By GREG HARDESTY     11/8/2023

They went to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage to get closer to God.

They say it’s a miracle they got back home safely.

The 34 pilgrims assembled by Deacon Bernie Ocampo of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Irvine arrived in Israel on Sunday, Oct. 1, and began their journey in the northern city of Nazareth, making their way south to Jerusalem as they followed in the footsteps of Jesus.

Little did they know that early on Saturday, Oct. 7., when pretty much most of their scheduled itinerary had been completed, they would find themselves amid the fiercest bloodshed in Israel in 50 years, when Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups carried out a surprise attack from the Gaza Strip.

The barrage of at least 5,000 rockets, in addition to some 2,500 Palestinian militants breaching the Gaza–Israel barrier, has so far left over 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, dead, with thousands more Palestinians killed when Israel formally declared war on Hamas on Oct. 8.

Suddenly, a peaceful sojourn to the holiest sites for Christians in the world became a fear-choked ordeal to flee the country as chaos and bloodshed erupted.

Deacon Ocampo and his wife, Pam, and two other pilgrims, Bill and Elaine John of San Antonio de Padua in Anaheim Hills, recently recounted their at-times harrowing experience during an hourlong episode on Orange County Catholic Radio that now is available online at occatholic.com/radio/

Host Rick Howick, assisted by Program Manager Jim Governale, elicited emotional stories from the four guests, whose trip with the other 30 pilgrims was scheduled for Sept. 30 through Oct. 10.

“It was real,” Deacon Ocampo said of the fear the group felt when the missiles started flying. “There’s nothing like an equalizer than facing death.”

There’s also nothing better than weathering such an experience, the four radio guests told Howick, than their faith.

“If we hadn’t had our faith,” Deacon Ocampo said, “I don’t know how we would have gotten through it.”

Added his wife, Pam: “I still don’t want what we experienced to dampen the beauty of what we saw there.”

For the Johns, visiting Israel for the first time was especially poignant.

In February, out of the blue, Elaine was diagnosed with stage 3 thyroid cancer that spread to her neck. There also were two suspicious nodules in her lungs.

Because ensuing biopsies showed that all her nodules were benign, Elaine’s doctors cleared her for the trip.

“I would have rather it been me,” Bill said with watery eyes.

The Johns recounted how their morning on the day of the bombings began with Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They heard the blasts and felt the ground shake. The Johns were scared but as a group with faith they decided to move forward as planned, praying the Stations of the Cross.

It wasn’t until they returned to their hotel room shortly thereafter when they realized the enormity of what was happening after turning on the news.

The rest of the day and into early evening was consumed with their desire to get to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, where most of the missiles rained down. Their scheduled flight home was 5 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8.

That didn’t happen.

In the radio broadcast, Elaine recounts a moment in the chaotic airport, which was jammed with frantic Israelis trying to flee the bombings, when she realized something.

She had yet to pray.

Fear had consumed her.

“I then prayed for my and Bill’s protection,” Elaine said, “and for some clarity and God’s wisdom.”

Several hours later, in what the Johns say was their prayers being answered, the couple – who renewed their wedding vows at the wedding church in Cana during the pilgrimage – were on their way home via Portugal.

“That’s when we finally felt safe – when we landed in Lisbon,” Bill said.

It took a few more days for the Ocampos to successfully board a flight out of Tel Aviv.

One of Deacon Ocampo’s goals of the pilgrimage was to spend time with the “living stones” – fellow Christians in Israel, in addition to the physical landmarks and historical spots the group visited, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Capernaum, Jericho, Gethsemane, and the Church of the Transfiguration.

“I was praying for transformation the whole time, and I think God answered our prayers,” Deacon Ocampo said. “We didn’t have to fill (the rest of) our schedule. And we learned to suffer with (the living stones).”

He added: “It was a miracle we made it back home safely, given the bombardment of missiles and resulting cancellation of commercial flights out from the only way to leave Israel by plane. We returned with a heightened sense of the fragility of life and a deeper appreciation of our ability to practice our faith freely.”

Deacon Ocampo credits the many people who were praying and fasting for the pilgrims’ safe trip home.

“That buoyed us and made a difference,” he said.

In the Holy Land, the four radio guests said, you experience Jesus in a very personal way.

Experiencing the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War also was personal.

Pam recalled asking her Israel tour guide why he wasn’t trying to flee.

“This is where I am from,” he told her. “My family has been here for more than 800 years.”

Pam said she felt guilty when she and her husband were leaving.

“I felt we were abandoning people around us, regardless of their faith,” she said. “I felt a little torn.”

Elaine said she witnessed so much peace in the Holy Land, despite the terrible events that unfolded Oct. 7.

“I went with an open mind and an open heart,” she said.

Now, she and the other pilgrims continue to pray in gratitude for their safe return home – and for eventual peace in the Holy Land, and for those who lost their lives there and continue to do so.

“Our God is so gracious,” Elaine said. “Ask, pray, and He will listen.”