Moyra Doorly is moved by the devotion of young traditionalists on the annual pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres
See these traditionalists, see how young they are, and how many. On the first day over 10,000 gathered at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the start of the 21st traditionalist Pentecost pilgrimage to Chartres. By the third day their numbers had reached over 15,000 and they packed Chartres Cathedral and the square outside as Solemn Mass was celebrated by the Bishop of Orleans according to the 1962 Missal. Their devotion unfailing, and after two and a half days of almost solid walking, those outside knelt in a blazing sun to receive Holy Communion. It was enough to make you weep.
It made me weep, with relief— a relief that stemmed from the realisation that here was something that will never die or fade away through lack of interest. Here was evidence of so much youthful commitment and here too were over 100 priests and religious, all dedicated to the Old Mass, processing around the square.
It had been impossible during the pilgrimage not to be moved by the presence of so many young men in cassocks and collars, walking, praying and hearing confessions along the way. But suddenly they were assembled together, following the procession of banners into the cathedral and I wasn't the only one whose heart turned over.
There is a rumour that part of the reason the Holy Father was so impressed by the Society of Saint Pius X's recent pilgrimage to Rome was the fact that the citizens of Rome cheered and clapped as they passed by, so relieved were they to see priests in cassocks and collars again after years of dressed-down informality. I can see why. At Chartres I felt like cheering and clapping.
I wept for another reason during the pilgrimage. According to my own preconceptions, the walk to Chartres was supposed to be a bit of a stroll. Quite why I had imagined this is a puzzle given that 70 miles is covered in two and a half days and that on each of these days the wake-up call is at 5am. Perhaps it was wishful thinking that I would be able to stop off along the way, drink coffee, take a few notes for this story and rejoin the pilgrimage as it slowly wound its way past. After all, the Canterbury pilgrims had been renowned for their ambling pace, hadn't they?
My preconceptions were wide of the mark, I found out almost immediately. I had joined the English. Scottish and Welsh pilgrims in London and two coach loads of us had travelled to Paris the previous day, stopping off for Mass and tea at the traditionalist community of Sainte Bernard Croix in Riaumont. This is one of a number of exclusively Old Rite communities in France which include the Benedictines at Fontgombault and at Le Barroux, as well as the Dominican Society of St Vincent Ferrier. At Riaumont, 9 monks care for approximately 40 boys who have been sent by families experiencing difficulties of some sort. The community was founded in 1960 and when we were there the foundations for a new and much larger chapel were being laid.
As we assembled at 6am in front of Notre Dame Cathedral the level of organisation behind the pilgrimage began to be obvious. Although predominately French, there were also pilgrims from the USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia and Russia, organised into chapters walking under the patronage of Our Lady or one of the saints. The British walked in two chapters under the patronage of Our Lady of Walsingham and of the English, Scottish and Welsh Martyrs.
A children's chapter under the patronage of St Edward followed the shorter route of the children's pilgrimage. After a brief service and blessing in the cathedral the first chapters began to leave the square.
Lorries were there to take our luggage ahead to that night's camp site and along the route out of Paris, as throughout the entire pilgrimage, members of the French Catholic Scout movement organised traffic diversions and watched out for stragglers while the doctors and nurses of the Order of Malta waited at strategic points to offer assistance to anyone who needed it. Passers-by cheered or looked bemused and one man cried uncontrollably as the procession passed. The sun wasn't up yet and the exuberance and sense of anticipation would have carried the most hesitant of pilgrims. So far so good.
The first stop for rest and water in a park roughly two hours later was brief to say the least because almost immediately, or so it seemed, we were off again, heading for the Vernieres le Buisson Woods and a Solemn High Mass and lunch. Again the organisation could not fail to impress. There was a portable but lovely Altar and a choir which sang the Propers while the Ordinary was sung by everyone. The Epistle and Gospel were read in Latin then in French, which I heard from somewhere among the trees where I had collapsed in an exhausted heap. It was a spine-tingling experience nevertheless, witnessing such levels of devotion and commitment and I was beginning to realise that this was shaping up to be the most counter-cultural event of the year.
There were more ambulances at the site, portaloos on hand and crates of bottled water and bread to accompany whatever packed lunches we had brought. Then we were off again to march under a full sun and me without a hat. It must have been around the middle of the afternoon that I gave up for the day. The heat was intense, my head was pounding, I couldn't keep up and after nearly passing out at one of the ambulance stops, I decided that was it. Tomorrow I'm heading back for Paris to catch the first flight home, hopeless pilgrim or not.
Needless to say the sympathy and support of my fellow pilgrims worked wonders. "I have this conversation with pilgrims every year." said Francis Carey, the British Pilgrim's National Co-ordinator and Treasurer of the Latin Mass Society. "And I always say that walking all the way isn't the priority. It's being here that counts. Remember there are buses laid on to take you to the next stop if you need."
