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.