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PARIS (LifeSiteNews)— For as long as the habitués of the Pentecost Pilgrimage of Christendom can remember – and that is exactly 40 years in this 2022 anniversary edition – weather conditions were never so bad as on Saturday afternoon, on the first day of the three-day, 100 km prayerful march from Saint-Sulpice in Paris to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres.
Former pilgrimages have been pestered by rain, tried by sweltering heat and burning sun, or vexed by cold nights. This time, having set out in sunny weather, the pilgrims, thousands of them, suddenly found themselves in torrential rain that poured more water on the western suburbs of Paris in a few hours than during the preceding month.
Part of the long column of pilgrims, who walk in groups of 20 to 30 carrying their food and other necessities for the day while proudly displaying banners and flags, were in the woods, which offered some protection. But it looked less reassuring when they saw a tree split in half by lightning.
Many others were ankle-deep in icy rivers of water churning through the roads and earthen pathways, turning what looked like solid ground into heavy mud. Children, young people, and adults alike had no choice but to plough on, facing the elements with determination and, above all, good humor.
It had never been harder. But there were still smiles on many faces, and when the drenched groups started to falter, there was always someone who would start singing, giving the others courage.
Thankfully, the rain stopped before evening. Wind and sun helped dry the pilgrims somewhat, and it was with good cheer that they entered their encampment. It had in fact been touch and go: the local “prefecture,” the official representation of the central administration in France’s departments, was on the point of preventing the pilgrimage from proceeding. The children’s bivouac (and there are hundreds of children from age eight and over, who come with their scouting groups or together with their families) was judged not to be safe enough.
Disappointment for the smaller Chartres to Paris pilgrimage
In fact, the other Pentecost pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X (FSSPX) that walks every year from Chartres to Paris over the three-day Pentecost break, was forced to stop on Saturday evening. Local weather conditions were even worse closer to Chartres that day, with heavy hailstones pelting the five thousand or so marchers who suffered even more torrential rain than those on the “Paris-Chartres” walk. One short Twitter video sums it up: as a group of Breton pilgrims rounded their backs to the pounding hailstones, a bagpiper continued to play.
“All is grace,” said the filmmaker.
— FrancaisFaché (@francaisfache) June 4, 2022
Both the Saturday evening and Sunday evening bivouacs were on low ground and were flooded. Children were at risk of hypothermia. The FSSPX organizers made the only reasonable decision and halted the pilgrimage altogether; a pontifical High Mass was instead celebrated in the Paris church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, the Fraternity’s stronghold in the French capital. Many disappointed pilgrims returned home sadly but convinced that their sacrifice will bear fruit.
Last minute solutions for the Paris to Chartres pilgrimage
Alternative, last minute solutions were found for the Paris to Chartres pilgrimage. Moving the equivalent of a small town from point A to point B in three days, making sure all the needs of thousands of people are met – and this includes the spiritual as well as the physical needs – is no small challenge. The Paris-Chartres pilgrimage has known such growth that, nowadays, preparations start up to a year beforehand. Dozens of adults give of their time and talent so that each minute and every movement is accounted for. They are accustomed to negotiating not only with the Church hierarchy, in order to organize Masses at the point of departure and in Chartres cathedral, but also with the public authorities. They make certain that everything is seen to, from the setting up and cleaning up of bivouacs to the sound and screen systems in the camps and in and around the churches that are much too small to welcome the thousands of pilgrims. Special liturgy teams set up tents and prepare countless altars so that all the priests present – and there are many – can start saying their individual Mass from 5 a.m. onwards.
What if something goes wrong? Well, things did go very wrong this year. With the calm and grit of “war-chiefs,” the press officer of Notre Dame de Chrétienté told me, all the association’s officials set up a crisis unit that worked non-stop from Saturday 8 p.m. to Sunday 2 a.m., looking for ways to accommodate children and families and convincing the authorities to allow adults to camp at the original bivouac sites. A gigantic grange was found where young families were conveyed. With the help of the prefecture, others were given shelter in nearby sports halls or similar locations.
The public authorities made clear that they were amazed by the calm and patience of the stranded pilgrims –some of whom were forced to wait several hours before joining their assigned new accommodation – and by their smiles and laughter.
Meanwhile, at the crisis center, decisions were being made. Which itineraries were accessible? Changes were decided on; the pilgrims would walk on hard roads and not on earthen tracks or through shady woods. On Sunday, Mass was celebrated in the different shelters for the families and children, the Mass that should have taken place at noon was said at 7 a.m. at the encampment, and during the day, the situation was assessed every half hour and necessary changes were made.
Walking from Paris to Chartres for the “Pèlerinage de Chrétienté” has always been a sacrificial endeavor. For many, it represents a physical challenge. Days commence early – at 5 a.m. – and finish late. Creature comforts are of the Spartan variety, tents are uncomfortable, pilgrims tote their own food apart from the warm soup that is served by the organizers in the evenings, long lines form in front of rows of portable toilets and in the washing facilities set up in the middle of nowhere… Aches and pains, blisters and bloody feet are high on the list of discomforts experienced by the marchers.
