describes the nature and effects of the'recent " Vezelay " Pilgrimage E to Walsingham, which may well prove a turning 1point in the Catholic life of Mary's Dowry.
AN undertaking that may well
prove a turning point in the Catholic life of this country was lately successfully carried out. A large, rough-hewn wooden cross, some 8 ft. by 4 ft,, was carried through East Anglia by a group of 25 men from Bishop's Stollford to Walsingham and back. Setting out on August 3, they had returned by August 15, having covered a little over 200 miles.
So for a period of a fortnight that included the August bank holiday the central symbol of Christian faith was raised in the sight of thousands of Englishmen. At first hearing the thing may sound remarkable only as a stunt. This article is written precisely because it was so far from being that. The cross dominated everything.
The idea came from the Vczelay pilgrimage of last year when a number of crosses were carried in an international crusade of prayer for peace. The British party discovered. in the following and carrying of the cross. a unity, a practical expression of the bonds of Christ's mystical body that had to be experienced to he understood. They determined to spread the idea in their own country. But obviously the undertaking in England would be very different from what it was in France. France, however infidel, is still Catholic by tradition and instinct. What would
the English reaction he ? 'Would even Catholics fieht shy of such a " demonstration "')
The only thing that was certain in Inc minds ot the committee of Vezeiay pilgrims who unuertook to organise Use new pilgrimage was that it could not tail to 'moue tnose who actually carried the cross with a deeper love of their faith and a profounder realisation of Christ's Mystical Body. For that reason alone it was worth attempting. Men who might never think of making a retreat, men whose Catholic lives were led in the isolation of the average English parish, (but who had learned something of the excellence of community life during the war), men plunged in the materialism. of modern society, would find an opportunity of living, learning, suffering a little, together under the presidency of the cross. They would discover the practical pattern of Christian peace. which is founded on love and a spirit of sacrifice, and which could be an object lesson to those amongst whom they passed.
A Representative Group And so it turned out. The committee of pilgrims met with every kind of practical difficulty, and by the time they were able to put forward a concrete suggestion it Was too late for most people's plans. But the group was collected in spite at that. The variety of calling and character so essential to the idea was preserved; two Dominicans acted as chaplains; there were five students, four clerks, four manual workers, three agriculturalists, three schoolmasters, a journalist, a man of independent means, a schoolboy, a grocer; their average age was 26, the oldest 45, the youngest 17; they came from different parts of England, and were mostly strangers to one another.
All these different men became united, and grew more and more &totted by a single devotion to the cross they carried. hey openly loved one another in the spirit of Christ; they carried a common burden, shared and relieved each other's tiredness, pursued together a life of prayer and discussion so that by the end a warmth of affection was felt that made it difficult to part from the cross and from each other. They had learned in the concrete what it may mean to be Members of Christ's Mystical Body on earth.
The Mass was the centre of their lives. Praying for each other and those amongst whom they passed, they found in the common offering of the Son and themselves to the Father the very expression of their unity; and this unity was sealed by Communion which builds men into the one body of Christ. Wherever they were they begged parishioners to join them in this common act of worship and edification.
During the rest of the day prayer was continual; three men carrieei the cross, three behind them recitea the rosary, the next three kept silence. The others did as they liked, except when hymns or litanies were sung in common, A station of the cross, constant reminder of Christ's passion and the penitential aim of the pilgrimage, was made at each hourly halt, talks or discussions concerning the doctrine of the Mystical Body were held at longer halts, compline was sting in the evening. In these and a hundred other little ways a life that was otherwise rough and uncouth was made grace ful and a source of grace. 'these plain, ordinary men learned and loved the beauty of full Catholic life; they became, in a way, transfigured. .
What of the People's Reaction ?
But this vvas expected by the organisers. What of reactions on the way ? Englishmen are shy of reli gion in public. It was not to be expected that they would' drop on to their knees as the cross passed, nor even that they would uncover their heads. But the impression viyielly gained by the pilgrims as they carried the cross through towns, villages, and countryside was not simply that Englishmen would not salute it. for one reason or another, in any outward way; it was the overwhelming impression that to most of them the cross simply meant nothing.
They wished the pilgrims well, hoped they would have fine weather, wondered if they were doing it for a wager or their health, but of the cross itself they made nothing. The religious emptiness of their lives stood out clearly against this passage of an incomprehended cross.
All the same, a counter-impression was made. The cross itself raised neither personal devotion nor derision, but the sight of men as ordinary as themselves (you cannot mistake the face of a plain English working man) all taken up with a great wooden cross. not ashamed nor too self-conscious to kneel and pray around it, did make a deep impression. It is impossible to know what seeds were sown. what questions raised; hut occasionally MTh ments were heard; men respected the sincerity of the pilgrims' purpose. were nuzzled at the oddity of their religiousness (especially if they met them afterwards in the local pub or
the transport cafe), praised the Catholic Church.
