Update: All 32 Holy Land pilgrims return to safety of home, recounting their blessings
October 19, 2023
“Everything is in God’s hands.”
Those words came up frequently for 32 people from the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Lincoln who were on a Holy Land pilgrimage when war broke out in Israel.
While family and friends saw disturbing images of war on their screens at home, the pilgrims managed to stay a safe distance from the violence.
The scariest part may have been spending a few minutes in a hotel bunker after a missile headed for Jerusalem hit a defense shield, triggering an alarm, said Karen McMillan of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, who made the October pilgrimage with her mother, aunt and sister.
The missile “did not penetrate the shield,” McMillan said, “so everything was OK.”
“That was the scariest it ever got, and we weren’t even really afraid,” she said. “Everyone was really pretty peaceful.”
All but one of the 32 pilgrims had returned home safely by Oct. 18, after crossing into neighboring Jordan by bus for their flights home.
The last pilgrim, McMillan’s sister, was delayed because of illness and hospitalization. She returned late the following day with her husband, who had traveled to Jordan to be with her.
The sister and several others developed an intestinal illness during the trip. Despite the outbreak of war and the woman’s worsening condition while in the Holy Land, the pilgrims trusted in the Lord, McMillan said.
“Everything is in God’s hands.”
“There were so many of us that said it the whole time,” McMillan said. “We knew our families were suffering, so we were praying for them because they were seeing what was on TV. We knew what was happening, but we were never afraid.
“We knew that God had placed us there,” she said. “He knew from the day we were born that we were going to be on this pilgrimage at this time. So whatever that looked like, whatever His will was, we were at peace with it, truly.”
The pilgrims were prepared spiritually when they learned of the attack on Israel, said Father Damien Wee, pastor of St. Francis Borgia Parish in Blair and St. Patrick Parish in Tekamah. He led the Holy Land pilgrimage with Father Sean Timmerman, pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Plattsmouth, of the Diocese of Lincoln.
“When all this happened, I told the pilgrims that this is not an interruption to our pilgrimage,” Father Wee said. “This is our pilgrimage.”
“Sometimes things don’t happen the way that you want them to happen. But God works through everything.”
“I think what really helped our group was that from day one we prayed the rosary, we had daily Mass,” he said. “We also prayed the Surrender Novena. So when this all happened, our group was already surrendering everything to the Lord: all our worries, all our fears that the people brought with them from here to the Holy Land, of the family members or the loved ones who were sick, or whatever. … We were already turning everything over to the Lord.”
“That was very providential,” Father Wee said. “Definitely the Holy Spirit was upon this whole thing, so it helped our pilgrims to be calm and at peace throughout the whole situation.”
As news started to spread about the pilgrims being in a country at war, prayers began pouring out – not just from Nebraska, but from New York, Vatican City, Africa, Singapore and elsewhere, he said. The prayers flowed from the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics, including members of Protestant congregations in Blair and Ames, Iowa.
“All these prayers were coming from all over,” Father Wee said, literally from throughout the world. “We are so humbled and grateful for all the people who prayed for us and for our protection and safety.”
Father Damien Wee celebrates Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in northern Israel. COURTESY PHOTO
When the priests offered Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass for the pilgrims – with help from three deacons from Iowa who were part of the pilgrimage – everyone prayed especially for Israel and for their seriously ill companion. She became so weak that she couldn’t talk, her sister said.
“She’s being a trooper,” McMillan said while still awaiting her return. “Honestly, I’m just so grateful she’s speaking. She was just so weak … so lethargic. It was awful.”
Despite their ordeals, the pilgrims saw blessings, too.
“We all received so many graces, conversions” within the pilgrims’ families, McMillan said.
She shared her own experience of talking on the phone with a tearful adult daughter. “She had said ‘I haven’t shown you that I’ve been very faithful, but I have been starting to pray again. And I want my faith back. This has just shown to me, Mom, that at any moment, at any time, everything could change. And you need your faith, you need God in your life.’
“And she said ‘I’m on my journey back home.’
“That was the best gift that I could have had,” McMillan said. ““I mean, it’s what we pray and fast for.”
The pilgrimage showed her, she said, what God can do with suffering.
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