Outbreak of war in the Mideast forces faith groups, travel planners to rethink tours
By Gabrielle Nolan
We dodged a bullet” was Father Bill McNeeley’s reaction to the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, led by Palestinian militants known as Hamas.
The attack has led to a full-blown war, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths to date, including the lives of Americans.
Father McNeeley, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, led 11 pilgrims on a trip to the Holy Land Sept. 14-22, having departed for home just two weeks before the attack and subsequent war began.
The pilgrimage was Father McNeeley’s second to the Holy Land.
“It was just a wonderful experience,” he said of his most recent trip. “The high point, the highlight for me, was I got to say Mass inside the Holy Sepulchre. It was one of the high points of my life.”
“I wasn’t too concerned about general safety because I know there are warnings and alerts that go on all the time,” he said. “I thought, well it’s reasonably safe and everything and then we went on this trip, and the trip was fantastic. There was nothing that raised alarms for us or anything.”
Father McNeeley noted that his tour guide, Hazim, an Israeli citizen, said that “life in Israel and the Holy Land comes with a certain underlying tension that everybody experiences.”
“It’s there under the surface because you know that at any time things could blow up,” Father McNeeley continued. “And that exactly describes what’s happened in the last few weeks. And if we had delayed our trip, or if the terror strike had been scheduled just three weeks earlier, we’d be the ones struggling, scrambling to get out of Israel. It was kind of that close.”
“I believe that wherever there is good happening, especially in the Holy Land, the devil doesn’t want anything good to happen, and the Holy Land is one of the places where the devil works the hardest. It’s not unlike the Church. I believe that the Church is one of the places where the devil works the hardest. Because especially when good things are happening to a parish, that’s the last thing the devil wants,” he said.
Father McNeeley said he is not deterred by the recent violence in returning to the Holy Land.
“Once things are stable, I’d go back,” he said. “It doesn’t dissuade me at all. … You don’t want to make foolish decisions, but you also don’t want terrorists to control your life. And we just have to go about our lives.”
While many pilgrim groups consider themselves lucky to have explored the Holy Land prior to the attacks, other groups found themselves in the midst of the fear and conflict.
One such group was from First Baptist Church in Knoxville, who arrived in Israel the day before the Hamas attack on Oct. 6.
Although the First Baptist group of 12 had its itinerary affected, the pilgrims were able to visit some holy sites before all safely evacuated Israel.
Another group affected by the attack on Israel was from the Diocese of Memphis. Bishop David P. Talley and the Memphis Diocese asked for prayers for those traveling to the Holy Land.
Bishop Talley also asked for prayers for peace in Jerusalem and for “all affected by the horrific violence.”
A group of 44 pilgrims, mostly from Memphis, were able to travel to safety and made their way home amid the intense fighting. Father Dexter Noblefranca of St. Patrick Church in downtown Memphis was on the Memphis pilgrimage, which began the first week of October and was cut short.
In response to the Holy Land violence, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, called for Oct. 17 to be a day of fasting, abstinence, and prayer with eucharistic adoration and recitation of the rosary to Our Blessed Virgin Mother Mary.
Parishes in dioceses around the world responded to Cardinal Pizzaballa’s request.
Groups from the Diocese of Knoxville that had been planning for months have had their pilgrimages canceled due to the violence and impending threats.
Father Michael Cummins, pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport, was scheduled to be on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land Oct. 16–26. The group had about 30 pilgrims signed up from different parts of the diocese, with many of them St. Dominic parishioners.
Father Cummins said he was “kind of stunned” when the violence between Israel and Hamas broke out on Oct. 7.
“Watching it all unfold, and then as the violence became more and more apparent, really just heartbroken in a lot of ways about the violence and the violence that’s continuing over there,” he shared. “It is certainly disappointing to not be able to go, but in relation to everything that’s going on over there, it’s really nothing, a disappointment.”
There’s a saying that the third time is the charm, but for Father Cummins this was his third failed attempt to travel to the Holy Land.
“For my 25th anniversary back in 2020 I had arranged a monthlong study for sabbatical there, and then COVID knocked that out. And then I think it was in ’21 I was going to do a pilgrimage similar to this last one, and the second round of COVID knocked that out. And so this was going to be my third attempt to go, and then the violence canceled that. I don’t think it’s in the cards for me,” he said with a laugh.
