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A Pilgrimage of Gratitude

Theologians journey to the Holy Land—and onward to a silent retreat.

by John McKenzie

Each May, theologians who have finished their first year of studies are blessed to embark upon a “Desert Formation Experience” pilgrimage to the Holy Land for thirty days. After a short break, they make their way to Broom Tree Retreat Center in Irene, South Dakota, for a thirty-day silent retreat.

We had a large class participating in the pilgrimage this year. We were eighteen seminarians along with two priests (at a time) to accompany us; hence, twenty men in total. I want to share with you one experience I had while in Jerusalem.

Not a Tourist but a Pilgrim

After having spent two weeks in the Holy Land and having had several chances to pray in the Holy Sepulchre, we were finally given the chance to celebrate Holy Mass in the tomb where the Son of God rose from the dead. I remember this day well.

My roommate and I had the custom of making sure we got up in time to pray a Holy Hour along with doing the daily necessities of showering and breakfast. I was tired, so leaving early to go to the Old City of Jerusalem did not sound fascinating.

Upon our arrival in the Old City, I remember wanting to just go grab a cup of coffee and eat a croissant while savoring a beautiful morning outside. Yet, my brothers along with our formation leaders, Msgr. Daniel Trapp and Fr. Stephen Burr, reminded me of why I was there—to become a true pilgrim instead of a tourist who enjoys sightseeing and delights!

Once we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my silly selfishness seemed to have gone away for the moment. Before arriving at the tomb, I looked over at the Stone of Anointing and saw that pilgrims had already been there in the early morning making sure they had time to be truly devoted to prayer. Seeing the women and men from all sorts of countries and cultures venerate the anointing stone changed my tone for the rest of the event.

A Flash of Insight

The tomb and the ante-chamber are quite small. With eighteen guys and two priests, there was not much room to move around. On a normal day this would have driven me crazy, but at this moment it neither concerned me nor did I pay attention to it. I was just so awed by the grace and energy of God that fills the tomb.

The Mass that is celebrated in the tomb is the Easter Mass. It’s the only place in the world where Easter is celebrated every day!

Due to the small space in the actual tomb area, we each were given a turn to enter two-by-two where the altar is placed on top of the tomb of Jesus.  By the time I entered the tomb, it was time for the consecration of the bread and wine. All I can remember was that when the priest lifted the Eucharist I saw my life flash before me. I thanked Jesus that he has given this poor sinner a chance to serve him. At that moment I really understood the Eucharist as a thanksgiving offering as well as the true worship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirt.

I exited the tomb and walked back to the ante-chamber with the rest of my brethren—but my heart was left in the tomb. At the time of the reception of the Eucharist, I felt compelled to receive on my knees. My action wasn’t so much a statement as it was a real gratitude toward God, in his only son Jesus, for having given his life for me. My prayer during communion was filled with “thank you, Father, for your Son Jesus Christ.”

The grace I received at this Mass was a simple gratitude for all that Jesus has done for me. My response was none other than to give my life back to him.

After the Mass, I turned to one of my brothers and mentioned that Mass may have been about an hour. Another person turned to me and said, “It was more like twenty-five minutes.” When God catches us, time no longer exists.

Thirty Days of Silence

After returning from the Desert Formation Experience, I began my summer internship at St. Louise de Merillac Parish in Warren, Michigan. The rest of my brothers were graced with participating in a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat.

This style of retreat is very old, steaming first from the ancient monastic tradition of going into the desert to seek God. Later, St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, created a retreat practice that allows all Christians, lay and clergy, to seek the will of God for their lives.

Many of my brothers expressed just how life-changing the Desert Formation Experience was, especially noting the graces they received during those days of silence at Broom Tree. Just one example: James Sisi, studying for the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas, says that, “during my retreat, after having spent so much time in silence, I came to understand just how God speaks to us in this silence. I came to realize that even more so, in love, God speaks through all his creation and all of our actions."

These sixty total days of pilgrimage and retreat have given Sacred Heart second-year theologians an extended time of deep discernment, to ask: “Is God really calling me to the priesthood?” We owe a deep gratitude to God for showing us his loving will so that we might, one day at the altar, serve his people and be a vessel of his infinite mercy.

by John McKenzie

John McKenzie

John McKenzie is a third-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.