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AN INTERNATIONAL TRUE LIFE IN GOD INTER-RELIGIOUS PILGRIMAGE
EGYPT - IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE HOLY FAMILY
Out of Egypt, I called My Son (Matthew 2: 15)
Opening words of welcome from Vassula:
Here you are in the Holy Land of Egypt, which God in His goodness has so much blessed and favoured. We are gathered here by God’s grace to follow the footprints of the Holy Family and to taste as well the famous history of this country. So you are most welcomed in my land I would say, as Egypt is where I come from and where I feel at home.
So let us all remember how God graciously called us to take part in this pilgrimage and thank Him for giving us such an opportunity. May God bless you and the time you will spend in Egypt.
In the love of Christ Jesus.
PILGRIMAGE REPORT by Lucien Lombard (translated from the French)
Two hundred and eighty-eight Pilgrims from forty-four countries gathered together in Cairo on 21st October 2002, for the True Life In God International Pilgrimage, "In the Footsteps of The Holy Family." There were Christians from various denominations, as well as several Buddhists and a Hindu, giving the assembly its inter-religious character.
This was the fruit of many months hard work put in benevolently by the organisers, and throughout the ensuing journey the participants would, in most places, be lodged in the same hotel: firstly Cairo, then at St. Catherine’s at the foot of the Moses Mountain in the heart of the Sinai desert; then on the shores of the Red Sea, followed by Luxor (home of St. Maurice) and finally, Cairo again. This last evening in Cairo was especially moving, for His Holiness, Shenouda III, the Coptic-Orthodox Pope (see details), granted the True Life in God pilgrims an audience in St. Mark’s Cathedral.
The pilgrimage commenced on the morning of Tuesday, 22nd October, 2002, with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Monastery of St. George in old Cairo. The celebrant was Mgr. Theofilaktos, Bishop of Babylon, and all True Life in God participants were invited to receive Holy Communion. After the Divine Liturgy, Bishop Theofilaktos addressed the participants, welcoming them to Egypt on behalf of His Holiness Peter VII, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt and of all Africa. Afterwards, within the precincts we visited the Sanctuary of St. George, built on the site where his martyrdom began, and where his chains are reserved.
Then we visited the church of St. Serge (Abu Serga), the oldest church in Egypt. There, the Holy Family stayed in the crypt when returning from Upper Egypt on their way to Galilee, and it was the place of worship for the first Egyptian converts who followed St. Mark the Evangelist. The 4th century church built on this holy site is dedicated to the saints Serge and Bacchus, soldiers and martyrs. It was restored in 1171 under the reign of Saladin, and comprises three naves, separated by twelve pillars. Traditionally the Patriarchs have celebrated there.
After this visit we returned to the hotel for the opening reunion where Vassula addressed the pilgrims, welcoming them. The ceremony began with the fifty or so clergy entering the hall in solemn procession. That evening, after sunset, the whole band of pilgrims boarded a riverboat to see Cairo from the Nile. The following day, Wednesday 23rd October, the pilgrims gathered at the Giza plateau to see the Pyramids. Afterwards we visited a workshop for a demonstration of the age-old method of making papyrus.
We then set off to reach Mara, the first lap of our journey along the road through the Sinai Desert. At Mara is the spring where Moses transformed the water from bitter to sweet (Ex 15: 22-23).
Elim came next, where Moses found twelve wells and seventy palm trees (Ex 15: 27). It was there that the Jewish people murmured against Moses for having brought them into the desert far from the land of milk and honey. Then we passed through Rephidim (Ex 17: 1), also known as the Ferran Oasis, where Moses struck the rock and water gushed.
By the end of October, sundown comes quite early and night falls rapidly. As it was almost full moon, the Sinai-Horeb Mountains, bathed in the pale moonlight, were extraordinarily beautiful. That evening, as soon as we arrived at the foot of the Moses Mountain, near the Greek-Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine, we were able to celebrate Holy Mass in a Bedouin tent.
It takes about three hours to reach the summit of Moses Mountain to enjoy the magnificent view over the Sinai Mountains which awaits the hiker. Rather than face the climb, some pilgrims hired camels from the waiting Bedouins to take them nearly to the top.
