Michael Kelly interviewed by the Catholic Standard
An Irish Catholic journalist who has led thousands of pilgrims to the Holy Land hopes his new book on the subject will encourage greater solidarity with the small Christian community in the Middle East.
Michael Kelly, editor of the Dublin-based weekly The Irish Catholic, first visited Jerusalem as a teenager and said he became “intoxicated” by the holy city.
“I was completely blown away – to be here in this city that is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians was amazing,” he said. “I found the whole experience intoxicating and such a rich privilege to walk in footsteps of Jesus and visit the sites associated with his earthly life.”
However, over subsequent visits, Kelly understood that the importance of the Holy Land lay not just in the ancient sites there, but in the life of the local Christians descended from the first followers of Jesus.
“I began to understand that as well as these hugely important sites associated with salvation history, there is a living vibrant community here who carry the torch of the Gospel, sometimes in difficult circumstances.
“Pope Benedict XVI described the Christians of the Holy Land as the ‘living stones’ who bring the Christian faith to life in this land,” Kelly told Catholic News Service.
Kelly traveled to the Holy Land in 2009 with Pope Benedict to cover that historic pilgrimage. During the trip, the pope frequently highlighted the plight of Christians.
“I thought to myself, we have so many Catholics who come here on pilgrimage every year, and they have a wonderful spiritual experience of deepening their understanding of the Scriptures and walking where Jesus walked, but we tell them nothing about the local Christians – we speak of them as brothers and sisters in Christ, but we never encounter them,” Kelly said.
Upon his return to Ireland, Kelly decided that he would take it upon himself to organize a Christian solidarity pilgrimage. The response was so overwhelming that it became a regular trip.
More than 170 people participated in the first pilgrimage and, as Kelly explained: “It took us off the beaten track in some ways. Of course, we visited all of the important religious sites – but everywhere we went, we visited Christian schools. When we had lunch, we had a local sister or a local Christian family come and explain to us about their lives and the things that they struggle with.
“What was most heartbreaking to hear was the fact that almost everyone we spoke to said ‘we’re forgotten’ – they expressed a very acute feeling that Christians in other parts of the world do not care about the Christians of the Holy Land,” Kelly said.
The story of the Holy Land Christians in the 20th century has been one of emigration and steep decline. In 1922, Christians made up a quarter of the population of Jerusalem – today they account for only 2 percent of the inhabitants.
On a recent visit to the U.S., Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops general assembly and told the bishops that the situation of the Christians in the Holy Land was a precarious one. The archbishop also visited communities of Palestinian Christians who have made their homes in the U.S.
Kelly said that with no meaningful peace process between Israel and the Palestinians at the moment, “many Christians feel hopeless. They can’t see a future for themselves or their families.”
He said the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly difficult, because many Christians work in the pilgrimage sector and, with Israel’s borders closed to noncitizens, pilgrimages were impossible.
“When we brought the first pilgrims back just two weeks after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the local people in Bethlehem were so happy to see us. They had two years without work and without income, so it was a very difficult situation for them to live,” he said.
Kelly now leads around 300 people every year on solidarity pilgrimages and says he believes that genuine encounters with the local Christian community should be part of every authentic pilgrimage experience.
“We need to avoid the temptation to see pilgrimage as a type of religious tourism – the Holy Land without Christians would be little more than a museum,” he said.
He said that many pilgrims over the past 12 years have encouraged him to write a book about the Holy Land that would look at the importance of the sites, but also tell the stories of the people who call the Holy Land home. He was approached by publisher Columba Books and was initially reluctant, thinking that there were already so many books on the Holy Land, but they were persistent “and when COVID-19 lockdown happened I thought I would get to work on it and see if I had anything to offer,” he said.
And thus, “An Irish Pilgrimage Guide to the Holy Land” was born.
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, president of the Irish bishops’ conference, praised the book and said the presence of Christians in the Holy Land is an ongoing reminder of the continuity of those who followed Christ from the beginning.
An Irish Pilgrimage Guide to the Holy Land is available from www.amazon.com and directly from www.columbabooks.com.