Anna Silvis of Spooner, a freshman at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, spends time on the Sea of Galilee in mid-March. This was one of the places during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land that most deeply affected her realization that Jesus was a real, historical person – God made man. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

College freshman Anna Silvis spent her spring break on the trip of a lifetime – a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – but one night during her time in Israel left an immense impression. One she hopes to never forget.

“In all honesty I’m still processing everything,” Silvis, who graduated from Spooner High School in 2021, admitted.

She shared what a blessing the trip was overall in making her faith “something more tangible.”

“I felt like I gained a better understanding of who Jesus was as more of a person, not like some guy we hear and read about, but a physical and real person who walked this earth,” she said.

Along with 20 other college students, four FOCUS missionaries, an organizer and guide, Silvis’ pilgrimage was led by Fr. Mike Schmitz.

While Fr. Mike has gained national status through speaking at young adult events, his video series for Ascension Presents and the “Bible in a Year” podcast, the Diocese of Duluth priest serves as Director of Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese and is chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

As a student at Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica, Silvis participates in Newman Center events at UMD whenever possible. Most of the pilgrims were UMD students with Silvis and one other from St. Scholastica, with four from Ohio and four from Winona, Minnesota.

In the Holy Land, one of Silvis’ first experiences was visiting the Sea of Galilee.

“Out of all the places we visited, it was the easiest for me to truly picture what it would’ve been like for Jesus,” she said. “The sound of the waves hitting shore would have sounded the same to Jesus. The feeling of the rocky ground would have felt the same for Jesus.”

One night, the young woman walked down by the sea. Sitting on a rock near the water, she looked up at the starry sky and then noticed the Big and Little Dipper constellations.

“I can see those same stars from home!” she exclaimed. “Wow! How beautiful to think that Jesus could have looked at the same stars we see today!”

Admitting her scant knowledge of astronomy, Silvis said that even if he didn’t actually see the same stars, “I found it awe-inspiring to think that the places where Jesus walked really are not that far away. Jesus was a real person who walked this earth, and not just a dude we read about.”

She called the food “amazing,” and loved eating hummus and pita bread at almost every meal. They learned that avocados are locally grown in Israel, but the tour guide said they weren’t likely part of his diet.

Silvis was also struck by the geography and landscape, realizing that Jesus and his disciples would have walked everywhere.

“How beautiful it is that he chose to endure the human pain of walking up mountains or distances of many miles, instead of pulling his ‘God card’ and teleporting anywhere,” she reflected in jest, but added that seeing and experiencing the physical surroundings Jesus lived and moved in helped give her a better understanding of the Bible stories she grew up hearing and reading.

“The majority of places that we visited in the Holy Land were, and still are, difficult for me to comprehend,” Silvis said. “However, the Holy Sepulcher was definitely the most mind-blowing experience for me.”

She explained that Fr. Mike (Schmitz) surprised the group with getting 15 slots for some to have the opportunity to spend the whole night in the basilica. Names were randomly drawn from a hat and Silvis’ name was chosen.

“I had no idea what to expect. I understood it was a really holy place where Jesus died and rose, but I had no idea what I was getting into,” she confessed.

Those chosen to stay were given three rules: No sleeping, no talking loudly and no candles. The group arrived at 7 p.m. and waited in the entrance. As they waited, other groups arrived for the same experience – some seminarians from Chicago and some religious sisters. When the sisters were turned away because they hadn’t properly signed up, Silvis said she realized she was getting into something “really serious.”

Once locked in with the two giant doors locked on both sides, she felt the weight of the experience really come upon her. It was explained that all of the open areas could be explored, but the tomb’s interior was only available until 11 p.m. when the Greek Orthodox would start their all-night liturgy.

“At first I was nervous to explore a completely unknown place,” Silvis stated, then told herself she should be fine in “literally one of the holiest places” on earth.

“Walking around, I felt my stomach drop with the intricate details and the vast beauty that surrounded me. I felt like a little kid exploring a new house for the first time, but this was no ordinary house,” she said.

She spent time apprehending the layout of the massive building, walking in her stocking-feet as the sound of shoes seemed too loud for the chosen few in the space. Once she saw it was already 10:15 p.m., Silvis made her way to the tomb where she discovered two of her friends already in the small space with only room for three to fit comfortably.

“I was simply in awe with the fact that I was so close to the place where Jesus changed history forever. While sitting inside the tomb, it became clear that we serve a God of impossibilities. It is so easy to forget how powerful our Lord is,” she noted.

Sharing from her personal journaling during those moments, Silvis prayer was “God, put to death my fears and bring to life the greatness within me.”

After visiting the tomb, she ventured to Golgotha. The basilica is made up of multiple chapels and contains Calvary, the stone of unction and the tomb. Once the Greek Orthodox liturgy began at 11:30 p.m., their chanting continued for the rest of the night.

“Besides their rhythmic chanting, there was not another sound to be heard,” Silvis said. “It was beautiful to witness people from different countries with a slightly different religions still worshipping the same Jesus. It is truly wonderful how many hearts Jesus has touched and continues to touch.”

Silvis was continually drawn back to Golgotha, the highest part of the basilica. She could touch a spot of the rock where the crucifixion took place.

Part of the experience she will cherish always, Silvis reflected on why she kept going back to that high point of the church and salvation history.

“The first is the idea of how Jesus chose to die for our sins,” she said. “This is a difficult concept for me to understand, but the fact that Jesus was 100-percent man and 100-percent God, yet he chose to endure the excruciating pain and death on a cross.

“Being at Golgotha helped me realize how real this faith I have is. That it is even worth dying for … Golgotha is the place that makes so evident how much God loves us … The literal place where Jesus died for us and conquered death – where history was changed forever.”