Melbourne’s pilgrims to World Youth Day 2023 were given the choice of taking different routes to Lisbon. Along with the ‘Direct to Lisbon’ and ‘The Italian Way’ options, there was also ‘The Footsteps of Jesus’, a pilgrimage through the Holy Land that puts pilgrims in touch with famous sites associated with the birth, life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ.

Those who have travelled to the Holy Land can attest to the difference being there makes. Visiting the sites, seeing the places that Jesus would have seen, brings the Scriptures to life in a way nothing else can.

We take a quick look at just some of the sacred sites our pilgrims will visit on their pilgrimage through the Holy Land to Portugal.

Bethlehem: Church of the Nativity

In Bethlehem, the pilgrims’ first point of contact with the Holy Land, they will encounter churches and other sites that honour specific stages in the life of Mary and the early life of Jesus—and where tradition holds certain things actually took place.

Along with the Church of the Visitation (where Mary travelled to see her cousin Elizabeth and sang ‘The Magnificat’) and Shepherd’s Field (where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced Christ’s birth), pilgrims will get to see the Church of the Nativity, a World Heritage Site since 2012. On the site is a grotto traditionally associated with the birthplace of Jesus.

The Emperor Constantine and his mother, St Helena, were instrumental in transforming the Holy Land into a site of pilgrimage. Through Helena’s journeys, important places were identified and churches built. Prior to Constantine, the site above the grotto served as a place of worship for Adonis, Aphrodite’s human lover.

The church was completed in AD 339. Within it, Crusader kings were coronated and Christians—perhaps saints—were laid to rest. Sadly, it has suffered the weathering of time, neglect and the effects of two major earthquakes in 1834 and 1837.

Adjacent to the Church of the Nativity is the Church of St Catherine, through which pilgrims will be able to access the cave of St Jerome. The great scholar saint is said to have moved to this cave in AD 386, in order to translate the Scriptures into the vernacular—a 30 year task that resulted in the Vulgate, one of the most important and influential translations of the Bible in history.

Galilee: encountering Jesus

From here, the pilgrims will travel through Caesarea Maritima, a port built by Herod the Great, and Haifa, the largest city in Northern Israel, to get to Galilee.

Here they will explore many important places: the shores of Lake Galilee, where Jesus called and spoke with his disciples; the Mount of Beatitudes, where tradition holds Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount; and Tabgha, where the Church of the Multiplication sits, built on the place believed to be where Jesus fed the 5000 with only a loaf of bread and two fishes. Built on the exact location of a previous church, this church boasts some of the best fourth-century Byzantine mosaics in the Holy Land.

The ‘Jesus boat’

The Ancient Galilee Boat, colloquially referred to as the ‘Jesus boat’, was discovered in 1986 at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. It dates back to at least the first century AD.

Brothers Moshe and Yuval Lufan were fishermen and amateur archaeologists from Kibbutz Ginosar, an area on the western shore of the sea. During a drought, when the waters had significantly receded, they discovered the boat and reported it to Israeli authorities. It is now kept in a climatised museum in Kibbutz Ginosar, an artefact of tremendous importance to both Jews and Christians.

This boat is fascinating from a historical standpoint: the boats used by Jesus and his disciples may well have been just like this one, and pilgrims will get to see it for themselves—another way in which the life of the ancient world, and the Scriptures, will come alive for them.

Jesus Boat min
The ‘Jesus boat’

Jerusalem and the Via Dolorosa

After travelling through Jericho, arguably the oldest inhabited city in the world, the pilgrims will arrive in Jerusalem, where they will have the opportunity to enter into the Passion of Jesus like never before.

Beginning at the Mount of Olives, pilgrims will walk the Palm Sunday road to the Dominus Flevit Church. Although the site it commemorates is ancient—it was here that Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), as indicated by its name, which means ‘the Lord wept’—the present church was built in 1955 and was designed in the shape of a teardrop.

On the altar is a mosaic of a hen gathering chicks beneath her wings, remembering the words of Jesus: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a bird gathers her brood under her wings, and you refused!’ (Luke 13:34). These words of Jesus are a moving expression of his desire to bring his people together.

Making their way through the Garden of Gethsemane, the pilgrims will eventually come to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, the ‘Way of Suffering’. Near the start of this journey is the Church of St Anne, named for the mother of Mary. Built some time between AD 1131 and 1138, it replaced a previous Byzantine church, and 12th-century Crusaders believed a nearby grotto to be the childhood home of Mary. The acoustics in this church are considered to be some of the best in the world.

Adjacent to the Church of St Anne is the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the paralysed man (John 5:2–9).

The pilgrims will conclude their time in the Holy Land by walking the Way of the Cross. This prayerful journey ends at Calvary, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church contains the sites not only of Jesus’ crucifixion but also the tomb where he was thought to have been buried and where he rose from the dead.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is enormous, with many different elements, including the Altar of Crucifixion, where, encased in glass, is what is believed to be a portion of the very rock of Calvary on which Jesus died.

Underneath the Golgotha chapel is the Chapel of Adam, so named because one legend has it that Jesus was crucified over the spot Adam was buried. While this is only a legend, its theological resonance is powerful: Christ, the new Adam, redeems the old Adam, making possible a new creation. In fact, the rock of Calvary has a crack in it, and the story goes that this was caused by the earthquake following Jesus’ death, allowing Jesus’ blood to drip down into the grave of Adam, onto his skull, thereby securing his redemption.

From here, the pilgrims will head to Lisbon to join potentially millions of other people for World Youth Day, hopefully bringing their rich experiences in the Holy Land into another time of powerful encounter with the risen Lord.