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DEIR RAFAT, Israel — Childhood friends Gonzague Browaeys and Theophile Robin had not even considered taking a pilgrimage of faith when they began planning their end-of-university studies trip late last year.
But God had other plans for the two young Frenchmen, members of the Emmanuel Catholic Charismatic Community in their hometown of Angers.
“It was God who told us to go because at the beginning we just wanted to do a big trip, maybe to the USA,” said Browaeys, 23, describing how during a group prayer for them with their Emmanuel group — which uses the Bible as a guide — the Bible was opened twice to passages about Emmaus, where Jesus appeared after his death. “It was a sign of God’s will.”
The two began praying the rosary every day and said they put themselves at the service of others by praying for the many intentions people sent them. Some of the intentions are very difficult, from people with hard lives, Browaeys said.
Riding on motorcycles from France through six countries to Greece, the two arrived by plane in Israel Jan. 14, just as Israel reopened its borders to visitors. They were able to cross the borders because they are triple vaccinated, noted Robin.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, they volunteered for an association of young people and a homeless shelter. In Israel, they spent time volunteering in an after-school program in Jerusalem, visited Bethlehem, and made a three-day pilgrimage by foot from Jerusalem to Emmaus before spending the last two weeks volunteering at the Deir Rafat convent of the monastic Sisters of Bethlehem, just outside of Jerusalem.
“Of course, if we were going on a regular vacation trip, the winter months, during a pandemic, would not have been the best time to go,” said Robin, but they took these challenges as a part of their pilgrimage to learn to trust in God, despite the difficulties.
“When God gives you an idea, he has a path for you, but this path may be complicated. Many times the devil wants to break you,” Robin said. “God permits this because this tests our faith. We have lived a lot of challenges, and we learned to trust in God every day.”
Their first test of faith occurred four days before their scheduled Nov. 14 departure, when Browaeys’ motorcycle broke down. Later, in Bosnia, on the last day of their three weeks of volunteer work, all the money they had collected in France for donations to people on their trip was stolen by one of the residents of the home where they had been.
Another painful test, said Robin, was when, after three weeks of volunteering at an after-school program with Muslim children in Jerusalem, one of them spit at them when he saw the cross on the rosary they wear around their neck.
“We remembered that Jesus has taught us to turn the other cheek,” he said.
They learned to forgive and trust that God would show them a way and were provided shelter almost every day by families and monasteries, even in places where no French or English was spoken. Often they prayed with their hosts and prayed for people they met along the way.
Growing up in a mostly Catholic environment, the two said the pilgrimage also opened them up to other religions and denominations.
“We learned to see Muslims really as our brothers and learned about evangelical Christians. We have met a lot of Jews in Israel and, especially with the Jews, with whom the Catholic Church does not have a very friendly past, we know we are more brothers than with any other religion. We have the same beginning,” said Browaeys.
For Browaeys, the pilgrimage helped him discern if God was calling him to become a priest; he said he discovered he could serve God in other ways.
Being able to attend a Mass at the Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and spend solitary prayerful time inside the crèche at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were significant moments of grace, said Browaeys, especially knowing this would not have been possible at another time, when both churches would have been filled with visitors.
After a week of visiting other holy sites in Israel by car, the two will make their return trip, picking up the motorcycles they left in Greece. They hope to attend an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican before arriving in France March 12.
But their spiritual journey is just beginning, said Robin.
“Before I didn’t know how really to let it into my life,” he said. “Before when I said trust in God, it was just something I said. Now with this pilgrimage, I understand what that really means.”