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Tens of thousands of pilgrims gather in and around Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, FranceJeanne Smits/LifeSiteNews

(LifeSiteNews) — Now in its 41st year, the 2023 “Pentecost Pilgrimage” from Paris to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres, a place where the Blessed Virgin Mary has been venerated for over a thousand years, attracted record numbers of pilgrims and importantly for the 16,000 walkers  enjoyed glorious weather, softened by cool nights and a soothing breeze. 

The organizers of the Pèlerinage de Chrétienté had never seen anything like it, so much so that registrations had to be closed a week before May 27, when the thousands of pilgrims set off in the early hours of the morning from the church of Saint-Sulpice. It was undoubtedly this fact that attracted TF1, BFM, Le Monde, and so many other mainstream media outlets. What’s even more astonishing is that this record-breaking media coverage turned out to be respectful, and indeed gracious. That was in itself a miracle.

Added to this was the presence of a not insignificant relic, the skull of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was placed in the choir of Chartres Cathedral during Mass on Pentecost Monday. (Seven years ago, Joan of Arc’s ring was similarly carried into Chartres Cathedral by the pilgrims). 

“When a door closes, the good Lord always opens a window,” Baroness von Trapp wisely repeated – the real Maria von Trapp, not the one from “The Sound of Music” – when she recounted the adventures of her large family, who fled Austria to escape Nazism and faced multiple hardships when they arrived in the United States in the 1940s. 

A slap in the face of ‘Traditionis custodes’ 

Traditionis custodes (which is in a way yet another variant of totalitarianism) seeks to close the door on the traditional liturgy, restricting it with condescendence to the elderly because of their difficulty with getting rid of shriveled routines; it aims to promote “active participation” in the name of a perverted understanding of the “royal priesthood,” and to stress the “paschal mystery” while claiming that the Tridentine Mass focuses too much on the sacrifice of Golgotha.

Well, the Chartres pilgrims are truly “guardians of tradition,” with their unwavering attachment to the “vertical” Mass, centered on Christ and His bloodless sacrifice that redeems us, Mass after Mass. Thanks to this divine “window,” they were given the opportunity to enter not the closed space of a “rubrical” liturgy, but to open up the torrents of grace flowing from the “Mass of the Ages,” truly a balcony onto heaven and eternity. What I saw in Chartres Cathedral last Monday was adoration, interiority, and grandeur.

The more the traditional Mass is persecuted, the more it seems to attract! Faced with the human tide of pilgrims – average age 20 to 25 – one could only be struck by such ardor, such a refreshing spirit, such determination too. The Notre Dame de Chrétienté association, which does not and will not give up on the traditional liturgy, this weekend provided the French bishops who are wondering how to attract young people with an answer that is both a slap in the face and a challenge. With its growing numbers, the pilgrimage’s success showed them that it is not necessary to keep up with the world, let alone imitate it, to inspire new generations to follow Christ and honor Our Lady, who inevitably leads them to Him. 

‘Our youth are thirsting for the absolute’ 

And yes, these young people thirst for the absolute, they thirst for “sure bearings,” as Odile Téqui, the pilgrimage’s communications manager, told the media. The journalists present, who could but witness the sight of the thousands of participants and volunteers, could hardly contradict her. So many things were visible: the marchers’ willing efforts, the sacrifices required by a 100km walk, the palpable mutual aid and the joy on their faces. It was the mere human joy of a weekend spent with friends, combined above all with a supernatural joy, underlined by the sheer silence during the liturgical services and the radiance born of three days spent with God. 

The unprecedented number of walkers forced the organizers to install giant screens on the “Côte des Charbonniers” leading up to the cathedral. All the pilgrims from the Paris region were unable to come close to the cathedral, which must have been a major disappointment. But the large square preceding the cathedral, together with the gardens of the bishop’s palace behind, it proved too small to accommodate everyone. 

They laughed, reflected, sang, prayed, received the grace of absolution and communion, and for many – 40 percent of the walkers were not regulars at traditional Mass – discovered a liturgy that took their breath away. Some pilgrims had never even attended a Catholic Mass. But then, the motto of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté is “Tradition, Christendom, Mission.” Among the fruits of the pilgrimage are baptisms and conversions, vocations and life choices. 

‘It was brutal!’ 

“It was brutal,” John-Henry Westen, editor-in-chief of LifeSiteNews, admitted to me at the end of Mass on Monday. He had come with his wife and several of his children as part of one of two American chapters – or groups of pilgrims who pray, sing and meditate together, this one led by Michael Matt from The Remnant who has joined the pilgrimage every year for the past thirty years.