Father Cummins said, “The violence certainly is something to be aware of, but I hope that at some point it will calm down again, and people will be able to go.”
“I think we certainly need to pray, pray for the Holy Land, and do what we can to encourage peace and to support our Christian brothers and sisters over there. I think that’s the most important thing to do at this time,” he added.
Lisa Morris, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, coordinates pilgrimages for the diocese and is a group pilgrimage coordinator for Select International Tours.
She commented that Select International’s No. 1 pilgrimage destination is the Holy Land, with 40-50 pilgrimages scheduled per year.
Currently, all of Select International’s pilgrimages to the Holy Land are canceled through November due to the terrorist attack. About 20 pilgrimages have been affected.
“I can speak to the fact of how devastating it is for the Israeli people and the pilgrimages and the tourism that comes, which I’m sure is at a complete halt now,” Mrs. Morris said. “And they went through so much with COVID. I know personally some of the guides and the bus drivers.”
Mrs. Morris is friends on Facebook with some of the Holy Land guides and has been watching their updates.
“I did see one update from one of the guides, and basically he was just in one of the churches in the Holy Land asking for prayer and praying the rosary. … I think he had like a thousand comments on that post alone. It was huge,” she said.
She mentioned that Select International is “in constant contact with their ground partners” in Israel.
“Their ground partners in the Holy Land said it’s not safe, you can’t come. So, that in itself has never happened. … This is way different than anything that’s gone on before,” she commented.
Mrs. Morris also noted how the Israeli people have been recovering from tourism losses due to the COVID pandemic.
“They really suffered a lot for the lack of groups going for that, and then it was busier than it’s ever been until this Oct. 7 attack. And now who knows how long again,” she shared. “I’m sure they’re just reeling on so many levels, the tragedy, the deaths, terror, and not having the people coming anymore. And who knows when that will be. We’re hoping it’s sooner than later.”
“The people would love to have the pilgrims back. It’s just their livelihood. They were just recovering, and now this,” she continued.
Mrs. Morris, who has been to the Holy Land five times, said she has “never felt unsafe over there.”
“There’s always been things going on, but I have never hesitated to go, or once there have never felt unsafe,” she said. “It really is life changing. The Gospels come alive, the Bible comes alive in a way that is just so vivid and so real because when you hear the readings you can visualize where these places are. … It is so powerful. No matter how many times you go, whether it’s once or 100 [times], you’re going to feel the presence of our Lord in a way that is just unmistakable and Mother Mary’s intercession.”
Mrs. Morris commented that Select International is hopeful that pilgrimages will continue in 2024, and they are still being planned.
Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, has a pilgrimage to the Holy Land scheduled with Select International to begin the last week of January. The full group has 35 pilgrims signed up to travel in the footsteps of Christ.
“Of course right now, everything is on hold, and we’re waiting to see how things calm down on the ground in the Holy Land and whether or not this is a long-term conflict or a more limited conflict. Unfortunately, right now, everything makes it look like it’s going to be a longer-term conflict,” Father Boettner said.
He expressed “tremendous sadness, both with the attacks on Israel and the destruction of Gaza.”
“As Pope Francis said, violence is not going to lead to a solution. It always leads to more violence, and it’s just tremendously sad that a land made so holy by so many amazing moments in salvation history is also marked by tremendous injustice, violence, and hatred,” he said.
Father Boettner has traveled to the Holy Land three times.
“One of the reasons why I go is I’m a member of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and one of our missions … is support of the Christians and holy sites in the Holy Land. So, I always try every couple of years to take a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land so that they can see that land firsthand and really walk through all of the Biblical sites, and for lack of a better term, just really see where Jesus lived and walked and ministered and get a deep sense of the place. I just think it opens Scripture up in a whole new way,” he shared.
He said he will “continue to want to go to the Holy Land as long as it’s possible.”
“I think the key thing as Christians, we’re called to be bridge-builders and peacemakers, and it’s very easy to get polarized and try and figure out who’s at fault and who’s to blame, and there’s plenty of that to go around,” Father Boettner said. “I think the most critical thing here is for us to be praying for peace, for us to be looking for strategies that will build peace and justice and make it possible for people to live in the Holy Land without violence.”
“It’s tremendously sad to me, and of course we suffer with our brothers and sisters. So, right now I feel so much pain and, really, compassion for all the people who are innocent and trapped in the midst of this cycle of violence,” he noted.