From St. Petersburg to Jerusalem, walking the path of Jesus in the Holy Land

There are many ways and reasons to travel to the Holy Land, which spans Israel and the Palestinian territories. Organized tours with a religious focus are common because the area is so significant for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Parishioners from St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg took the trek.
Published November 21 2018

JERUSALEM — The wooden boat sets sail on the Sea of Galilee and save for the motor rumble all else is quiet. A light wind ripples over the lake’s surface, and sunglasses and hats shield the bright sun. The city of Tiberius is to our backs and the Golan Heights before us. We cruise toward the middle of the lake.

Suddenly, the motor cuts. We float in deafening silence.

Monsignor Robert Gibbons cradles his smartphone in one hand and grips a microphone in the other. From the screen on the phone, he reads from the New Testament Gospel of Mark: “The wind died down and those who where in the boat worshipped Jesus, saying truly you are the Son of God.”

And then he looks up at his flock sitting on wooden benches and plastic chairs, about 40 people, most parishioners from St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

“So, I think you can imagine the scene with Jesus up on the mountainside,” he says. “Imagine the dark and the waves and the wind and being alone out here and then all of the sudden seeing your savior coming across to you and saying, ‘Do not be afraid.’ ”

He takes a seat but we don’t move.

The solemnity of the group, a collegial and normally chattering bunch, matches the stillness of the surroundings, a scene not lost on the monsignor. “Wow, so quiet,” he says.

We have a moment, one that is mentioned time and time again during a nine-day trip to the Holy Land in November. There are moving experiences, too, in Bethlehem, at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and at Herod’s mountaintop fortress high above the Dead Sea.

The boat operators kick up the motor and we head back to shore, but not before they hoist an American flag and play the national anthem. We rise, take off hats and sing along. It won’t be the last time that the secular intersects with the sacred. On this day, we eat lunch at a kibbutz (grilled whole fish, please) and marvel at the mango groves that flourish around the Sea of Galilee.

There are many ways and reasons to travel to the Holy Land, which spans Israel and the Palestinian territories. Organized tours with a religious focus are common because the area is so significant for Christians, Jews and Muslims. First-time visitors, which most of us are, don’t know what to expect. News of unrest in the volatile region is relentless and indeed just days after we return home, violence erupts in the Gaza Strip. That is one perception of Israel and it is rooted in reality, punctuated each time we pass through walled checkpoints dividing Israeli and Palestinian lands. We never feel unsafe in our time in the Holy Land, even when we have bus trouble near the Dead Sea. In the hour that we are stalled by the side of the road, rosaries come out, prayers are offered and soon we are on our way with divine and human help. At least that’s how we look at it.

Our images of the Holy Land also live in our mind’s eyes, shaped by years of Sunday school Bible lessons and church services. We don’t expect Jerusalem’s heavy traffic, partially mitigated by a clean and efficient light rail system.

Or a disruption in our schedule because of a bicycle race around the Sea of Galilee.

Or to see ATMs, falafel stands and souvenir shops flank the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path that Jesus trudged while carrying the cross to his own crucifixion.

Or to be mobbed by crowds wanting to touch the spot where “little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” We know the song by heart but the manger scene is far different than that depicted by the creches we set out to celebrate Christmas. A man who wants a few shekels in exchange for a photo accompanies the only donkey we encounter up close.

Gibbons of St. Paul’s leads this trip in conjunction with Collette Tours. For many of us his daily Masses are the highlights of the pilgrimage. That is the time of the day when we are away from the crowds and can reflect on the gravity of where we are. The significance of the journey is most meaningful as the monsignor gives his homilies and we sing a cappella, following along from the Magnificat companions we brought from home. Many of us are caught off guard by our emotions, especially at St. Jerome’s Cave near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

I don’t normally travel by tour, and there are advantages and disadvantages to seeing a new place this way. The local tour guide can make or break this experience and we are lucky to have a pro that is both knowledgeable and fun. Tours allow travelers to cover more ground but the breakneck speed leaves little time to discover anything on your own. I spent less time preparing for the trip because I knew everything was planned for us. I wish I had brushed up on biblical history a bit more. Aside from a few Episcopalians, we are the only non-Roman Catholics in the group and came along mainly because this was a bucket-list trip and we wanted the insight and guidance of Gibbons. We are not disappointed.

In nine days we move from Tel Aviv to Tiberius to Jerusalem, stopping at about a dozen churches including the Church of the Beatitudes in Tabgha, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. We travel by Mercedes bus with narration from Nasser Aweidah, a Palestinian who has guided tourists through the Holy Land for 20 years. No question is off limits and his knowledge of religious, political and cultural history, plus current events, is impressive. Gibbons offers perspective and prayers as we roll along.

On the Mount of Olives, we stroll through the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Christians believe Jesus agonized over his fate the night before the crucifixion. I don’t tell anyone, but the words from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 musical Jesus Christ Superstar play in a loop in my head, especially here. I listened to that record repeatedly in my high school days and it came to life for me in the Holy Land. I swear I saw King Caiaphas in the passport control line at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Realistically, I know that Israel and the Palestinian territories, which include Bethlehem, are modern places teeming with modern people, but I keep looking for old-school shepherds. The closest I come is Bedouins living in rough conditions that I spy from the bus window.

We stop for quite a while at the Mount of Olives to survey the Old City of Jerusalem below. The sun bounces off the golden Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine. A busy road bisects Muslim and Jewish cemeteries. On this day, we visit five churches, including the Church of Paternoster, built over the cave where it is said Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. The walls of the church and surrounding hallways are adorned with mosaics of the prayer written in languages of the world.

After each busy day, we head back to the hotels and dinner, extensive buffets eaten in large dining rooms. We are not the only tour groups at the hotels and join Americans from Detroit, Atlanta and Dallas, among other places. There are also groups from other countries. Name tags tell everyone we aren’t from these parts.

This trip is great for vegetarians because the buffets are laden with salads fixings, roasted vegetables, tabbouleh and hummus, among other meatless treats. Oh, the hummus. The creamy chickpea-tahini mixture is flavorful at each place we eat, though the best came in a Lebanese restaurant where it was expertly swirled with olive oil, dotted with whole garbanzos and sprinkled with paprika. Using pita bread to “wipe” the creamy mixture and then transport it to the mouth is how hummus is traditionally eaten. It takes a while to figure out why there are no serving spoons when we eat communally. Pita is the spoon.

Smart travelers keep journals, and those from this trip overflow with special moments, perhaps none more poignant than from the monsignor’s Mass in St. Jerome’s Cave near the Church of the Nativity and under the Church of St. Catherine. Our group alone sits close in the small cave. Some of us can practically reach out and touch the altar. Many of us wipe away tears as the monsignor conducts the Christmas Eve Mass and as we sing O Little Town of Bethlehem.

We have sung the song for so many Christmases, some of us for more than 50. But never in Bethlehem, never so close to the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave that is said to enshrine the site of Jesus’ birth. It is overwhelming.

In his homily in this tranquil stone cave, Gibbons tells the story of a woman whose life was changed when she made the decision to do more for others and not worry so much about her own tribulations. “She got out of herself and never went back,” he says. That didn’t do much to stop the tears.

After the Mass, we climb the uneven steps, skirting the line of people coming down, back to Manger Square. When we entered the Church of the Nativity a couple of hours before, the courtyard was crowded with people. It’s virtually empty now. The sun is setting and the call to prayer is coming. Another moment in a string of so many.

Janet K. Keeler is the former food and travel editor of the Tampa Bay Times. She teaches journalism and food writing at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact her at