JERUSALEM--I am an American by birth and a Roman Catholic by choice. I was raised in a lukewarm mainline Protestantism, lost what piddling faith I had while in high school, then found it again. Or rather, it found me.

My journey in faith began, essentially, when I drove to New Orleans in 1987 to see Pope John Paul II in the Superdome. I wasn't Catholic, but I was captivated by this prophet. What did he have? What was he on to?

I followed John Paul to New Orleans, where I stopped in to see a girl I'd had a hot fling with that summer. She wanted to...well, you know. But I said, "Are you kidding, the pope is in town, we can't do that." Neither one of us could believe what I was saying, but that old man had sparked something in me.

So I saw the pope, and slowly began turning away from the life I had once led. Within six years, I had followed John Paul's call to live fully for Christ--as a Catholic. He was "my" pope now.

Now I have followed him to the Holy Land on what may be the final pilgrimage of his extraordinary two-decade pontificate. He's in Jordan today, but I arrived early in Jerusalem to wait and pray.

And so it happened that in the chill of an early spring morning, I set out before daylight for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity's most important shrine.

I can hardly believe I am here, entering through the Jaffa Gate and into Jerusalem's Old City. The reality of this place is psychologically overwhelming; you have to turn your mind's eye away from so many things, initially, for fear that the bright reality will blind you.

I stroll briskly out of the darkness and into the lambent sanctuary, lighted by hundreds of oil lamps. The "holy sepulchre" doesn't exist, actually; the cave believed to have been Christ's tomb was destroyed by one of the last pagan Roman emperors. Christians subsequently venerated the site of the cave, and today a vaulting stone kiosk marks the spot. A knot of Franciscan priests began mass at 5:30 this morning by chanting in Latin. I joined them, and a small band of the lay faithful.

About 10 minutes into the service, an otherworldly chant reverberated inside the dome over the Sepulcher. I turned to see who was causing such a racket, and spied across the darkened space a pair of piercing eyes peering out from behind a tightly-drawn cowl and fierce black beard.

Goodness, the Copts! So this is what it means to share this building with a passel of other churches. Two nuns dressed in an elaborate white turbaned get-up scurry around the edges, casting cutting glances at the Franciscans for monopolizing the church.

The guidebook says the various sects represented here are extremely jealous of their privileges in their alloted square footage here. I believe it: a Franciscan has to shoo away one of the sassy turbaned women, who was in the process of barging into the sepulcher itself, where the celebrant stood confecting the Sacrament.

When the celebrant emerged with a ciborium full of consecrated hosts--which Catholics believe literally become the Body and Blood of Christ--it occurred to me that in a jarringly real way, I was watching Jesus leave His tomb again. A chill ran down my arms.

After communion and closing prayers, I noticed sunlight streaming through windows in the dome, and tourists streaming through the vast side door. I just had time to beat the fanny-packed hordes up the stairs to the chapel built over the actual rock of Golgotha.

It almost certainly is the site of the Crucifixion, you know. Christians have venerated this cleft rock since the beginning. Now it has an elaborate Greek Orthodox chapel built around it, but you can see the greenish rock itself beneath plastic casing. And you can kneel underneath the marble altar, put your hand through a hole, and touch the rock of Golgotha. I did this, and touched my rosary and an icon that belongs to my baby boy to the sacred stone.

I backed away, and prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries for my family and my Pope.

Get this: in the 80 or so paces separating the Holy Sepulcher from Golgotha, I traversed the distance where the defining events of the Christian faith--the Crucifixion and the Resurrection--physically occurred.

That was this morning. It is late in the evening and I'm sitting in my hotel room still looking for a way to process the spiritual magnitude of this place. It feels hyper-real, as if the utter awe of it all has obliterated the knee-jerk Gen X irony that is my stock in trade.

There is no irony in the holy city. Welcome to Jerusalem, pilgrim.

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