Marinella Bandini
Catholic News Agency

On Sept. 17, 2023, two sisters left Paris and walked for approximately eight months to Jerusalem. Madeleine and Marie-Liesse, 19 and 22, who grew up in a Catholic family, decided to become pilgrims to grow in their faith.

“We needed to make the faith our own,” they told CNA. “This pilgrimage was to discover God, to truly search for him and deepen our faith. We learned that we can trust God; he takes care of us in everything. The Gospel is not a joke.”

Two months later, in mid-November 2023, Louis Antona, 24, also left Paris on foot, bound for Jerusalem. The three young people met providentially in Albania, walked together through Turkey, then parted ways and reunited in Jerusalem. They shared the story of their pilgrimage with CNA.

“I needed to walk 4,500 kilometers to understand that Jesus is not just in Jerusalem but was by my side every step of the way,” Antona told CNA. He walked a total of 189 days and arrived in Jerusalem on May 18.

Madeleine and Marie-Liesse — who asked that their last name not be used to protect their privacy — left from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in the center of Paris with the blessing of their parents and a priest.

“It was a calling from God,” Madeleine said of the decision she and her sister made to leave. “There’s no need for reasons when God calls; you simply need to follow what he tells you.”

The sisters created a simple blog to keep friends and family updated on their pilgrimage. The photos and brief stories reveal all the freshness of two young people on a journey while not hiding moments of doubt and difficulty.

“We chose to embark on this journey as beggars,” Marie-Liesse told CNA. “We left with just a few clothes and nothing else — no food, no money. We wanted to surrender ourselves into the hands of providence. Every evening, we knocked on people’s doors asking for shelter, a bed, and food. The Lord always provided.”

Their days were marked by walking and prayer.

“We didn’t have a strict rule because we had to adapt every day to the people who hosted us, the place, and the situation,” Marie-Liesse explained. “But we had a framework: We knew we had to pray in the morning, at midday, at night… It was important for us to be faithful to God. Every day, we also recited a rosary, praying for the intentions entrusted to us.”

The most challenging moment was making the decision to continue the journey after hearing that war had broken out in the Holy Land. “We were in Germany and full of doubts about whether to go on.”

Their journey led them to cross Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. In Croatia, “the faith of the people struck us: during Advent, tradition dictates that Mass be attended every morning at 6, and every time we went, the church was packed with people,” the sisters wrote on their blog.

They stopped for a month in Medjugorje (Bosnia and Herzegovina), where their family joined them for Christmas.

“It was a difficult time. Again, we didn’t know what to do. But after a period of discernment, we realized that Christ was calling us back on the road again,” Madeleine said.

Madeleine and Marie-Liesse crossed Montenegro and arrived in Albania, where they encountered Antona.

“I had just finished my studies and wanted to offer something to God,” Antona told CNA. “I wasn’t sure what, but I thought that the best thing I had at that time was time itself. So, I decided to offer God a year of my life by embarking on a journey. It was a challenge; I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy walking and being alone.”

Antona decided to leave, despite the war. “I believe the hardest part of a pilgrimage like this is deciding to start. I knew that if I gave up because of the war, I would never do it again. Anyway, I thought that by the time I arrived, the war would already be over.”

Madeleine and Marie-Liesse are filled with wonder at the manifestation of providence in every detail of their pilgrimage, in the beautiful weather and in the rain, in every small encounter — those who hosted them after seeing them at the bus stop, those who taught them how to make bread, the gentleman who opened his door just before a downpour. “If we had arrived a minute later, we wouldn’t have met him,” they said.

The encounter with Antona wasn’t coincidental either. The two sisters had prayed to God to give them a travel companion.

“We planned to not go through Turkey because we were two women alone, but we would have liked to go that way. So we asked God to meet one pilgrim, and we met him,” the sisters explained.

The three crossed Macedonia and Greece, arriving in Turkey on Palm Sunday. In this predominantly Muslim country, they celebrated Easter, warmly welcomed by the small French-speaking community there.

“Every day of this pilgrimage was a miracle,” Antona said. “Every day we have met people who smiled or were nice to us. I have to say that in Turkey we found the most welcoming people.”

“It is not uncommon for the Turks to spontaneously lend us a hand,” Madeleine and Marie-Liesse wrote on their blog. “In Turkey, we encountered an infinite respect for passing strangers and for Christianity, even though Christians here are forced to protect themselves from regular attacks.”

Upon leaving Turkey, the paths of the three pilgrims split again. The sisters’ route went through Cyprus but they could not find a way from there to Jerusalem by sea due to suspension of transportation because of the war. Providentially, they met someone in Cyprus who offered to pay for airfare, and the sisters arrived in Tel Aviv on May 6. Three days later, on the feast of the Ascension, they were in Jerusalem.

“Many times, we thought we couldn’t reach Jerusalem,” Madeleine said. “We learned that the journey is even more important than reaching the goal. Being here is a great gift, just to be here.”

“We unpacked our bags once and for all, knelt before this Holy Land, and prayed. What peace, what a moment of grace! As we admired the sunrise and the golden light that brought color to the roofs of the old city, we could reread the wonders of God and meditate on the Gospels. His infinite love overwhelmed us,” the two sisters wrote on their blog.

Madeleine has no doubts: “Prayer is what carried us. When you’re weak, that’s when you’re strongest because that’s when God can act in you; you don’t take up all the space. Trusting in God can be challenging, but when you understand that God only wants you to be happy and will give you everything you need, then you realize you have everything to be happy in this moment; you can trust him.”

Ten days later, on the eve of Pentecost, Antona also arrived in Jerusalem. “Even if I had to stop somewhere else, at least I would have aimed to reach Jerusalem. This is a very important city for Christians, but the journey you take to reach it is also very important.”

The three pilgrims are still in the Holy Land. They have had the opportunity to participate in various celebrations and to visit the holy places in addition to many other sites in the area.

“The greatest gift is to be here and understand what happened here, to see with our own eyes, to witness the actual places,” Madeleine said. “We were able to pause in every place, to pray and meditate in silence.”

A journey like this isn’t for everyone, but all three of the pilgrims agree that “if God calls you, go in peace. If God helps you, everything becomes possible.”

The sisters Madeleine and Marie-Liesse together with Louis Antona at the entrance of Greece. The three young people covered the distance from Paris to Jerusalem on foot, arriving in mid-May 2024. “I needed to walk 4,500 kilometers to understand that Jesus is not just in Jerusalem, but was by my side every step of the way,” Antona told CNA. Credit: Photo courtesy of French pilgrims Madeleine and Marie-Liesse (Catholic News Agency)