Divine Protection

By Katie Benson, Erie native and a student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville

In early October of 2023, 38 students and I from Franciscan University’s Austria campus set off for a nine-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I arrived in the Holy Land excited for an amazing week of prayer, walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Led by Father Anthony from Beatitude Missions, we would be roughing it like Jesus — walking throughout Israel and sleeping outdoors, praying and celebrating Mass at the holy sites and serving one another in community. Little did I know that we would be following an itinerary very different from the one we all expected.

On just the second day of our pilgrimage, Father Anthony informed us that a war had erupted between Israel and Hamas. Some students had more anxiety about it than others, but we trusted Father Anthony and the leadership at Franciscan University to make the best decisions to keep us safe. The university decided to try to get us out of Israel earlier than planned, so we didn’t know how long we had left in the Holy Land.

The war threw everything into the unknown. For me, the unknown made each moment more precious, and I was able to be grateful for the time I had in the present, swimming in the Sea of Galilee. Our itinerary was in God’s hands. Despite it all, I was at peace because I knew I was in good hands, and I knew God wanted me to come to the Holy Land. He made it possible for me to go. And although the war might’ve been a surprise to me, it wasn’t a surprise to God. Unless he wanted to make martyrs of us, I knew that if he brought us there, he would lead us safely out.

Father Anthony and one of our Franciscan sisters, Sister Lisa Marie, were readily available for those who needed to talk about their fears or desired to go to confession. We all did our best to make the most of each new day and help each other in whatever way was needed.

I had friends and family reaching out to me, asking if I was OK and telling me of their prayers for me. Back on campus, the priests were offering Mass for us. The sisters were praying. Groups from all over the world were praying for us and our safety in Israel. And God heard their prayers.

Then suddenly, on the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we were told that the university had found a way for us to leave. We were to pack up in an hour and head to a nearby hotel to await our departure from the country.

The next morning, we got on a bus and spent the day crossing the border into Jordan and driving to the capital, Amman. It took nearly six hours to cross the border, with all of the people trying to leave the country. Our tour guide, Solomon, told us that he dreaded coming to work that day because he knew people would be complaining. However, when he found us waiting for our visas, the sight surprised him. Instead of complaining, he found us singing hymns as we renewed our baptismal vows with Father Anthony at the border, surrounding the huge pile of luggage that we had carried with us.
The next day, we flew out of Amman, with students stepping up to lead groups and ensure that everyone got back safely. As we journeyed back to Austria, we did what we had to do, accepting the conditions and making the best of what we had with joy and gratitude.

It was an amazing relief when we finally arrived back in Vienna. I have never been so happy to hear German! We all started hugging, and together, we sang a Hebrew song of praise, which we learned on the pilgrimage. Several of our Franciscan sisters and friends came to accompany us back to campus. Seeing them again was so comforting after two days of difficult travel.

As I rode the bus back to campus, the gravity of the situation began to weigh on me, and I began to discover that we had been in greater danger than I realized. Though we had been safe, there was a missile strike just 15 miles away from us in Galilee. The war had come closer than I thought, and my heart was filled with gratitude to God for our safety.

When I got back to campus, we were told that our speedy, safe return had been miraculous. The number of details that fell into place so perfectly for us to get out of Israel and back to Austria was a sure sign of the power of prayer and the protective hand of God.

The pilgrimage went nothing like any of us expected. Yet, I think it was no less impactful because of that. Things won’t always go our way. In times of unexpected difficulty, God calls us to greater trust in him. If we can trust him, there is surely something great that he wishes to teach us through the trial — a fruit that we would not have gotten had everything gone our way. My journey in the Holy Land reminds me that it is important to let the Lord lead us. Every day, we must entrust our future to God because he is the only one who can see the final itinerary. As Scripture says, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:34)