Last fall, William O’Donnell tried not to get his hopes high in anticipation of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his fellow Sacred Heart seminarians. The trip hadn’t happened since 2019, and though plans were in the works, O’Donnell managed his expectations.
“After three years of everything going on with the pandemic and the conflicts in Israel, I didn’t know what might happen,” said O’Donnell, a seminarian with the Diocese of Gary. “I was guarded in case we suddenly got word it was canceled.”
But the Desert Formation Experience—the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome taken by seminarians upon completion of their first year of theology graduate studies—was not canceled. On May 3, eighteen seminarians, along with Msgr. Daniel Trapp and Father Pieter vanRooyen, departed for the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
The formative trip is funded by an annual golf outing, “Desert Meals” hosted by parishes and individual donations. The first Desert Formation Experience took place in 1980 when seminarians studied at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth. The objective of the trip was to help the men to know Scripture by immersing themselves in it, thus becoming better preachers to the people once ordained.
“Over the years, another desire of the Archbishop and the seminary formation team was that the men have greater clarity, rooted in their prayer, about their vocations,” said Msgr. Trapp, Spiritual Director and Associate Professor at Sacred Heart.
Before the pilgrimage, O’Donnell reflected on Christ as the mediator between God and his people, and how he, as a seminarian, could mediate for his family, friends, and benefactors back home. He gathered their intentions to pray for them at sites along his journey.
“For the entirety of the trip, my main priority was to pray not just for my own discernment but to pray for all of them at these grace-filled places where Jesus and the Holy Family walked, where miracles happened. I asked the Lord to pour out abundant graces on them, on their lives, and their struggles,” O’Donnell said. “I felt my heart was being moved toward a priestly identity because I desired to care for them more than for my own needs.”
A third goal for the Desert Formation Experience is growth in virtue, the most important of which is charity, says Msgr. Trapp.
“One of the seminarians from some years ago described the pilgrimage as ‘a practicum in charity,’” Msgr. Trapp said. “We are in a foreign culture, in tight quarters, moving around quite a bit, and all of that pushes us to choose between focusing on our own needs or on the needs of others. To make the choice for others, we need Jesus, we need grace —the pilgrimage and retreat are places where grace leads us to stay with Jesus.”
Documenting Their Journey
The group spent the majority of the month in Israel, ending with four days in Rome. In the Holy Land, they visited churches (of the Visitation, of the Transfiguration, of the Holy Sepulchre—to name a few), holy cities (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Emmaus), and sacred sites (the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, the Sea of Galilee where he called the apostles, the Temple Mount where Mary presented baby Jesus). In Rome, they toured St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Mary Major, and many other churches.
To document their time abroad, the seminarians paused most days to create a video log or vlog. While they may not have become YouTube sensations, their “fans” back home and around their home dioceses tuned in. The men took turns hosting short video installments, sharing with viewers what they were seeing and explaining the significance of each place for Catholics and their own personal faith journey.
Brandon Elias, a seminarian with the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Detroit, offered commentary with O’Donnell for several of the vlogs, which were posted on Sacred Heart’s Mosaic website and YouTube.
“We wanted to bring people along with us on the pilgrimage,” said Elias. “It was important to us not only to share the historical part of our pilgrimage but even more importantly, to share what we were experiencing personally and how it affected us.”
O’Donnell was especially moved by his time in Bethany, where Lazarus was raised. He had been praying fervently for his grandmother who was battling cancer while he was away. He thought of her during Mass at a church there as he listened to the Gospel in which Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25).
“It was very powerful to pray that for my grandmother’s sake, knowing that God is longing to be with her and how eagerly he wants to do that with everyone. He wants to be everyone’s salvation,” O’Donnell said.
His grandmother passed away shortly after he returned. He and his family were with her when she died.
In a vlog from Day 6 of the pilgrimage, Drew Langton from the Diocese of Marquette shared his experience in Bethlehem, where the group visited the Church of the Nativity and the field where the shepherds saw the angels the night that Jesus was born. They sang Christmas hymns and celebrated Christmas Mass because “it’s always Christmas at the nativity at Bethlehem,” as Langton explains. As he watched thousands of people coming into the cave to see the place where Jesus was born, he could see more clearly than ever that God became man for each of them, for him, and for all people individually.
Elias recalls climbing to the roof of a church in the middle of Jerusalem and seeing people walking on the busy side streets. It struck him that these streets are the very paths that Jesus walked on as a child.
“It was great to see the beauty of Jerusalem within the hustle and bustle and then to see Rome and how Christianity has evolved, and go to so many incredible churches glorifying God,” said Elias, “It reminded me of the verse in Psalm 139 that says, ‘Your thoughts are too high for me, Lord, I can’t understand them.’ That’s how I felt most of the time I was there, and it was beautiful.”
A Summer of Growth
Following the pilgrimage, seminarians took three weeks to regroup before most of them packed their bags again, this time for a 30-day retreat making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The month serves as an intense time of prayer, silence, and spiritual direction.
“They make the exercises after the pilgrimage. So, as they meditate on different scenes in Jesus' life during the retreat, they are fresh from having been to those places on the pilgrimage,” said Msgr. Trapp.
To support the next Desert Formation Experience, consider registering for the Desert Golf Classic Monday, September 25, 2023, or making a donation at desertgolfclassic.org. To host a Desert Meal at your parish in support of a future pilgrimage, contact Emily Berschback (berschback[email protected]). To view the vlogs from the May journey, visit mosaic.shms.edu/category/desert.
The view of one of the main traveling routes through the Judean Desert which Jesus and his disciples often traveled to escape from Jerusalem into Jericho or even up to Galilee.
Preparing for Mass on the shore of the Sea of Galilee near the location of the miracle of the loaves and fish.
View of the Old City of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives near Dominus Flevit Church (the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.)
William O'Donnell, Yousif Habeeb, and Mark Beukema standing in front of some of the caves that held the Dead Sea Scrolls. These caves also may have belonged to early ascetic monks who journeyed into the desert to live intense lives of penance.