MARYBOROUGH'S Father Paul Kelly has returned from his pilgrimage to Israel with what he says is a new-found perspective and more than a few stories.
When he arrived in Jordan on February 15, jet-lagged and ready for sleep, the tour guide reinforced what was so important to Fr Kelly, the parish priest at St Mary's Catholic Church.
“We got off the plane and he said: ‘This is the vision Moses got just as he arrived at the Promised Land',” Fr Kelly said.
“That summed it all up for why I was there.”
The Middle East conjures images of a harsh, barren desert area, but that could not be further from the truth, according to Fr Kelly.
He described the Israeli landscape as “green, fertile land”.
“The scenery is amazing, it's green and lush,” he said.
“There are a lot of hills. I assumed it would be flat, but it's mountainous.”
Israel is home to many natural phenomena, including the Dead Sea, so salty it sustains no life and you can't sink in it, and which plays a part in many biblical scriptures.
“It was a very strange feeling, just bobbing around, floating on top of the water,” Fr Kelly said of swimming in the lake.
As well as beautiful scenery, Fr Kelly said he enjoyed traditional Israeli food and customs.
He was served a seafood dish called St Peter's fish for dinner.
“I found it a little strange,” he said.
“It was served just as the fish, head and all, on the plate, bones and all.”
Among many career-defining experiences, Fr Kelly said he was deeply touched by a mass at the Sea of Galilee.
“The most defining moment for me was on a boat with the motor stopped and the anchor down,” he said.
“We were in the middle of the Sea of Galilee and held a Eucharist there.”
In the lead-up to the pilgrimage Fr Kelly was particularly looking forward to a mass at Jesus' birthplace.
“It's quite hard to imagine the birth of Jesus in that place,” he said.
“There's this shrine that looks like a fireplace, with a star in the middle where he was believed to have been born, but there's a church built over the area so it's quite hard to imagine.”
Fr Kelly and fellow pilgrims attended a service at the church built over the site.
“Several times during the mass I felt very moved and emotional,” he said.
“I was thinking, ‘This is so peaceful' and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is so special'.”
After returning to Australia, Fr Kelly has taken time to share his experiences with the St Mary's congregation.
“Every homily and every speech I've made lately has started with ‘Recently I was in the Holy Lands...',” he said.
“It was an amazing experience.”
Fr Kelly hopes in the future to take a few dedicated church members to experience the Holy Lands – Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon – but “it will just take time”.
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