Regnum Christi

“Everyone went pale and the ground shook from the blast”: Fr. Aaron Smith, LC, on getting Holy Land pilgrims safely out of Israel just as pilgrimage begins

“Everyone went pale and the ground shook from the blast”: Fr. Aaron Smith, LC, on getting Holy Land pilgrims safely out of Israel just as pilgrimage begins
“Everyone went pale and the ground shook from the blast”: Fr. Aaron Smith, LC, on getting Holy Land pilgrims safely out of Israel just as pilgrimage begins

For Fr. Aaron Smith, LC, his pilgrimage to the Holy Land was to be a dream come true.

 

About a year and a half ago, Fr. Aaron, who is originally from Minnesota, and is now currently serving as the International Director of Communications for the Regnum Christi Federation in Rome, was invited to join his brother, Fr. Jason Smith, LC, and a group of Regnum Christi members from New York and the Tristate area, on a two-week pilgrimage to Holy Land. Neither one of the brothers had either been to the Holy Land, and it was to be a beautiful grace, and a dream come true, to go together with a small group of people to pray in the places where Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead.

 

“Everyone went pale and the ground shook from the blast”: Fr. Aaron Smith, LC, on getting Holy Land pilgrims safely out of Israel just as pilgrimage begins

 

The majority of the group arrived in the Holy Land on Friday, October 6th, and on the next day, the last few pilgrims were scheduled to arrive; earlier that morning, Hamas had attacked Israel, but it was thought that the fighting would be contained to the Gaza border as it had been in the past. As the group was driving from the airport after picking up the last few pilgrims, towards Ein Karem, the place where Mary visited her cousin, Elizabeth, the nearby rocket sirens went off, and the group’s guide pulled the van over to the side of the road and directed the pilgrims to exit the vehicle, leaving their bags and heading down a flight of stairs to the streets below. As they were heading for safety, Fr. Aaron looked up and saw right before him the intercept of a missile in the sky, and heard and felt an explosion that sent him reeling backwards. “Everyone went pale, and the ground shook from the blast, and where one of the missiles had hit some distance away from us, a huge column of black smoke went up from the impact.”

 

Israel’s air defense system, called the Iron Dome, is designed to intercept the majority of the missiles that come across the border into the most populated areas of the country, and a siren sounds in the sector where and when a missile is expected to strike. Once the anti-rocket sirens had died down and the sky had cleared, the group was able to turn around and return to the van, with the plan to head to Notre Dame Center, a pilgrimage guest house in Jerusalem. Here, Fr. Aaron and his brother celebrated Mass, choosing from the Roman Catholic missal a special Mass meant to be celebrated in times of war. That evening at supper, the group heard that war had been declared in Israel.

 

The pilgrims spent the next day in relative peace, only the second of what was expected to be a two-week pilgrimage, making a visit to Bethlehem, but as they headed back to Jerusalem, it was clear that the situation in Israel was worsening, and they began booking flights back to the United States. Arrangements were made for all the pilgrims to leave within the next two days, while Fr. Aaron and the group’s American guide would remain behind until everyone had managed to get out of the country. 

 

“Everyone went pale and the ground shook from the blast”: Fr. Aaron Smith, LC, on getting Holy Land pilgrims safely out of Israel just as pilgrimage begins

 

The next day, the group walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just a few blocks away from Notre Dame Center, to visit the site of Jesus’ crucifixion on Calvary and the empty tomb where he was buried and resurrected. Here, they had time to pray and celebrate confession, but around noon, their guide received information that there would be a missile strike on Jerusalem itself, so the group fled to the Roman Catholic chapel erected in front of Jesus’s tomb, where they sheltered and prayed. At this moment, another priest, who was leading a group of Hispanic pilgrims from the United States, entered the chapel, fully vested and ready for Mass. “Well, if I’m going to die, I want to die celebrating Mass,” Fr. Aaron thought to himself, and together the two priests celebrated a bilingual Mass, with homilies in both English and Spanish, even as, in the background, they could hear the blasts of the missiles being intercepted over Jerusalem. “What a powerful moment as a priest,” says Fr. Aaron, “to give a homily with missiles over your head, in front of the tomb of our Lord, where he rose from the dead, where he conquered sin, and conquered death. He calls us to be people of life, and he has won for us not only life now, but life eternal!”

