Sunday, September 14, 2014

Day 14: Headed home

We departed the hotel for the Istanbul International Airport very early this morning.  All pilgrims are now journeying back to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Colorado. For us, this pilgrimage was in many ways like our faith--sometimes difficult, sometimes easier, but always with Our Lord by our side. We celebrated Mass in many different settings over these two weeks -- in magnificent basilicas, in God's beautiful creation outdoors, among ancient ruins that went back to Jesus' lifetime here on earth, in the shadows of mosques in a country where less than 1/2 of 1% share our faith and in makeshift rooms aboard the ship and hotels, but you and your intentions were always in our prayers. We ask that you continue to pray for each one of us, as we journey back to our homes, for safe travels and that we always model Jesus' perfect love in all that we do.  God Bless You All.

P.S.  Internet connections over the past few days made posting pictures almost impossible, so be sure to check back for added pictures to the days that do not have any posted.

Day 13: Our last full day in Istanbul

By today, most of us were beginning to look ahead to journeying back home but we had one more day packed with adventure.  We began the day visiting the Topkapi Palace Museum, getting to see some of the relics and jewels from that time.

Next we celebrated Mass in an underground cistern, a beautiful location set up just for us among the stone columns and very much an intimate, peaceful location to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.  For some of us, this location was among our favorites during the past two weeks.

Next, we were treated to Turkish pizza and were able to see some of the local rug artisans at work before heading to the Grand Bazaar--a shopper's delight.  The Grand Bazaar has over 5000 shops with all kinds of goods, from foods to spices to souvenirs.

Our last activity for the evening was enjoying a traditional Turkish dinner in an area primarily serving locals.  Good food, good music, and mostly great company.  Our last night in Turkey was fun and we finished up the evening packing up to head to the airport very early tomorrow morning.

Day 12: Seeing the sites of Istanbul

Today we started off celebrating Mass at the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua.  What a beautiful church and of course, what a special experience for Fr. Anthony to be able to celebrate Mass in a Basilica named for his patron saint.  Fr. Anthony shared with us that he had heard from his mother about St. Anthony all of his life and was so happy to be able to wear vestments with an image of St. Anthony today.

After leaving the Basilica, we continued on to see several sites in Istanbul, including one of the world's largest ancient cathedrals, the Hagia Sophia.  It's now a museum, but in its history, dating back to the 5th Century, it has served as the Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, a Roman Catholic cathedral and a mosque.  It's most famous for its massive dome, that modern engineers have not been able to reconstruct.  We also visited a famous cistern or underground water storage used in ancient times.  The columns and construction were spectacular--it's hard to believe that these ancient civilizations were so advanced and had such modern conveniences so long ago.

Day 11: Entering into Istanbul

Today our journey continued on into Istanbul.  This morning we said goodbye to our Grecian guide, Eugenia, and bus driver, Bobbis, and thanked them for taking such good care of us in Greece.  Eugenia was a wonderful guide, sharing her vast knowledge with all of us daily, and Bobbis was the best bus driver ever, so kind and gentle but he could also work magic with our tour bus, squeezing it in and out of some very tight place.  Most of the day was spent getting through Turkey customs and then driving into Istanbul.  Thankfully we navigated the customs process without too much difficulty and welcomed our Turkish guide, "Jimmy" who was a retired university professor who had studied at several U.S. universities.  Istanbul is a huge city, spanning more than 120 miles west to east.  Along the way we learned that more than 36 sites in Asia Minor are mentioned in the Bible and is the land where the first disciples and traveled through.  John, Paul, Luke, Barnabas all traveled through Turkey.  55 million people live in Turkey, with almost 22 million of those in Istanbul.  We arrived in Istanbul  and celebrated Mass at St. Stephanos Catholic Church.  After that we drove the rest of the way to the hotel and got to experience first-hand rush hour traffic in Istanbul--unlike anything most of us had ever seen!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Day 10: Journey to Philippi

