Before the opportunity arose to apply for the Philos Project’s Passages Israel trip, senior Sammy Roberts had never thought much about going to the Holy Land.
“I’m Catholic,” he said, “I should go to Rome!”
He was taking a class at the time with Professor of History Paul Rahe, who encouraged him to apply.
After taking the trip sophomore year, he later served as a fellow with the program, and most recently was accepted to the position of Director of Catholic Initiatives.
“First catching sight of the places that you have read about your whole life,” Roberts said, “you know, when you first see the sea of Galilee as you’re coming out of the Nazarene Hills, when you first see the old city of Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock, and you see all the old buildings, the clotheslines hanging between buildings, and you can kind of smell the spice in the air in the streets — when you come upon that for the first time, you realize, ‘I’m in this completely crazy different world, I’m in the place where God lived on Earth.”’
Roberts’ job is to revamp aspects of the trip to fit a Catholic angle. He will add opportunities for daily mass, recount the history of holy sites from a Catholic perspective, and add additional locations essential to the Catholic faith. Roberts is also responsible for building relationships with Catholic schools and universities for future pilgrimages.
“I will also get to go to Israel three times a year,” Roberts said. “Getting to see the Holy City, which some Christians go their whole lives without being able to see, is really special. It is a blessing beyond words.”
Associate Professor of English Patricia Bart, who has worked closely alongside Roberts during his time at Hillsdale, said she feels that Roberts has an intellect and personality poised for success in his work with Passages.
“Passages is very much about Christians understanding people in Israel and treating them with a deep respect, while still continuing to treat their own views with respect,” Bart said. “Sammy is a natural at that.”
To date, Roberts has journeyed to the Holy City three times, first as a student, after which he was invited back to take a training course and return as a fellow. As a fellow, he led discussions and acted as a tour guide for the group. Even as a frequent visitor, Jerusalem did not lose its allure or meaning. He said that the pilgrimages contributed to a spiritual awakening he began to experience his freshman year at Hillsdale.
“It is so easy for our faith to become an abstraction in the modern age, especially in the age of the internet. It is very easy to become detached from reality,” Roberts said. “So, going and seeing these people and seeing this way of life and seeing the historical places is life changing. Because Christianity and Judaism are incredible, in that they make claims that this happened under Pontius Pilate in this place, and that Jesus was crucified, this is where it happened. To be able to go there and think about this as a real thing is very transformative.”
Professor of History Kenneth Calvert attested to Roberts’ transformation over the past three years.
“Sammy is full of energy, a really kind and faithful guy, but I have seen definite growth in him terms of his focus and what he is called to do,” Calvert said. “Passages has been a huge part of Sammy’s own intellectual and spiritual growth. He was no longer plodding forward scatter shot, he was understanding what he should do with his life.”
Passages awoke Roberts to a component of Catholicism that he feels he, and the wider Catholic community, has forgotten about. Passages keeps all of their trips focused on the idea of pilgrimage. Roberts explained that pilgrims used to be a crucial institution to Catholicism, and most Catholics made at least one pilgrimage to the Holy Land during their life in order to “move beyond yourself to what God wants you to do.”
Catholics stopped making this journey when Israel was in a true state of turmoil. But Roberts said that, if nothing else, his work with Passages has shown him that Israel is “not just Hamas, rockets, and IDF soldiers all over the place.”
“Now that it is really safe over there, Christians have the opportunity to make this an institution in western Christianity again,” Roberts said. “There are people who still live there, who have lived there since the beginning of Christianity, who still speak the aramaic that Jesus spoke. There are Muslims there too. It’s a shared place, and as much bad stuff as happens, as many imperfections as there are, in most of the country, people make it work. There are problems, but it is a fascinating place. This is where God touched Earth, and so the place matters.”