More help and advice came and the following morning, after a night in a marquee with twenty other women pilgrims, my pounding headache had completely gone and I was thinking, well why not go on to Chartres and wait there instead. After breakfast it seemed like a shame not to walk for at least a couple of hours, especially as the sky had clouded over, and by mid-day, after a blissful walk through woods and between fields I was announcing that the pilgrimage was the most amazing experience of my life. After that, it only got better, so much so that I'm determined to go again next year.
"Tradition is the democracy of the dead", according to GK Chesterton. "Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." In an age which claims to be so democratic and so inclusive, there is one group whose voice is rarely heard today, that of our ancestors. As the pilgrimage progressed I became aware that not only was I walking with 15,000 others in the here and now, but also with the generations who had walked before. The Chartres pilgrimage was started in the 12th century when students took a week to walk the 70 miles, calling at shrines and churches along the way.
Today's pilgrims sang almost non-stop as they walked. I heard the Ave Maria, Salve Regina. Veni Sancte Spiritus, Pange Lingua. 0 Salutaris Hostia and more. I also heard meditations on penance, on the Rosary and on the requirements that have to be fulfilled for a war to be just. The use of Latin meant that if you fell behind and lost sight of your own chapter, which began to happen regularly, there were the French or the Germans singing in Latin too.
And since being inclusive is a major preoccupation these days, I would maintain that the use of the common language achieves just that. If you can sing the Sanctus or the Gloria in Latin, it hardly matters that the vernacular language happens to be Polish.
All along the way my fellow pilgrims, who came from all walks of life, expressed their overwhelming gratitude that the Holy Father seems about to lift all restrictions on the Old Rite, or at least most of them. "I've been fighting this battle for 30 years." said Mary Carey, one of the original organisers of the English chapters. "I'm hoping we've at last broken the back of it. Look at all these young people. They're bound to carry it on."
Also frequently expressed were the deep concerns of traditionalist parents for their children who they feel are being exposed, often through the Catholic education system, to hostile secular values. "We sometimes feel betrayed by the Church,' said Patrick Oliver, a member of the Traditional Catholic Families' Association which numbers some 80 families in the UK. "Many Catholic schools resist teaching the fullness of the Faith, or sometimes even the basics. Our own solution is home schooling but sadly this isn't possible for everyone."
0 ver and over again I heard similar concerns being expressed Not only do traditionalist families have their work cut out fending off the worst excesses of an overbearing contemporary culture, but they often have to battle to keep intrusive sex education programmes out of schools. One lady described how she and other parents had fought against a programme aimed at warning ten-year olds about potential paedophiles. This involved giving the children explicit details of paedophile activity and was being introduced into a Catholic school with the approval of the Bishop himself.
At least the boys from Chavagnes International College, which occupies a former seminary near La Rochelle in France, can be assured a traditional, although not necessarily traditionalist. Catholic education. The College was started three years ago by Ferdi McDermott, formerly of the Saint Austin Press, and pupil numbers are set to increase dramatically at the start of the winter term.
It has long been an argument of those opposed to many of the post-Vatican II reforms that tradition breeds vocations and they point to the fact that the traditionalist seminaries are overflowing with candidates for the priesthood. From what I saw, tradition also breeds devotion. On the second night, I witnessed large numbers of young people on their knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Many kept their vigil for hours and a number stayed up all night in Perpetual Adoration. And this after walking all day. which again I didn't manage to do.
But at least I completed the third day's walk into Chartres and as the towers of the cathedral first became visible I was sure that the entire Court of Heaven was watching. The experience of entering Chartres reciting the Litany of the Saints was almost too moving for words.
hile the Solemn Mass was being relayed to a giant video screen for the benefit of those outside, I wandered around the square and noticed people sitting in nearby cafes, most of whom were smiling. For a brief moment I put myself in the position of a couple of onlookers — a reformer and a revolutionary. How strong must be the influence to water down the Mass or to eliminate it entirely, so profoundly other are the traditional Sacred Rites of the Church.
At the moment of consecration, the bells of Chartres Cathedral rang out and although the pigeons roosting in the towers probably flew into the air in alarm, I like to think that they really did so as a mark of respect. The Old Mass has that effect.
The annual Paris to Chartres pilgrimage is organised by the Association Notre-Dame de Chretiente, 49 avenue de Paris 78000, Versailles, France, www.nd-chretiente.cotn
Or contact Francis Carey, do The Latin Mass Society, 11-13 Macklin Street, London WC2B 5NH. Tel: 0207 404 7284. Email: [email protected]