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By John Andrews

A bucket list trip to Rome and the Holy Land turned suddenly precarious for 36 High Desert Catholics the weekend of Oct. 7-8 when the deadly attack on Israel by the Hamas group broke out in their midst.

The pilgrim group from Holy Family Parish in Hesperia was preparing to tour the Jordan River, the site of the Lord’s baptism, when they were turned back by security forces due to the Hamas attacks.

“Everybody on the [tour] bus was kind of quiet, wondering if the attacks were going to come to us,” said pilgrim Ruben Ramos. “We were kind of afraid.”

Days later, when they were shopping in Jerusalem, they were quickly ordered back to their hotel by the authorities and spent several hours in an underground shelter.

“We had a bomb alert once,” said Father Reginald Ibe, Administrator of Holy Family and the leader of the scheduled three-week pilgrimage. “We entered into the tunnel, and we stayed there.”

Said Ramos, “We heard the sirens, we went down [to the shelter] and they closed the doors. We were all praying it wouldn’t hit the hotel.”

In the face of fear at the unfolding violence, Fr. Ibe said he encouraged the pilgrims to lean on their faith.

“I told them, ‘Our God is here. He is with us, none of us will die here,’” he recalled, urging them not to panic and attempt to flee Jerusalem but to continue with their planned visits. “Let us complete our mission.”

With encouraging words from Fr. Ibe, the pilgrims were able to continue with their itinerary, which included many holy sites in Israel. The group had visited and celebrated Mass at the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, his hometown of Nazareth, and the sites of many Gospel moments including the Sea of Galilee (where they sang and prayed during a boat ride), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Gethsemane, and Golgotha.

The outbreak of armed conflict also put the pilgrims’ return trip to the United States on hold for several days. The group had been scheduled to leave Tel Aviv on Oct. 14 but their departing flights were cancelled due to safety concerns. With no apparent timetable for the reopening of the airport, they made the decision, with encouragement from Fr. Ibe, to tale a nine-hour journey by bus to Oman, Jordan, where they would secure their passage home, making stops in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey along the way.

“I was a little leery of being on a bus out in the middle of the desert,” pilgrim Stephen Logan said of the journey to Jordan. “It turned out to be a really nice ride.”

On the first leg of the pilgrimage in Rome, the group celebrated Mass at many famous churches, prayed the Angelus with Pope Francis and attended the Opening Mass for the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 4.

Reflecting on the unexpected journey, Fr. Ibe said he was glad the group continued with the pilgrimage which was intended to bring them closer to God.

“We had the courage to accomplish our program,” he said. “Just a little faith, a little trust in God and the sky’s the limit.”

John Andrews is the Director of Communications.