It was brutal because of the effort involved, the sun beating down, and the fatigue of the journey too for those who came from far. Also, while the average age of the French chapters is quite low, the foreign groups usually include somewhat older pilgrims who had to make extra efforts to keep up with the harrowing pace required by the exceptional number of participants, Jean de Tauriers, the pilgrimage’s director, explained to me. 

Westen noted that the pilgrimage is a sacrifice we impose on ourselves, not just a suffering we accept, and that our Church really needs it. “But in this sacrifice, there is joy!” he added. The joy, in particular, of seeing this “ocean” of young faithful who accept such sacrifice. He said they impressed him deeply.

“It is in an event like this that you feel the glory of God,” an Australian priest who had come from Down Under with a good group of Australians told me. 

There were 28 foreign chapters, representing over 30 nations and some 1,500 pilgrims: among them were groups from Spain and the U.S., who joined the pilgrimage in France to observe how to organize the logistics of such a challenging event. Their own “Pilgrimages of Christianity” are still in their infancy and a third event is on the horizon, in Australia. 

Setting up encampments for 16,000 pilgrims, two nights in a row 

In 41 years, the “Pèlerinage de Chrétienté” grew from about 3,000 pilgrims to over five times that number, not to mention the 1,000 volunteers who this time helped set up two successive encampments for 16,000 people, serve water, apples, bread and soup, provide water to wash, mobile toilets, and move over 46,000 heavy bags and tents from one stop to the next and help each marcher find his or her equipment in record time. 

Doctors and nurses as well as volunteers from the Order of Malta were constantly on alert and medical tents set up on the bivouacs. A liturgy team ensured the celebration of Solemn Mass for the pilgrims but also provided altars, decoration, and all that was necessary for the marching priests (there were over 200 priests present) to celebrate their private traditional Masses. The pilgrimage takes up to 18 months to organize with military precision.

Incredibly, the mainstream media offered excellent reports of the event for the first time ever. France 3, the regional chain of TV stations, presented the pilgrimage as “a spiritual journey, but above all, an inner journey, that allows Catholics to test their faith, and to examine their conscience.” 

“These are the Catholic youth,” observed the more conservative CNews. It noted how the presence of these pilgrims attached to the “extraordinary Mass” demonstrated that the Church “still makes people dream.” Behind the journalese, there was genuine admiration. The report quoted one marcher who said: “I’ve been through three difficult days physically, but for the grace of God, it’s worth it.” “There’s a search for spirituality, for the sacred, for the beauty of efforts, and look, it’s attractive!” the journalist commented. He spoke of “a note of hope when everything else is collapsing.” 

‘They even seem capable of introducing more sociological diversity into our Catholic Church’ 

Henrik Lindell, from the progressive Catholic magazine La Vie, and who is more of a charismatic, covered the pilgrimage as a journalist. He was in for a shock, as he wrote on his Facebook page: 

Day 2 of the Chartres pilgrimage. One word comes to mind to sum up how I feel: respect. I could even say gratitude. The extraordinary rite is not part of my culture, but I know how to recognize Christian faith and behavior. I see people praying, meditating on the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, I see camaraderie, mutual aid, a kind of generalized ‘scouting spirit’ (I mean a true spirit of service), social and cultural diversity and respect for it, parents who give their children attention and time, young people – very many of them! – who are looking for their bearings, adults who show finesse and wisdom in their reflections, outstanding organization (2,000 volunteers for 16,000 pilgrims!), and an atmosphere conducive to growing in faith. […]

In this pilgrimage, I discovered a thirst for the absolute, a search for God, a desire for conversion. […]

I’ve spoken to perfectly representative ‘trads,’ including priests, who simply say they want to remain different, while still being part of the Roman Catholic Church, which they demonstrate by referring to the Vatican II Council and saying they obey the Pope. Yet they are viscerally attached to what they call ‘the traditional Mass.’ In my humble opinion (and at my level), they have their points. Then they say they want unity, not uniformity. And here, their argument is unstoppable, in my opinion. Finally, I note that they bring many converts to the Church, that they are truly missionary, that they even seem capable of introducing more sociological diversity into our Catholic Church.

I insist that I’m not a trad (I have a charismatic sensibility, I admit, and I like a lot of things that real trads like to disapprove of very formally), but if I were to judge trads by the fruits they produce (and that’s a Christian criterion), I’d have to admit that they do our Church an enormous amount of good. So, respect. And gratitude.