Today, we continued on our journey following Paul's footsteps in the Book of Acts.  Our first stop was to see the port city of Neapolis (now Kavala)--the point where most believe that Paul first stepped into Macedonia.  At the point where the ancient port once stood, we visited a mosaic depicting Paul's vision to "come to Macedonia to help us."  After leaving Kavala, we continued on our journey along the Via Egnatio to Philippi.  Our next stop was at the place where Lydia was baptized.  She is believed to be the first women to be converted and baptized in Europe.  At this place, we were blessed to be able to celebrate Mass outside, right next to the baptistery along a flowing creek.  What a peaceful location to celebrate the Holy Eucharist - probably one of the most beautiful on our trip!  Next we visited the ancient ruins of Philippi, where in Book of Acts, Paul, joined by Timothy, Silas and Luke, cast out a demon from a young girl and Paul and Silas were jailed, followed by a strong earthquake that shook the shackles off of their ankles.  After converting and baptizing the jailer and his family, they were released from prison and thrown out of the city.  In this same set of ancient ruins we also saw pieces of the Via Egnatia still intact, a small part of the 470+ miles of marble roadway that once existed.  We also saw ruins of what is widely believed to be the remains of the first Christian church in Europe--the Octagon of Philippi.  Our last stop of the day was at our hotel in Alexandroupolis where we spent our final night in Greece and prepared to cross over into Turkey tomorrow.

Day 9: Following in the footsteps of Paul

Today we traveled by bus to Thessaloniki.  Along the way we stopped in Virea (we know it in the Bible as Berea) to see the spot where the Apostle Paul preached to the crowds.  At that place, we saw the three steps where Paul shared the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people.  He stayed here "three Sabbaths".  It's overwhelming to see marble steps from the first century A.D. and know the message that was shared then is still the message that lights our way today.  We continued our journey along the path of Paul's second missionary journey.  He followed the path from the port of Kabala to Thessoloniki after receiving a vision of a Mecedonian asking him to come to Mecedonia and help them.  We know this story from the Book of Acts.

After arriving in Thessaloniki, we visited the Basilica of St. Dimitri, the patron saint of the city.  It was a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church that is said to have healing power in the natural spring that flowed under the church.  In that church, we also got to tour the crypt and the beautiful garden.

Our evening ended with a Mass celebrated at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.  Once again a time to thank God for all the blessings he has bestowed on us, a time to offer our prayers for all your intentions that traveled here with us, and a time to ask for God's continued blessings on our journey.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Day 8: The majesty of the Kalampaka monesteries

Today we disembarked the cruise ship and headed north to the central part of Greece.  We spent almost 7 hours on our journey to Kalampaka and what a beautiful trip it was.  For many of us, it reminded us of the northern New Mexico landscape.  Much drier than the other parts of Greece we had already seen.  Our journey was filled with much history of the region, time to relax, and time to reflect as prayed the Rosary.  As we prayed the Rosary we especially reflected on the birth of Our Blessed Virgin Mary, whose nativity we celebrate today.  Much like our own early mothers who we hold in such high regard, we celebrate Mary's perfect love for her Son, and for all of us, that she continues to be our Heavenly mother.

As we made our way into Kalampaka, we began to see the spires of the rock formation that held many of the monesteries in the area.  It was incredible to see these monesteries that are built on the tops of these rock mountains and the sacrifices made by the monks and nuns who reside in these monesteries.  Their faith and love for God is so strong that they built their monesteries in places where you and I can't imagine living and they live that faith every day, sacrificing comfort and ease in  their daily lives.  Many of made the journey up and down several hundred steps up and down to the Monestery of the Transfiguration.

Once back at the hotel, we celebrated daily Mass and once again reflected on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the special place Mary holds in the life of her Son and in our lives.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Day 7: Mama Mia!!!

Dear Family and Friends,

We spent Sunday on the cruise ship and making two port stops.  The first was at the the Greek port of Heraklion on the island of Crete.  During this stop we visited the Knossos Palace, known as the first civilization in prehistoric times, dating back to the Minoan period around 1100 BC.  As such, it's considered the most important archeological site in Europe.  It was amazing to see the ruins and the sophistication of this city, with elaborate sewer and water systems that rivaled many periods much later in time.

We boarded the ship and then sailed for the Greek island of Santorini, but first we were really blessed to celebrate Mass with the Corpus Christi group again, as well as one other Catholic group traveling on the ship.  We also welcomed some of the friends we had made on the ship to join us for Mass, including one couple, Diego and his lovely wife Angelina, from Chile, who we dined with on Saturday evening.  The Bishop's words were very fitting for our group of many pilgrims from many cities and countries--we are all one family joining together to give thanks for our many blessing and to nourish ourselves with the Holy Eucharist.  In his final blessing during Mass, Bishop Mulvey promised to take our prayer petitions with him as his group continues their journey to the Holy Land where he will place our intentions at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  We are so thankful for his prayers for us.

