Holy Land pilgrimage brought the Bible to life

Colin and Sue Derdeyn pose for a photo during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year. Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City coordinated the pilgrimage.

Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

“I am very much a scientist, and faith doesn’t come easily to me,” said Colin Derdeyn, a member of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City. “I question pretty much everything… I do best when I can see things with my own eyes.”

A 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March brought the Gospel to life for Colin. “Having seen these places, it’s much easier to picture, to imagine and to believe that these stories really happened.”

“We walked where Jesus walked, visiting ancient ruins and beautiful churches, celebrating the Eucharist and praying Scripture in the very place where it all began,” added his wife, Sue.


The Derdeyns spoke recently at a Faith Journeys event at the Iowa City parish. The quarterly event offers Catholics in the Iowa City area an opportunity to share and hear faith testimonies.

The pilgrimage, coordinated by Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City, included college students and adult Catholics of all ages. Pilgrims could float in the Dead Sea, view the Dead Sea Scrolls, climb the Mount of Olives, view the Old City of Jerusalem, walk the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and stroll in the Garden of Gethsemane, among other activities.

A highlight for Colin was visiting the small fishing villages along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. “These tiny fishing towns offer a glimpse of what life was like for Jesus and the disciples and for the people of the day,” he said. “It was easy to picture him teaching and walking through the villages.”

About 50 people participated in the tour, including Father Jeff Belger, Newman Center’s priest director. Father Jeff celebrated Mass and offered reflections on the places they visited, “helping make these places much more than another tourist spot to check off the list,” Colin said.

Father Jeff said he had never been to the Holy Land prior to the pilgrimage, though not for lack of trying. He was supposed to go when he was a seminarian but safety concerns at the time forced the trip’s postponement. Then, COVID-19 forced cancellation of the Newman Center pilgrimage to the Holy Land — twice.

“It seemed like it was never going to happen. In fact, I didn’t allow myself to get excited until probably three weeks before, because there was still a chance that everything could fall apart,” Father Jeff said during the Faith Journeys event.

Setting foot in the Holy Land “was one of the most tremendous trips I’ve been on, as far as faith is concerned.” Seeing the locations where biblical events took place helped bring those stories to life for the priest as well. He can picture the locations in his mind now. “When I’m proclaiming the Gospel, I’m there — and I bring it here” so others can imagine the sights more vividly.

Father Jeff encourages Catholics interested in visiting the Holy Land to go on a faith-based pilgrimage. “It’s truly a cultural experience to deepen our faith in our living God.”

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