France’s most popular national TV station, TF1, broadcast a three-and-a-half minute, fully sympathetic report on its main daily news program on Sunday evening: also an unheard-of occurrence. 

‘Dying as a martyr for Sunday Mass’ 

On Monday, an American archbishop and former papal nuncio, Thomas Gullickson, celebrated the Tridentine Pontifical High Mass and gave the homily. Part of it was in English: 

I would draw your attention specifically to the concluding words of today’s Gospel, and their relevance for the theme of our pilgrimage this year, which is entitled: the Eucharist, salvation of Souls. ‘For all who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light so that the deeds may not be exposed, but those who do what is true come to the light so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ We must state our message as clearly, as unashamedly, as unambiguously as possible. The Mass is the work we do as Catholics. It is all about goodness, it is a matter of truth, it is very simply a matter of the light.

Nothing can replace the Mass for the salvation of the world. All else but Jesus Christ is darkness and His bloody sacrifice on the Cross is once and for all. His was the necessary sacrifice for our salvation, for the salvation of the world. True happiness, light and life are nowhere else to be found but in Him. Nothing else counts but only what can be found in Him. No one else but the Lord fulfills all our needs.

In that sense, to understand these days on the march, we could say that the Pentecost weekend as pilgrimage stands for the whole of our lives. It is or can be for us an intense religious experience. We have journeyed not only from Paris or wherever else that we may have started our journey to the cathedral in Chartres. Our pilgrimage stands for our life’s journey toward God. Israel marched out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, moving on in stages through the desert to the land of promise. Through baptism, we are called to forsake all and bind ourselves to Christ. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. Christ lifted upon the Cross and drawing all to Himself is what we are about.

I hope and pray that this, our pilgrimage, and this our holy sacrifice of the Mass can strengthen, inspire, yes encourage you on your way to God through Christ. For indeed the question for our lives would seem to be: how do we come to God? And the answer is very simple: be ready to stand with St. Justin Martyr. Could you end up like St. Justin, dying as a martyr for Sunday Mass? No use trying to rehearse your witness. Just stand with Justin and let the chips fall as they may.

The founding ‘Centre Henri et André Charlier’ 

The Pilgrimage of Christendom has come a long way since it was founded in 1982, at the initiative of the Centre Henri et André Charlier – the names of two French converts of the beginning of the 20th century, one a philosophy teacher, the other a sculptor – the statue of Our Lady that heads the pilgrimage comes from an atelier inspired by his work. 

During a “Summer University” stint a young journalist, Rémi Fontaine, suggested the revival of the Chartres pilgrimage made years before by the Catholic writer Charles Péguy. Bernard Antony, founder of the centre, a political figure of the traditional right and also founder of a Christian legal defense group, the “AGRIF,” and an association that helps persecuted Christians, was enthusiastic. The pilgrimage was intended to revive Christendom in France at all levels, including political commitment. Since then, its spiritual dimension has been brought to the fore by Notre Dame de Chrétienté, which took over the organization in the 1990s. But a chapter from the “Centre Charlier,” joined among others by grandchildren of the original founders, still walks from Paris to Chartres with their original banners. 

During the first years, the pilgrims were not allowed into the Chartres Cathedral because of hostility towards the traditional Mass, which was celebrated in front of the Cathedral’s closed doors. Things have changed since then, and the success of the pilgrimage today has made it very difficult for the authorities to shut out the pilgrims even if they wanted to. In truth, that is not very probable; like last year, Bishop Christory of Chartres joined the pilgrims to march with them both on Sunday and Monday. 

In 1988, the pilgrimage split in two after Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without permission from Rome. The Societyo f Saint Pius X has maintained this second march that, on the long Pentecost weekend, goes from Chartres to Paris. This year, 6,000 pilgrims joined that pilgrimage. How can Our Lady not hear all these prayers and supplications on the part of those who, either way, show their love for her and her Divine Son?

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Jeanne Smits has worked as a journalist in France since 1987 after obtaining a Master of Arts in Law. She formerly directed the French daily Présent and was editor-in-chief of an all-internet French-speaking news site called She writes regularly for a number of Catholic journals (Monde & vie, L’Homme nouveau, Reconquête…) and runs a personal pro-life blog. In addition, she is often invited to radio and TV shows on alternative media. She is vice-president of the Christian and French defense association “AGRIF.” She is the French translator of The Dictator Pope by Henry Sire and Christus Vincit by Bishop Schneider, and recently contributed to the Bref examen critique de la communion dans la main about Communion in the hand. She is married and has three children, and lives near Paris.