VIDEO Paulist pilgrims sing the music of Egypt while sailing the Nile
Egypt: the exotic and much fabled land of the pharaohs where Moses led the Israelites to freedom, where the Holy Family lived for more than three years, where St. Mark the Apostle preached and where Paulist founder Servant of God Isaac T. Hecker nurtured not only his physical health but his spirit as well.
Now, 135 years after Father Hecker’s four-month journey through Egypt, 18 pilgrims from the United States, Canada and Italy followed in his footsteps May 15-24.
“The idea of a pilgrimage is to take yourself away from all things familiar and totally embrace the Spirit,” said Paulist historian and Hecker expert Father Paul G. Robichaud. “In this pilgrimage, we celebrate and experience the power of the Holy Spirit and the legacy of St. Paul the Apostle through the lens and legacy of Father Hecker.”
Father Hecker arrived in Cairo after an eight-day tumultuous sail from Marseilles; the Paulist pilgrims endured an 11-hour flight from New York.
The pilgrims’ first Egyptian experience was the hustle-bustle of Cairo, Africa’s largest city with more than 20 million inhabitants. They hit the city’s highlights, also visited by Father Hecker.
This painting of the Twelve Apostles dates back to when the ancient Egyptian Temple of Luxor was used as a Christian church.
The first stop was the “hanging” church, or St. Mary’s Church, the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo. The church nave is suspended over a passage of the ancient Roman fortress. After climbing the famous 29 steps, the Paulist pilgrim group entered the church to find liturgy in progress, worshippers gathered tightly in the pews closest to the small windows to bear witness. Speakers bounded the priests’ voices off the walls of the church, the Arabic words sung by the priests mixing with the scent of incense in the air.
“That was just amazing,” said Adam Warble, a pilgrim from Pittsburgh and graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. “Just amazing.”
The next stop was St. George’s, the principal Greek Orthodox Church in Cairo, where the pilgrims prayed and lit candles before going to the Coptic church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, built over a cave where the Holy Family sheltered on one their many places of respite during their more than three years in Egypt. This was a definite highlight for pilgrim Dailo Garces.
“You can just imagine how the Baby Jesus sacrificed years of his childhood because he had to flee to Egypt, and then move around when he got there,” said Mr. Garces, who came on the pilgrimage with his wife, Dahlia, from St. Jerome parish in Waco, Tex.
St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Cairo provides the backdrop for a group photo of the Paulist pilgirms in Egypt.
Other Cairo spots experienced by the pilgrims also visited by Father Hecker were the Khan-el-Khalili bazaar and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali at the Citadel.
The pilgrims arrived at the pyramids in Giza in the comfort of a motor coach, but Father Hecker arrived by donkey, the principle means of transportation in the Cairo region at the time. Hecker left at dawn for the two-hour trip (in each direction) to the pyramids. The pilgrims gazed in amazement as Father Hecker surely did.
The Paulist pilgrims also enjoyed a four-day cruise on the Nile, on the same waters where Father Hecker and three other Americans spent three months on his dahabeah, a 70-foot-long boat with a single sail containing four to six staterooms, a dining salon and a kitchen. On the day before departure, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Father Hecker blessed his dahabeah and named it “The Miriam,” the Arabic name for Mary.
Father Hecker wrote to his brother, George: Traveling in a dahabeah is certainly the perfection of traveling. … for Egypt has a climate in winter that is all that one can wish. Then the scenery on this great river is unique. Every moment there is a turn in the river, or a village, or some novel sight to fill your imagination or excite your curiosity. All along the banks are palm groves, spots of green vegetation, tombs and singular sights. … Then the crew is ever drawing your attention: making music, singing, mostly some litany or invocation of the Deity, or praying; an amiable, childlike and playful set.”
The pilgrims also followed Father Hecker’s footsteps in visiting Abu Simbel, the Temple of Karnak, Luxor and experiencing Nubian culture.
Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, papal nuncio to Egypt (center), hosted the Paulist pilgrims at his home for Mass, refreshments and camaraderie.
Much like the small group in which Father Hecker traveled, Paulist pilgrim Mary Tansey from the Paulist-run Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish at the University of California at Berkeley said her fellow pilgrims truly looked out for one another.
“It brought us together,” she said. “The faith sharing was wonderful – attending the Masses and finding out about the faith journey of others.”
Upon returning to Cairo, Father Hecker wrote his brother, George, “This trip has been in every desirable respect much more to my benefit that my most sanguine expectations. It seems to me almost like an inspiration, such have been its beneficent effect on both to my mind and body. … I feel somewhat like one who has been in solitude for three or four months.
The Paulist pilgrims returned to Cairo to have a spiritual treat waiting for them as they celebrated Mass in the private chapel of Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, papal nuncio to Egypt. The archbishop greeted the group after the liturgy.
The archbishop described a “lively but small and fragmented” Catholic community in Egypt, the first country with a Muslim majority to welcome a nuncio.
The Paulist pilgrims exerienced a Coptic Christian liturgy at St. Mary’s, also known as the “hanging” church, in Cairo.
Experiencing a different culture and different faith in Egypt left a life-changing impression on the Paulist pilgrims, as it did Father Hecker more than a century earlier.
“My whole past seems crushed out of me by the hands of God, and I am reduced to nothing in his presence,” Hecker wrote. “… There is nothing left for me to do but wait on the will of Divine Providence. Perhaps all this was intended for my purification, and He will open in due season, the way for my return to former labors.”
Father Hecker again wrote to his brother, George, from Turin, Italy, in October 1874: “Before going up the Nile, I used to say to some of my friends that I once knew a man whose name was Hecker, but had lost his acquaintance, and I was going up the Nile to find him. Perhaps I would overtake him at Wady Halfeh or Nubia! But I didn’t. Sometimes I think the search is in vain, and I shall have to resign myself to his loss and begin a new life.”
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