An Australian pilgrimage group that managed to escape the Holy Land as conflict broke out has likened their experience to St Joseph’s flight into Egypt with the child Jesus.
Fr Suresh Kumar, parish priest of St Padre Pio’s Glenmore Park, was leading a group of 20 pilgrims through the Holy Land on the day Hamas launched their terrorist attacks.
The pilgrimage, which had already been delayed by the COVID pandemic, was much anticipated by the group, especially Father Kumar, who converted to Catholicism from Islam 38 years ago.
But Fr Kumar’s first visit to the place where Jesus lived was cut short by the shock attacks.
Father Kumar told The Catholic Weekly from Rome that on the morning of the incursion, the group was having breakfast when they heard loud sirens.
Buses that had already left the hotel for holy sites in Jerusalem began returning, and they were advised that Hamas had attacked.
A bomb had narrowly missed the home of their pilgrim tour guide.
The group stayed in the hotel and watched the news, and the enormity of the attack became apparent as the hours unfolded.
Fr Kumar called a group meeting and told the pilgrims that he had decided they would make preparations to leave.
“There was a very strong urge in me that told me ‘get out,’” he said. While disappointed, the group supported Fr Kumar’s decision.
It was not as easy as he thought. They were advised that Tel Aviv airport had been closed, with no flights leaving Israel.
Fr Kumar woke their Sydney-based travel agent in the middle of the night, who gave him the difficult news that given it was the Sabbath, not much could be done before Monday morning.
The pilgrims did not sleep all night. Sirens were wailing, and police going street to street.
Sunday morning came and, while still confined to their hotel, Fr Kumar wanted to ensure the pilgrims were able to attend Mass.
He and the tour guide made the risky decision to leave the hotel to ask for Mass supplies from a neighbouring church.
Several of the closest churches were closed, with the closest open being the Church of All Nations, at the Garden of Gethsemane.
A doubly-provident moment saw Fr Kumar not only provided with Mass supplies, but also the opportunity to see this holy site.
He returned to the hotel via the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and managed to stop in for three minutes, fulfilling a long-held dream.
Back at the hotel, Fr Kumar offered Mass inside the hotel’s bunker.
With no Mass kit or missal, the makeshift ciborium and chalice came from the hotel kitchen and Fr Kumar prayed the Mass using an iPad.
“We offered the Mass for our safety and the safety of everyone affected, and asked God to please guide us,” he said.
Immediately following Mass, the group was advised that a way to leave had opened up.
“First, we were able to get out by road and it is safe,” he said.
“Second thing, they were able to accept us in Jordan. The third, there was a bus driver willing to take us, and also, we managed to get tickets to go from Jordan to Rome.
“Everything was booked out and there were 21 of us, but we managed to get tickets. So, everything fell into place after that Mass.
“It was like Joseph being warned in a dream not to remain in Nazareth but to take the child to go to Egypt. It was like that, we left in haste.
“The travel agent called us and told us the bus would be there in 15 minutes and we had to leave. We were ready in the foyer, checked out, we boarded the bus and we left.”
The group continually prayed the rosary on the bus. Coming close to the Jordan border, they were advised that they needed a different shuttle to take them through the demilitarised zone between Israel and Jordan, but no shuttles were available. They were told to return to the hotel.
“My heart just sank,” Fr Kumar said.
“I said, ‘God, don’t do it. We are not equipped to go back. Please, change the heart of this officer.’”
Abruptly, the officer shouted, in English, “10 minutes” and they waited. Fr Kumar said he begged the Lord to protect the people in his care.
A shuttle bus arrived within five minutes. Father Kumar was the last of his pilgrims to cross the border, and ended up being the last person to cross the border into Jordan before it was shut.
The group got through the border and then moved to another bus which took them to Amman, ready for an early morning flight to Rome.
It wasn’t until the plane left Jordanian airspace that Fr Kumar was able to rest. “I slept like a baby,” he said. “For three hours, I slept right through.”
The pilgrims could clearly see the hand of God in their escape.
“What if we were kidnapped, or if one of the bombs fell on our hotel? What if we got shot?
What if we were not able to go into Jordan by road? What if Jordan was to refuse entry because Israel was at war? What if the shuttle didn’t come? What if we weren’t able to get a plane ticket to leave the next day? Normally miracles happen one at a time; God has performed these miracles in bulk.”
While grateful for what had happened, Fr Kumar said the group’s hearts went out to all affected and the pilgrims were praying earnestly for those caught up in the escalating violence. He likened their experience to that of Moses and the Holy Family.
“On a pilgrimage, we try to get into the footsteps of Our Lord and the prophets and the apostles,” he said.
“Here, we literally took the flight into Jordan and pleaded with the authorities like Moses.
We lost seeing many holy places in Jerusalem, God gave us that experience.
“Although we didn’t see the places, God gave them to us in our hearts. It was a first-class pilgrimage experience.”