By Theo Howard
Saturday 27th, Vigil of Pentecost
Is this the most important annual event happening in the traditional Catholic world today? Each Pentecost the number of pilgrims participating in the famous Chartres Pilgrimage, under the patronage of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté (Our Lady of Christendom), grows and grows (by about 10% per year). Today it is easily the largest gathering of traditional Catholics in the world. This year there has been an unprecedented increase of 33%; 16,000 walkers are gathered outside the monumentally sturdy Grand Siècle church of Saint-Sulpice in central Paris, compared to 12,000 last year. Many more pilgrims will join the procession for different sections of the route. On Friday 12th of May the organisers had to close registration for the first time ever as the logistical capacities of the pilgrimage were stretched to their limit.
A myriad of pilgrim chapters kneel on the pavements in the early morning sunshine as we assist at the Vigil of Pentecost Mass before departing. There are also more than three hundred seminarians and priests, belonging to twenty-one different nationalities. The French chapters lead the long line of chapters that steadily unfurls and weaves over a mile in length once in motion. There is an order of precedence here and the eldest daughter of the Church is in the fore. It is the French chapters that walk with the greatest confidence and panache. As the procession begins, several banners with the entwined Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of the SSPX emblem catch my eye and I since discover that, this year, there is an SSPX chapter on this ‘Pilgrimage of Christendom.’ There is of course a simultaneous SSPX ‘Pilgrimage of Tradition’ from Chartres to Paris with some 5,500 pilgrims, who, incidentally, were joined by the Bishop of Chartres for one section. This strongly suggests that the ‘canonical regularisation’ of the SSPX is proceeding apace. Perhaps soon, the two traditional pilgrimages will once again be united as they were until 1988.
The first day of the pilgrimage through the suburbs of the metropole, the vicinity of Versailles and into the fringes of the Île-de-France countryside is the longest day of walking with over 26 miles of distance covered. We make a somewhat startling impression on the citizens of Paris before being more warmly regarded in the rural environs. There are no clouds all day and breaks are infrequent and brief. Many pilgrimages today are semi-luxurious retreat-vacations. In a small way, the Chartres pilgrimage reminds us that pilgrimages are meant to be both penitential and arduous! With the magnitude of the pilgrimage this year, every waypoint and arrival time is a little later than in previous years. By the time we reach our first campsite, which stretches across several large fields, it is already nearly dark and there is scarce time to see to tenderised feet and consume the liquid morale of hot soup which is served to all.
Sunday 28th – Feast of Pentecost
We have been blessed with another night of clement weather which has allowed some pilgrims to sleep under the stars given the crowded communal tents. Today’s route covers another 25-odd miles; most of the morning’s trek will be spent in the merciful shade of the former royal hunting forest of Rambouillet. Rambouillet is nowadays one of the largest and finest oak woods in France, mingled with areas of conifer, beech and chestnut.
It is here that one of the most beautiful moments of my pilgrimage came. After dropping behind the English chapter of St Alban I found myself walking amongst the Austrian chapter of the Heiliges Römisches Reich, under the patronage of Blessed Karl of Austria. The chapters’ marching during the pilgrimage is well balanced between periods of prayer, preaching on the theme of the pilgrimage, singing, and conversational time. These merry Austrians now began to sing a Catholic variation on the hymn ‘Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren,’ composed by Joachim Neander, for singing “when traveling… or with Christians in the countryside.” Dappled sunlight streamed through the verdant oak leaves onto delicious green sward below as we walked. Moments of unbelievable purity.
As we emerged out of the forest the day was hot and bright. I had extra penance having to run to catch up with my chapter after confession. Holy Mass for the Feast of Pentecost allowed one to take in the scale of the historic participation in this edition of the pilgrimage and to mediate on this edition’s theme of “The Eucharist, salvation of souls.”
Our second campsite is nestled in the arms of a hillside and there is a little more time in the evening for some conviviality, a much-needed wash in cold water from a trough and a period of adoration. The spectacle of hundreds of pilgrims kneeling in total silence in the Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is profoundly moving.
Monday 29th, Pentecost Monday
Our trek on the final day of the pilgrimage takes us through the undulating fields of the region of Beauce. Known as the granary of France – the country is fed by its particularly fine wheat. Our chaplains remind us that, we however, were being fed by the Bread of Life. Here the immense column of chapters can be seen in a splendid panorama, winding with their respective nation’s banners and saints’ icons aloft amongst the fields. All this day we can see the twin spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres beckoning us over the remaining miles and propelling us to draw on our reserves for a last effort. True to the Pilgrimage identity, here the flags of many nations of Christendom are united in common purpose – to get to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Holy Relic of the Virgin’s Chemise. It is a beautiful vision of Christendom; the nations gathered by the Holy Ghost since Pentecost, and an anticipation of the Nuptial Feast of the Lamb.
A word on modesty – there seems to be a greater profusion of women and girls wearing indecent shorts and ‘yoga pants’ this year. My sympathies are particularly with the many chapter chaplains as we march for mile after mile praying the Holy Rosary, with girls so attired before our eyes. This strikes me as a growing problem and one that the clergy and the organisers would do well to act on if we truly love the traditional liturgy then we will foster and love a culture which reflects the beauty and dignity of that liturgy. I believe that the SSPX pilgrimage has a simple and sensible policy of mandating below-the-knee skirts and dresses for all women.
In every other respect – credit to the organisers. It is worth noting that the pilgrimage is not organised by any priestly society but is instead an entirely lay enterprise. It is striking how the Scouts d’Europe, who have been responsible for so much of the logistical organisation of the pilgrimage, give such vital institutional strength to French traditional Catholicism. It makes up a great organisational and familial network across France, and is something of a Bonfician pipeline of soldiers and priests – many former scouts go on to join the French Army or discern vocations with one of the traditional fraternities. Marc Barnes has said that “the lay genius is for building institutions” and it seems to me that the Scouts d’Europe are a good example of the kind of institutions that traditional Catholics in other countries should be looking to build.
There is swelling jubilation as we reach the outskirts of the city of Chartres and continuous singing as flags billow and the chapters stream towards the cathedral. The spectacular procession into the Cathedral of Chartres by chapter representatives, Knights of Malta, the pilgrimage priests and religious, followed by the Bishop of Chartres, Philippe Christory, illustrates the fecundity of traditional vocations in the last few decades and the vitality of the movement. We are also blessed with the presence of a reliquary containing the head of St Thomas Aquinas, he who wrote so richly and tenderly on the Holy Eucharist. Pange, lingua, gloriósi Córporis mystérium!
Cardinal Pie, bishop of Poitiers but originally from Chartres, is said to have predicted the irresistible attraction of Our Lady’s cathedral here in 1855: “Chartres will become, more than ever, the centre of devotion to Mary in the West. People will flock to it, as in the past, from all parts of the world!” As Michael Matt has said, we have been participants in this love story for the last three days. We love Our Lady and she has taken us by her hand all the way – through all the blisters, the beating sunshine, and the penitential rations – she has been there with us. Our veneration is for her honour and our mortifications are for her intercession. Ave Maria Purisima!