Our last stop of the day was on the Greek island of Santorini and what a stop it was!  Santorini is so beautiful, perched high atop the edge of the caldera.  We enjoyed a walking tour of the city of Fira and basked in the sights and sounds of the village, including the cable car and donkeys that provide transportation up to the townsite.  We even had 4 or 5 hearty souls in our group that shared the trail with the donkeys and made the trek up the mountain in 20 minutes!  After enjoying  some of the local fare and doing some shopping we made our way back down the mountain to pack bags and prepare to disembark the ship early tomorrow morning.  Once we get to a hotel tomorrow, we'll start posting pictures for the last several days, as I know you all are anxious to see your loved ones and know they are okay!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Day 6: A visit to the Virgin Mary's House

What a beautiful morning we had!  We started the day docking in the Turkish port city of Kusadasi.  From there we traveled by bus to Ephesus, where St. John the Evangelist took Mary after Jesus' crucifixion.  We entered the small brick home that was awe-inspiring to know that Mary and some of the Disciples had been in those rooms.  After visiting the home, Fr. Anthony concelebrated Mass with the Bishop of Corpus Christi and two other priests from the diocese. It was a beautiful Mass as we sat right next to Mary's home and reflected on some of Jesus' last words from the cross; those of a Son taking care of his Mother and asking John to care for her.

Our next stop was the ancient ruins of Ephesus, a vast city of ruins that were amazing.  This site dwarfed any other set of ruins we've seen.  We walked the marble roads rutted by chariots, where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians and where he was arrested and cast out of the city.  We finished out the morning with a visit to a Turkish rug factory and witnessed the artists at work.  Many of the rugs they hand weave take over a year to complete, with some rugs having as many as 5 million hand-tied knots.  What beautiful artistry!

After getting underway once again, we docked in the Grecian port city of Patmos.  From here we took a bus to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse, the cave where St. John captured his visions in writing that became the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations.  Again, what an experience to see first hand where the Word of God was first shared with us.  To finish out the afternoon, we visited the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, a breathtaking site set high upon a hill that now houses early manuscripts of Mark and other Disciples' writings dating back into the 5th Century and many other beautiful icons and artifacts.

I'll post pictures of these last few days soon--wifi is limited and slow on the ship.

Day 5: Getting our sea legs!

Yesterday morning we embarked on our cruise of the Greek islands.  We left Athens from the port of Piraeus and sailed towards Mykonos.  During the early part of the afternoon we celebrated Mass on the cruise ship and Father Anthony learned that the Bishop of Corpus Christi was also traveling on the ship with a group from there and they had also just finished Mass.  The Corpus Christi group also includes at least one couple from Las Cruces.  It was nice to hear people talking about New Mexico and know that we shared that common language.  This evening we stopped in the port of Mykonos and saw the "Venice of Greece!"  What a beautiful little village this was and we so enjoyed the walking tour that our guide, Issa, took us on.  Many of us enjoyed our free time after the tour to sample the local cuisine, snap a few more pictures, and explore the local shops.  Our next stops tomorrow are Ephesus and Patmos.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Day 4: An amazing day in Corinth

Hello Family and Friends,

What an amazing day we had.  We left first thing this morning headed to the ancient city of Corinth.  On our way we passed several Olympic venues from the 2004 Athens Olympics, including the beach volleyball and soccer venues.  Our next stop was at the Corinth Canal and then we arrived in Corinth.   The Apostle Paul spent about 18 months here on his second mission tour.  He had planned to travel to the early churches in Asia Minor (in and around Turkey) but received a vision to visit Macedonia instead.  Paul's visit is said to have served as the real gateway to spreading the Gospel message through Europe.  The first stop in Corinth was at a set of ruins where we saw an inscription in the ruins that mentions a man named Erastmus.  This inscription matches very closely with the Book of Acts, Chapter 18 where Erastmus is mentioned by name and clearly dispels any notion of naysayers that these biblical figures did not exist.  It was amazing to see this inscription from 49 AD that proves what we have known all along!

From this set of ruins we continued to the old village of Corinth where we celebrated Mass in the most spectacular setting, under the shade of olive trees with ancient temple ruins in the background listening to today's first reading from Paul's Letter to the Corinthians.  What an amazing experience listening to Paul talk to us in the words that he wrote for these same people sitting in their village almost 2000 years later.  Listening to the this reading and the Gospel, you could just visualize the people back then hearing these messages of the good news of Jesus Christ.  I don't think any one of us will ever hear the Letters to the Corinthians without thinking of this special day that we spent in this beautiful ancient city.  Tomorrow we head off on our cruise, so you may not see a post for 2 or 3 days.  We'll be back soon!