Thursday, 24 October, 2:00 am: On the mountain, bathed in moonlight beneath the limpid sky, (torches were unnecessary) many pilgrims set off for the summit where there is a chapel dedicated to The Holy Trinity. They wanted to see the sunrise from the place where, according to tradition, Moses received the Ten Commandments, engraving them on stone tablets (Ex 20: 2-17; Dt 5: 6-21). The climbers returned at about 9.00 am.
The pilgrims were admitted to visit the Greek-Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine, where St. Catherine of Alexandria, virgin and martyr, is buried. It is situated at the foot of Moses’ Mountain, near a col. Within the monastery walls is an ancient bush, protected by trellis and standing in its own chapel. The venerated bush is the "Burning Bush" of Sinai, the mountain of God (Ex 3: 1-5; Lk 20: 37; Mk 12: 26) where He revealed His Name to Moses: I AM (Ex 3: 13-14).
The monastery has one of the richest libraries with many manuscripts of great antiquity, as well as a remarkable collection of highly precious icons.
After visiting the monastery the pilgrims were invited to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, concelebrated in the open air in the garden. As the service was held in the open air, the pilgrims had the rare and very special privilege, indeed...the grace of observing the ritual that traditionally takes place in the sanctuary behind the iconostasis, away from the eyes of the uninitiated. The pilgrims were, therefore, able to watch the sacred gestures of the Orthodox priests during the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, gestures perpetuated by the apostolic succession since the earliest days of the Church. All were able to receive Holy Communion.
Afterwards, in a meditative frame of mind, we once again took the desert road in the direction of Sharm-El-Sheik on the Red Sea, situated at the southern point of the Sinai, where we arrived at about 8.00 pm. Friday, 25th October, travelling alongside the Red Sea proved to be a restful day for the pilgrims compared with the long hours spent on the desert road. A True Life in God reunion for participants was held at the end of the afternoon where Vassula witnessed.
Saturday, 26th October, the Pilgrim group took the aeroplane from Sharm-El-Sheikh to Luxor in Upper Egypt, a flight of 300 kms. In ancient times, the town of Thebes was situated on the vast, fertile plain of the Luxor region. This expanse, surrounded by mountains and cut by the River Nile, was home to Saint Maurice and his companions. (See article on page 14)
Sunday morning, 27th October, the pilgrim group visited The Valley of The Kings on the West Bank of the Nile; then, in the afternoon, the temples of Luxor and Karna on the East Bank, used by the first Egyptian Christians as places of worship. in late afternoon the pilgrims went to Mass at Luxor.
Monday, 28th October, escorted by tourist police and a military security detachment, the pilgrim group left Luxor to drive down the fertile Nile valley. This is the cropgrowing region, irrigated by innumerable canals and constantly tended by hardworking Egyptian growers, whose produce is sufficient to feed the whole Egyptian population. We saw goats, donkeys, water buffalo and camels being led along the road, and as we passed by the persons tending them waved and smiled at us.
Near Assiut, 330 kms south of Cairo, we stopped at the Copt-Orthodox Monastery of The Holy Virgin Mary El Moharrag. This monastery situated in the centre of Egypt is considered to be the realisation of Isaiah: "In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the LORD." (Is 19: 19)
The name "El Moharrag" means "the burn" and is in memory of the burning down of the monastery by invaders in the Middle Ages. Tradition recounts that the Holy Family travelled by boat on the Nile from Ma’adi to the village of Qousquam (al Qusia) in Upper Egypt, where they lived for six months in a cave at the foot of Mount Qousquam.
The El Moharrag monastery is built on the very spot where the Holy Family lived. It was there that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life." (Mt 2: 20-21)
The monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary El Moharrag, conserves a number of relics, notably of St. Maurice. At the Monastery the pilgrims were allowed to celebrate Holy Mass in the monks’ chapel, and we thank them for their Christian charity and the ecumenical hospitality we gratefully received.
After Mass, still escorted by the police and the military, the pilgrim group took the road again to reach Cairo. The leading escort vehicle halted the traffic at crossroads and junctions to facilitate our passage, and all along the route we received and exchanged signs of friendship. The military, we learned, had called the escort and protection of our convoy from Luxor to Cairo "Operation Holy Family."
