Author and pilgrimage leader Stephen Binz has been traveling with Select International Tours for many years. He has led many pilgrimages and hundreds of pilgrims on trips that have deepened their faith. While his collection of passport stamps is impressive, it pales in comparison to his library. Stephen is a prolific author with more than 50 books to his credit. We were lucky enough to catch him between travels and writing, to learn more about his most recent book: Holy Land Pilgrimage.
Q: Stephen, you are a prolific author. With so many books behind you, what led you to write this new book, Holy Land Pilgrimage? And why now?
I experience writing a book—like going on a pilgrimage—as a divine call. Internally, I feel a deep desire leading me to write, and externally, all the right circumstances line up to enable me to do the difficult work of writing. When we are led to pilgrimage, God gives us an unmistakable longing and also lines up the circumstances of our life to enable us to answer the call. After thirty years of visiting the Holy Land, studying about it, and leading others there, God has given me the desire and the ideal opportunity to put it all together now in this book.
Q: When was your first pilgrimage to the HL and how many times have you traveled there?
I first went to the Holy Land in 1981 as part of my graduate education in biblical studies, studying with faculty from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Hebrew University. I’ve gone back many times since then, probably a couple of dozen times, both on my own and leading pilgrimages. Now I lead a pilgrimage there about once a year, coordinated by Select International Tours.
Q: You begin the book by saying, “Before going on pilgrimage, would-be travelers must divest themselves of their naive outlooks.” What are some things that would-be pilgrims are naive of and how might this book help them?
On a pilgrimage, unlike a vacation, we are led—we follow the way planned for us by the leader and the guide, and we allow God to lead our hearts on a journey that will transform our lives, if we pray for that gift. We follow a path not of our own making, but a way that has been traveled by saints and sinners for centuries before us. So the more we can prepare for a pilgrimage, the more we will be able to be enriched by it. In this book I’ve included a section on the Christian tradition of pilgrimage and how to be a pilgrim today. I’ve also written a nine-day novena for preparing for a Holy Land pilgrimage.
Q: You talk a bit about “Armchair Pilgrimage,” can you unpack that a little?
When I was writing this book, I realized that there are many people who, for one reason or another, will never be able to travel to the Holy Land. So I kept them in mind when writing this book. With vivid descriptions of each place and color photos, I offer the “armchair pilgrim” a real experience of pilgrimage as they imaginatively place themselves at the holy sites and enter into the Scriptures and prayer experiences at each place. I also wrote this for people who have already traveled to the Holy Land. From their comfortable armchair, they can experience their pilgrimage again in their memory as they recall each place and prayerfully renew the grace of their experience.
Q: You have been a pilgrimage leader and led many trips to the Holy Land, what motivates you to keep bringing people with you on your trips?
Believe it or not, I can honestly say that I get excited every time I anticipate bringing another group to the Holy Land. First of all, I experience God’s grace there in a way like nowhere else, and second, I love bringing people there and becoming an instrument of God’s grace in their lives. So, yes, I’m always ready to go back. It is one of my life’s missions to convince every Catholic to travel to the Holy Land at least once in their life. I believe this motivation that I feel is the same incentive that makes people want to return to the Holy Land a few years after their first trip. It’s like reading Scripture: every time we enter it, there are new insights and new ways of seeing. That’s why people can’t get enough of the Holy Land.
Q: Stephen, there are so many beautiful color photographs in this book and I understand that they are all your own. What does photography add to your experience of pilgrimage?
I love doing travel photography because it helps me to see more clearly, to take notice of light, color, texture, and detail. The photographs throughout the book are the fruit of several years of shooting in the Holy Land. And I especially enjoy seeing my photography in books, magazines, and online where my images can be enjoyed by others. When I’m leading a pilgrimage, I’m always happy to offer tips to amateur photographers who want to refine their skills and produce memories of their experience.
Q: You have dedicated this book to the Christians of the Holy Land, why?
As I explain in the book, experiencing the people of the Holy Land is as important as seeing the sites, which is why we always build in opportunities to dialogue with the Christians of the Holy Land. Because the Christian population has been rapidly declining due to immigration and better opportunities elsewhere, I think we have a particular obligation to support our sisters and brothers in the land of Jesus. Those Christians who decide to stay because they are rooted in the land and feel responsible for maintaining the Christian presence there—these people are particularly heroic and deserve our support. That’s why I’ve dedicated this book to them.
Q: In the book, you point out that the Christian population in the Holy Land has dwindled from 30% to 1% since 1948. How can your readers help Christian families in the Holy Land?
The Christians of the Holy Land suffer extremely difficult political and economic circumstances. They experience the injustices of being an occupied people in Israel and the fear of radical Islam in the Palestinian territories. They try to maintain their faith and families as they are caught between these two overwhelming forces. Since so much of the livelihood of Holy Land Christians depends on tourism, the best way to support them is by going on a pilgrimage. Select International tries to choose services owned and provided by Christians. The next way to support them is to purchase souvenirs at Christian shops. And finally, you can donate to Christian institutions that provide direct services to Palestinian Christians through Select to Give Foundation, a charity founded by Edita Krunic of Select International.
Q: Is that why you have so generously pledged 20% of your revenue from the book to Holy Land Christians? How do you hope that donation will help them?
Yes. I thought that since the Christians of the Holy Land have enriched my life in so many ways, I would give back just a bit through the revenues earned by this book. I’ve decided that Select to Give Foundation is the best way to do this, since all donations are given directly to support Christian organizations that help with children’s education, disabled children, social justice, and community building.
Q: Stephen, your book is sure to help Christians preparing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but do you have any advice for someone who has considered it, but not yet made up their mind to go?
I would say, if there is any way you can go within the next year or two, by all means, just go! I have never had anyone go to the Holy Land and then tell me it was less than what they expected. But I have had lots of people tell me they wished they had gone sooner. A pilgrimage to the land of Jesus will touch you in ways that you don’t expect until you’re there. I can only recommend that every follower of Jesus go to the land where Christianity first happened. It will enrich your life, and with God’s grace it will transform your life.
Q: If you could leave our audience with one thought regarding the Holy Land, what would it be?
I’ve spent my whole life helping Catholics learn how to read and study the Bible, and most of the books I’ve written help guide people through reading various parts of Scripture. What people tell me the most after a pilgrimage is that the Bible comes alive. When they reflect on the Scriptures or listen to the Sunday readings, they are able to imagine the scene with all their senses and so come into a deeper experiential knowledge and love of Jesus.
Stephen J. Binz is a Catholic biblical scholar, sought-after speaker, and author of many books on the Bible and pilgrimage. He often leads pilgrimages with Select International Tours to biblical sites and sacred places throughout the world. For information about his publications, speaking topics, pilgrimages, and contact information, go to his website at www.Bridge-B.com.