Father Thomas Krieg leads pilgrims to the Holy Land
Caring for others is the bedrock of Father Thomas Krieg’s priestly ministry. Father Krieg, pastor of St. James the Greater Parish in Eau Claire, said he always wanted to help people but was unsure that the priesthood was right for him. He said that even as a child, he thought about becoming a priest, but many questions were associated with that vocation.
Nonetheless, after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he decided to volunteer at a community mental health center in Seattle, where he was part of a traveling mental health team that visited nursing homes. He assisted a social worker with any nursing home resident who had a mental health diagnosis—predominantly people with dementia or depression. “I was not trained for this work, but those two years were probably the most enjoyable of my life, with so much that was new and exciting and a lovely community to share it with.” He was part of a program sponsored in part by the Archdiocese of Seattle that provided service opportunities for people exploring a career in ministry, lay ministry or priesthood.
After these two years of service, Father Krieg took a decisive step to discern a vocation to the priesthood and applied to be a seminarian for the Diocese of La Crosse. “Many people begin seminary with the clear intention of becoming a priest. For me, the main objective was to figure out whether or not I should be a priest.’”
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land are a powerful way to deepen our knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus. It is where He walked among us in the flesh. We step where He stepped and see the same landscape that He saw.”
It was a time of discernment for Father Krieg. It was a time of deciding whether the priesthood was right for him. A time of thinking about what God is calling him to. Father Krieg was waiting for an answer. He recalls being in a seminary chapel one night. He prayed, “I am not leaving this chapel until I get a sense from You, God, of what You want me to do. And I sat there in the dark. (It was a nice warm carpeted chapel in early November). Then I sensed God saying, ‘I don’t care what you do.’ I thought that was just my stupid imagination. You know, it’s not really God. But the thought kept coming back, that phrase, it felt authentic. ‘I don’t care.’ Then, as I sat with that message in that chapel, I suddenly realized that God was telling me that He does not have a gun to my head, and I should do what I wanted with my life. If you want to be an accountant, bus driver, or something else, be faithful in whatever you decide to do. I need you to follow Me in whatever you do, and if you want to be a priest, by all means, I will support you in that. That really rang true. It shifted my whole way of approaching the call. Whatever I decide, I can’t blame God. God was telling me I had to take ownership of my vocation. The idea was that whatever I chose, I needed to pursue that path with faith and goodness—and I could count on God’s support.”
The Courage to Overcome
As Father Krieg ministers to others, he says he is guided by the question, “How can I use the gifts that God gave me for the betterment of others and myself? I have always deeply appreciated inspiration, whether found in reading a book, viewing a movie or being in church. That has always meant the world to me. So, I thought if I can help inspire other people, that would be a great thing to do.”
Asked what inspires him the most, Father Krieg replied, “Courage—it is when I see people have the courage to overcome adversity. One of the most inspiring things I ever experienced was after I became a priest. I gave a great friend of mine, now in her 20s, first Communion when she was 7 years old. She has an intellectual disability that keeps her childlike on that level of life, but she always inspires me with her courage and spiritual sensitivity. I think she sees angels, for example. Throughout her childhood, she loved music, and thanks to a special education aide who accompanied her, she was able to participate in all our middle school and high school choirs. I attended all her concerts and delighted in the joy and pride she showed at these events.
“At the end of the last concert of her senior year, the director announced the usual senior awards for things like best male and female voices, most improved, etc. Then he said, ‘I decided to add a new award this year to honor someone who has been in our choir every year and shows us all the joy and spirit of music. Then he announced her name, and with perfect poise, as though she was not surprised and knew she was fully deserving of the award, she walked across the stage, leading her aide, and received the first ever Choral Spirit Award. It inspires me when people affirm the deep goodness in others that so often goes unrecognized.”
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
Father Krieg is passionate about bringing people closer to Jesus. One way that he does this is by organizing and hosting pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Since 2006, he has taken six groups.
Father Krieg remarked, “Pilgrimages to the Holy Land are a powerful way to deepen our knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus. It is where He walked among us in the flesh. We step where He stepped and see the same landscape that He saw. We celebrate Mass on holy ground where Jesus taught, performed miracles, experienced his passion and rose from the dead.”
Besides making the Bible stories come alive for pilgrims, another critical motivator for Father Krieg to organize these pilgrimages is to support Christians in the Holy Land. There has been a devastating emigration of Palestinian Christians from the Holy Land, seeking a better life away from the political conflict. Without Christian pilgrims coming and using Christian agencies, guides, and shops, the economic well-being of local Christians would be severely threatened. The Holy Land’s churches would become museums rather than places of worship for the local Christians and pilgrim groups.
Father Krieg stresses also that pilgrimage is not a vacation. Pilgrims make the journey with a spiritual intention and the common goal of growing closer to Christ. More than anything, he says, “A pilgrimage should be marked by the pilgrims’ love and care for one another. Without a doubt, that’s what makes for the best pilgrimages.”
Pilgrimages, Prayer and Love
Pilgrims can expect four days in Galilee, based at a hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, before traveling south, where they will stay in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. They will spend time at holy places like the Church of the Nativity, the Way of the Cross, Calvary, the Tomb of Christ, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Mount of Olives.
Visitors often stop at several historical and religious sites during a pilgrimage to Jordan. These include the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo (where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land before his death), the baptism site of Jesus at “Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan,” Mt. Mukawir (where John the Baptist was martyred) and the Valley of Moses in Petra, which is renowned as the Red Rose City and has recently been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The next one is scheduled for April 4-19, 2024, and is co-hosted with Father Steve Brice, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish, Stevens Point. Another is planned for June 5-20, 2023.
Father Krieg spent three months in the Holy Land on sabbatical in 2019 and “loved literally every minute of it.” This sabbatical experience deepened his knowledge of the region and its people and enabled him to include new experiences on subsequent pilgrimages. Last February, pilgrims visited a workshop for people with intellectual disabilities, heard from two Visitation Sisters who work with the poor in Bethlehem and visited with a Jewish scholar who teaches the New Testament in Jerusalem. There are also some out-of-the-way places he learned about. One often neglected holy site near the shore of the Sea of Galilee is called the Eremos (“Hermit”) Cave. “For pilgrims who can scramble up a 30-foot slope, there is a cave overlooking the Sea that marks a place where Jesus’ went off by himself to pray.’ Here, you see what He saw. To sit and pray where Jesus prayed is a privilege beyond words.”
Father Krieg acknowledges that everyone does not have the financial means to make these pilgrimages. So, he emphasizes that Jesus is as accessible on your porch as He is in Jerusalem. And what makes for a successful pilgrimage is also what makes for a successful life anywhere in the world: how well we love one another.
Story by Robert Rogers
Published in the November/December 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine