Every year, Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, where I am studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese, offers a 10-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land for third-year theology students. The seminarians look forward to the chance to see where the history of our salvation unfolded.

As we prepared, I felt an increasing desire to discover a new closeness to the Lord in the places where He lived among us, where He taught, suffered and died for us. I prayed for an intensification of the inner motivation that called me toward the priesthood of Christ several years ago.

Our pilgrimage began in Jesus' hometown, Nazareth. This was fitting, since it was in this town that our Christian faith took root. Nazareth actually means "offshoot" or "flowering branch." It was here that God entered into our world, born of the Virgin Mary. We gazed in wonder at the spot - Mary's home - where, tradition holds, she received the angelic greeting which invited her to be the bearer of the long-awaited Savior.

We moved on to Cana in Galilee, where Jesus spared the bridal couple the embarrassment of running out of wine at their wedding banquet. This first of Christ's miracles, as our guide put it, "started the countdown" to His own death.

We followed the steps of Jesus as we moved beyond Nazareth to the surrounding region, particularly to the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was here that Jesus performed the miracle of loaves and fishes, drove out demons, performed healings, walked on water and gave us His pattern of life in the Beatitudes.

One can be overcome with awe in trying to imagine what it was like to witness these events firsthand. There is a danger of seeing these sites simply as historical landmarks. Pilgrims are not tourists; they are seeking an encounter with Christ.

This is evidenced by the fact that every sacred place we visited is crowned not with a museum, but with a church, a place of worship. Early Christians saw the importance of consecrating these places to God, especially by providing the altars on which the Eucharist - the supreme act of thanksgiving established by Christ - would be offered down through the centuries.

One of these churches is on at Tabgha, the traditional site of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Mt 14:13-21). As I prayed here, I asked myself if I would have followed Christ, had I encountered Him here in this place 2,000 years ago.

Would I have been attracted to Him because He prepared a free meal? Our guide mentioned that, at the time of the miracle, 90 percent of the people of this region would have experienced it; yet we know that, later on, "Many would not remain in his company" (Jn 6:66). Only His loyal disciples remained. What was it that made them stay?

As someone aspiring to be an intimate disciple of Jesus Christ in priesthood, I asked myself why I decided to commit my life to Jesus. What better place to reflect on my vocation to the priesthood than in the place where He called His disciples?

I thought of these men and their calling. Why did Christ choose them in the first place? Why did He choose me?

Ultimately, I realized that the answer is not because of who or what I am, not because of anything special I have to offer or anything I deserve, but only because Jesus wills it. The Lord chooses whom He wills. He calls and asks me to love Him, to be faithful to Him and to serve Him without counting the cost.

This became clearer to me when we visited the "primacy of Peter," where Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection. This occurred on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the same place where He first called them.

The account is given in the 21st chapter of John's Gospel. Peter and several of the Twelve were returning after fishing, most likely dejected, not knowing that the Lord had risen. Not only had the one in whom they had placed all their hopes died at the hands of wicked men, they had caught no fish that night.

Jesus called out from the shore, "Throw the net over the right side of the boat." They did not know who commanded them, but they did it anyway. To their surprise, the nets were so full they were on the verge of breaking.

Perhaps this was Jesus' way of telling them that they would now be gathering men. Jesus had revealed Himself to them and demanded a response. "Peter, do you love me?" He asked three times. Peter responded, three times, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

This reciprocal love would sustain Peter as He carried out the mission of His master in His place.

All disciples of Christ - priests and seminarians above all - must commit themselves to loving Christ faithfully all the days of their lives. Even though we do not know what the future holds in store for us, we who have been "called by name" must remember that Christ asks that we love and serve Him unreservedly, to the point of laying down our lives for Him and His people.

As the weeks of this pilgrimage unfold, I hope to continue this deepening of my love for Christ. He sanctified this land and continues to reveal Himself to pilgrims who sincerely seek Him.  I pray that I may use the privileged time of this pilgrimage to these holy places to become more deeply convinced of Christ's love for me, and allow Him to reveal Himself to me.  

May I respond by journeying ever more deeply in my love for Him.

(Brian Slezak is a native of St. Margaret of Cortona Church in Rotterdam Junction, a mission of St. Joseph's parish in Schenectady.)