 

Fr. Aaron shares the observation that one of the pilgrims reflected on as the group hurried back to Notre Dame Center: “This was such a deep and profound experience of the resurrection. We kind of imagine the resurrection being on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning, polished and shiny, but the Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead happened in the radicality of conflict, and the disciples and the apostles and the women who went to the tomb felt that precise conflict, their lives were in danger. Yes, they had experienced the overwhelming joy of the resurrection, that Jesus wasn’t here, he wasn’t in the empty tomb, he had risen, and at the same time, they ran into the upper room to close the door out of fear for their lives.”

 

 

 

After Fr. Aaron and the pilgrimage guide had made sure that all other members of the group had safely flown out of Jerusalem, they were able to book their own flights for late Thursday evening of that week, but by Thursday afternoon, their flight had been cancelled. They decided to travel to Magdala, where they would stay in a pilgrimage guesthouse built on the site of the hometown of Mary Magdalene, with plans to cross the border into Jordan early the next day. On the way to Magdala, which is situated on the Sea of Galilee, they could see the West Bank and one of the sites of a recent missile attack, black smoke rising from the city. “Here was the tragedy of war, and it was as if the great need to pray for peace was ringing out, as if nature itself was speaking of the great need for peace and redemption,” says Fr. Aaron.

 

 

In the morning, they celebrated Mass in the chapel, then quickly fled for the border, taking with them two elderly Legionary priests who had been staying at Magdala and needed safer accommodations. At the Jordan border, Fr. Aaron and the guide, along with the two elderly priests, had to walk by foot across the border, then board a series of busses that shuttled them into the neutral zone between Israel and Jordan, and finally into Jordan. Once in Jordan, they were informed that the night before there had been multiple killings in the city of Jerusalem, and that the Jordan border was closing that very day. Fr. Aaron is grateful to God that they had been able to get out of Jerusalem and into Jordan just hours before the border closed, but even more so for the providence that sent them to Magdala and allowed them to accompany the two vulnerable Legionary priests to safety.

 

Once Fr. Aaron and the pilgrimage guide had passed through the last of many layers of security that allowed them into the airport, they were finally able to breathe a great sigh of relief, but even in that relief, there was a clash of emotions, says Fr. Aaron. “We were relieved to be leaving a place of war, and to be going home to a safe place, but what about all the other people who are in harm’s way and in danger? They’re still there. So it’s a real call to pray and to sacrifice and to fast for peace.”

 

Watch the video of his interview about the experience below.

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Alex Kucera

Atlanta

Alex Kucera has lived in Atlanta, GA, for the last 46 years. He is one of 9 children, married to his wife Karmen, and has 3 girls, one grandson, and a granddaughter on the way. Alex joined Regnum Christi in 2007. Out of the gate, he joined the Helping Hands Medical Missions apostolate and is still participating today with the Ghana Friendship Mission.

In 2009, Alex was asked to be the Atlanta RC Renewal Coordinator for the Atlanta Locality to help the RC members with the RC renewal process. Alex became a Group Leader in 2012 for four of the Atlanta Men’s Section Teams and continues today. Running in parallel, in 2013, Alex became a Team Leader and shepherded a large team of good men.

Alex was honored to be the Atlanta Mission Coordinator between 2010 to 2022 (12 years), coordinating 5-8 Holy Week Mission teams across Georgia. He also created and coordinated missions at a parish in Athens, GA, for 9 years. Alex continues to coordinate Holy Week Missions, Advent Missions, and Monthly missions at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Cumming, GA.

From 2016 to 2022, Alex also served as the Men’s Section Assistant in Atlanta. He loved working with the Men’s Section Director, the Legionaries, Consecrated, and Women’s Section leadership teams.

Alex is exceptionally grateful to the Legionaries, Consecrated, and many RC members who he’s journeyed shoulder to shoulder, growing his relationship with Christ and others along the way. He knows that there is only one way, that’s Christ’s Way, with others!