In general they were too shy to gather around in public; they watched from their doorsteps. But once or twice the pilgrims came on a market place busy with shoppers and set the cross up whilst the chaplain preached; then some were heard to assent to what he said, others joined in an Our Father. And sometimes discussions were entered, as the pilgrims stood around or had a meal. None of this is very much. But in the desert of religious indifference of post-war England a little is already much; the very emptiness seems to be hungrily waiting for any gospel that is preached forthrightly. without hackneyed conventialities, in the name of a church that knows, and is universal, and cares for the present condition of men. There is no hostility; only ignorance. What more effective Way of dispelling it than by this sight of Catholic life being lived completely by men of flesh and blood ?
Effect on Catholics
Upon Catholics the effect was striking. The organisers need have had no fear there.
Wherever the cross went it was received with enthusiasm and honour. but one parish fought shy of receiving it.
Elsewhere the practical kindness and generosity embarrassed the pit grims' desire for penance. 'There was a stir of enthusiasm in parish after parish; priest after priest declared it nothing hut an honour to receive the cross in his church. That wag something wholly admirable, that Catholic instinct for the cross. As the pilgrims came to each parish, they marched purposefully to the church; it was singled out from all the others, the church, however humble and hidden, where they might enter singing the Credo of all
Christendom. So the Catholic life of East Anglia was knit together. and gathered to that of the universal Church. And the parishioners, by their sharing in Mass. by their help and prayers were carried on the wave of devotion that rolled towards
Walsingham. The effect on those isolated parishes of Suffolk and i Norfolk s not measured in human scales.
Fittingly, the climax came at Walsingharn. As the cross was borne into the village. the pilgrims going barefoot and in complete silence from the Slipper Chapel, the inhabitants came out in a body and watched silently, respectfully. Thc Cross was carried upright DOW across the shoulder of a single pilgrim. Here where Our Lady had reigned, it was recognised. Even the dancers in a nearby hall came out in their
evening dresses to watch. At the entrance to the old Abbey, the pilgrims broke the silence with the Litany of Loretto; the refrain sounded like the incessant appeal of children to their mother that she would return. SeTdom has Walsingham been so stirred; Catholics and non-Catholics alike were deeply moved. It does not seem fanciful to think that this was one step more in the restoration to Catholic England of her greatest shrine: when England returns to Walsingham, an old saying has it. the faith returns to England. Nor has these ever been an age when the Mother of God seemed to make such advances towards her children as now when the brutalities of men towards each other contrast with her gentle care
and love. May England then return !
Fourteen Crosses Next Year ?
A new way of Catholic Action and renewed devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham are thus providen
tially suggested. This year's pilgrims, and the clergy of Walsingham are eager to develop the new idea. It is their earnest hope that nextyear not one cross, but fourteen (to make a Way of the Cross around the Slipper Chapel) may be carried, to arrive at Walsingham on the feast of the Assumption next year. The possibilities of this rededication to Walsingham of England are enormous. Village by village the country could be evangelised, as the crosses bear down on Walsingham; everywhere the attention of Catholics would be turned to Our Lady, and the life of parishes be caught up in the greater whole of the church in England. Everywhere the emphasis would be on the cross, on the sacrifice of Calvary, on the Mass. In each parish Mass would be the way of joining with the pilgrims; and everyone could join, too, in other ways;
by prayer, helping the pilgrims on their way, following the cross a shorter or longer way. The pilgrims themselves would have a splendid opportunity of learning and preaching their faith.
In order to be ready for the fulfilment of this hope, preparations are being put in hand at once by members of this year's pilgrimage. It is essential that the undertaking should remain spontaneous, and the parties be as widely representative as poss ible. For that reason it would not be associated vvith any particular Catholic organisation nor would the parties be drawn from specialised sections of the community (not, for instance, a student's party. etc.). But it is not yet possible to give details. For the moment prayer and the spreading of the idea is needed. Detailed . arrangements will be announced if and when they are fixed.
It is enough to end with one further quotation from St. Louis-Marie de Grignon, which is startling in its almost literal application: " They (the servants of Jesus and -Mary in the last times) shall carry on their shoulders the bloody standard of the cross. the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left, the sacred names of Jesus and Mary in their hearts, and the modesty and mortification of Jesus and Mary in their own behaviour. These are the great men who shall come."
COLUMBA RYAN, O.P.