We wish to thank the Egyptian government for the competence and loyalty of the detachment escorting us. It was very late at night when we finally arrived in Cairo.
Tuesday, 29th October, the pilgrims gathered together for Mass in the Coptic Catholic Church of St. Mary. It was very moving when, at the moment of the Universal Prayer, anyone could cite an intention in his or her own language.
Next we visited the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary in Zeitoun, built at the place where once the Holy Family stayed. It was on the dome of this church that the famous appearances of the Virgin Mary took place between 2nd April 1968 and 29th May 1971.
When Pope Shenouda III met Pope Paul VI in May, 1973, he spoke at length on these apparitions, witnessed by millions in Cairo ... Muslims and Christians alike. Blessed Pope Shenouda III exerted himself to make known the appearances of Our Lady at Zeitoun.
We then went on to visit the sanctuary of Mattariza, built in the place where the Holy Family resided in Cairo, and where there is the spring which quenched their thirst. There, too, is the Virgin Mary tree, centuries old, now ramified with several trunks.
Wednesday, 30th October, started with a ten o’clock Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, Zamalek. Afterwards we visited the Ma’adi Sanctuary; the name Ma’adi (crossing) reminds us that once there was a ferryboat at that spot. Following their stay in Old Cairo, the Holy Family stayed at Ma’adi, and from there, embarked on the Nile to sail into Upper Egypt.
The church built on the spot where they boarded the boat is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is called ‘Al Adaweya’, which translates to ‘Ferryboat Church.’ From the church porch we could descend the stone stairs taken by the Holy Family to reach the boat.
On the 12th of March, 1976, (Friday, the third day of the month of Baramhat in the Coptic calendar), a miraculous event occurred. A Bible was found, swept by the current onto the river bank in front of the church, and was open at the page of Isaiah 19: 25 where it is written: "Blessed be Egypt My people" No one knew where the Bible had come from, and it is now displayed in the Lady Chapel within the church. Since then the Sanctuary is also referred to as ‘Sanctuary of the Floating Bible’.
Vassula was keen for the pilgrims to enjoy personal contact with the people of Cairo, renowned for their kindness. Therefore, we all visited a bazaar in the Khan el Khalili district of Old Cairo, the biggest bazaar in the Near East. It was packed with people and street vendors trying to push their barrows through the crowds selling all sorts of tempting goods...everywhere, narrow, winding alleys lined with small shops and smelling of warm bread, spices and grey amber.
From Khan el Khalili the pilgrim group went to the Coptic-Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Mark for the general audience of His Holiness the Pope, Abba Shenouda III. Invited by the Coptic Church, the True Life in God pilgrims felt honoured when given seats in the front rows, reserved especially for them. Patriarch of the Predication of St. Mark, and 117th Pope of Alexandria, His Holiness Shenouda III, who acceded to the pontificate in November, 1971, is the successor of the Apostle St. Mark. He is recognised as being the most distinguished theologian in the recent history of the Coptic Church.
The ceremony was transmitted live by Egyptian Television and relayed onto a large screen in the Cathedral. The Pope’s entry was greeted by prolonged applause, and the Audience opened with his reading and answering written questions put to him by the faithful...not without humour.
Then all members of the clergy participating in the True Life in God Pilgrimage, as well as Vassula, were presented to H.H. Shenouda III and received his blessing, during which time the Coptic Choir of Cairo sang traditional hymns. Then, invited to take our turn, we broke into song with the polyphonic hymn "Maranatha alleluia." This was enthusiastically greeted by the Coptic community who gave prolonged applause. The Audience closed with H.H. Shenouda III giving the assembly a general blessing.
Now the pilgrimage ‘In the Footsteps of the Holy Family’ on their flight through Egypt was coming to an end, and at the hotel the participants met together to bid farewell to each other, and listen to Vassula’s closing address.
Thursday, 31 October, 2002, after a last au revoir, the participants left in groups for Cairo airport, bound for their different countries, where the fruits of their rich and unforgettable religious and mystical experience in the Holy Land of Egypt will surely multiply.