Fr. Anthony (Ariniello) of the Transfiguration, a Boulder, Colo. native and priest with the Community of the Beatitudes religious society, found himself in Israel on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists attacked Israeli civilians in their homes and communities and launched some 3,000 rockets at Jerusalem, killing roughly 1,400 and taking another 200-some hostage. The attack prompted Israel to declare war on Hamas, based in the neighboring Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip, shortly thereafter.
Fr. Anthony had just begun guiding a group of 38 study-abroad students from the Franciscan University of Steubenville the day before, on a pilgrimage through the Holy Land, when the conflict broke out. The group was in Nazareth, roughly 100 miles to the north, when Hamas attacked Jerusalem.
“We had Mass at the site of the Annunciation, and we were visiting other sites when we got word that the conflict had begun,” Fr. Anthony told the Denver Catholic in an email. “We considered staying (in Nazareth), but after consulting Fr. Nael (a local Anglican priest friend) and other locals, we followed our itinerary, driving to the Sea of Galilee, where we walked down a short trail to where Christ proclaimed, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’”
The student group then set up camp nearby, close to the local Franciscan parish, the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter.
The area of Galilee remained peaceful, Fr. Anthony said, and shops and tourist sites there were crowded and busy as usual. Many other pilgrims who had been closer to Jerusalem and Gaza relocated there to be further from the fighting.
The leaders of the Steubenville group were on “continual alert,” Fr. Anthony said, and stayed close in touch with friends and guides in Israel, and checked in with students and parents throughout the trip as to the group’s plans, and the emerging war. They had to reevaluate and cancel some plans and take extra precautions, but they were still able to visit several of the holy sites they had planned on, such as Capernaum, Emmaus and the Mount of the Beatitudes.
“As to the action around us, we have little to share. We didn’t hear a shot or siren, we didn’t witness anyone panic or run. I heard a boom or two in the air that could have been a missile hit down, but I can’t be sure. A fighter jet flew high above at least once,” Fr. Anthony said.
“It certainly could have been tougher, had we been in Jerusalem near the attacks, and been locked down at our hostel, while so near to sites we would want to visit,” he added. “Most of the area of the conflict is around Gaza, relatively far from our habitual pilgrim trail. The closest part of the Lebanese border was 40km away from where we were, and so this was our concern.”
After the war started, there were concerns that Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group based in Lebanon, could attack Israel along this border. As of this writing, the Israeli military and Hezbollah have exchanged fire, and the U.S. State Department has issued a level 4 travel advisory, warning U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the country.
Fr. Anthony said the tense situation brought out the best in the student pilgrims.
“I saw the students put faith into action with caring acts of service,” he said. “At evening meals in small groups, we shared and listened to each others’ highs, lows, and ‘God-moments.’ On pilgrimage, I often have to coax pilgrims to think of a low to share. Surprisingly, I had to do so this time, too, as the students had such a positive tenor.”
He added that the students on this trip seemed much more eager to go to confession or to receive one-on-one counseling, than they had on past trips.
“It was a privilege to listen to students express their trust in the Lord in the face of their fears,” he said.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem were previously planned stops for the group that became too dangerous to visit and had to be canceled. While the students were disappointed, they took the news well, Fr. Anthony noted.
The students were originally scheduled to depart Israel on Saturday, October 14. However, Franciscan University rescheduled their flights so they could depart earlier. They also arranged for a Catholic guide group in Israel to escort the students through the West Bank checkpoint, in Palestinian territory, to fly out of Amman, the capital of Jordan, on Wednesday, October 11.
The checkpoint was crowded, Fr. Anthony said, as many other Christian pilgrims had made similar arrangements. At this point, they were 100 feet from the Jordan river, where Jesus was baptized. While the group didn’t get to have a full immersion experience in the Jordan river, they did renew their baptismal vows and have a “sprinkling rite.”
The whole group – 38 students, four interns from the Community of Beatitudes company Beatitudes Missions, and a Franciscan sister – flew safely out of Amman on Wednesday. Fr. Anthony flew back to his community in France through Cairo, Egypt.
“It’s so hard, personally, to have had to leave during this time, when I would love to be there in solidarity,” Fr. Anthony said. “But my duties were to escort the group and then come back to responsibilities in France. As I hear news from friends and our community there, it is so discouraging that the conflict doesn’t seem to be ending soon.”
He encouraged everyone to continue to pray for peace in the region. He asked especially for prayers for the brothers and sisters of the Community of the Beatitudes in Israel, who maintain the Emmaus pilgrimage site, and “for all those who are dedicated to prayer and hospitality (in Israel)…who gain their livelihood from these ministries. The coming months will surely be quiet.”
He also asked for prayers “for my good friend Udi, father of four, who has been called up to the Lebanon border. He and his family were going to welcome some of us for Shabbat (on the trip). He told me he, a psychologist, has been spending a lot of time helping the soldiers relax their nerves. He sent me a video of his unit reading from a Torah scroll, singing, and praying.”