Not surprisingly, the Order of Malta’s mobile infirmary is a well-visited part of the successive encampments where giant tents welcome families and children, while many young people bring their own cover, cheerfully accepting the crowded conditions, the lack of sleep, and the seemingly endless mile upon mile of the so-called plain of the Beauce where much of France’s grain is produced.
I write “so-called” because there are many ups and downs on the way. Mostly ups, it would seem, that foster a spirit of sacrifice that the pilgrims openly embrace.
Before setting out, the major worry is about “feet.” Are walking shoes best? Or lightweight running shoes? Or plain canvas shoes? There are many schools of thought, complicated by diverse approaches to blisters and the prevention and healing thereof. Using special creams or surgical tape in strategic locations is one choice; opting for piercing and bandaging when the dreaded blister has made its appearance is another. Years ago, a lady was seen completing the pilgrimage in impeccable heels – she said they were the most comfortable footwear she had. This year, I saw a Dutchman in wooden clogs; he told me he had them on all the way, and he felt fine. Some march in sandals, others in trusted mountain boots. This year, rubber waders would have come in handy. But whatever their initial choice, all the pilgrims had soaking shoes, socks, and feet.
Joy and hope at journey’s end
On Sunday morning, getting ready for the longest stretch, they had no choice but to put on their wet footgear and hope for the best. And that is what they got. Michael Matt, editor of The Remnant, who takes part in the pilgrimage every year, told me on the steps of Chartres Cathedral on Monday afternoon that although Saturday had been the worst day ever, Sunday and Monday were ideal: not too hot, not too cold, dry, and not too sunny. Pilgrims were pleased to find their feet in relatively good shape despite the wet. Perhaps this was also a small miracle of Chartres, where spiritual graces pour down even thicker than the worst of rains, and where so many young people charge their batteries before facing a secularized society for yet another year.
— Hadrien de Jessey (@Hadrien2GC) June 6, 2022
Canon Merly of the Institute of Christ the King summed up the situation in Sunday morning in his homily at the bivouac of Choisel:
Dear pilgrim friends,
I hate you, I despise you, I detest you, I abhor you.
Yes, I crush you under my hatred, for I see you leaving your cozy homes to make your way back to this shrine, while in the midst of the difficulties of your march, in the midst of the sacrifices, you have made to come here, at the call of Our Lady, you present to her the homage of your own selves, and also your prayers for all the intentions you carry, your own, and those entrusted to you.
Yes, I hate you. Thus speaks the Devil today, as he did in the past, when the adorable Heart of Our Lord was pierced by the soldier’s lance.
It is already two years since we last saw each other on the roads of Chartres. Two years that the vagaries of these times and the demonic works supported by our rulers have forced us to move away from the holy habit of meeting together to walk towards Our Lady, each one for his own reasons, which are the secret of his heart: thanksgiving, a request to address to our heavenly mother, and, why not, a sporting achievement or, unfortunately also, worldliness, a little sentimental thrill in attending, two or three days a year, a liturgy that is definitely traditional and Catholic! (…)
After our ordeals, deprivation and loneliness, it is good that Christians find themselves together once more; after our ordeals, deprivation, and loneliness, it is good that we render to God, together, the truly dignified worship that is due to him, and that the occult forces, outside, but also within the Church, have the will to tear away from us.
As always, many foreign pilgrims joined the Chartres pilgrimage – groups from all over Europe, Oriental Catholics, many Americans (including Rome-based journalist Diane Montagna and LifeSite’s own Louis Knuffke) and Britons (including Edward Pentin from the National Catholic Register). Jack Oostveen of the International Una Voce Federation, and many others. Americans who joined for the first time told me they were overwhelmed by the event, citing the arrival at the Cathedral of Chartres as the climax of their three-day walk.
Despite the difficulties of this edition, they were also in luck. For the first time, a bishop of Chartres, the recently named Monsignor Philippe Christory, decided to join the pilgrims all Sunday and on Monday morning before presiding the Mass of Monday of Pentecost in his own cathedral. He also gave the homily, speaking of his “joy” in welcoming the pilgrimage – precious words indeed at a time when the traditional Latin Mass is under fire from Rome.
The closing Mass is always an intense moment and a time of hope. How not to be hopeful when seeing so many children and young people following the age-old prayers of the Mass with quiet fervor, all on their knees in awed silence as the Host, and then the Chalice, is lifted, Christ Himself borne high as He was on the Cross in His supreme sacrifice? How can these youngsters be called rigid and backward-looking when their youthful generosity is so palpable?
How not to be cheered and stirred by the endless procession of banners that are carried into the Cathedral as so many symbols of local rootedness and sincere devotion to the saints who have preceded us?
How not to see that the dozens upon dozens of priests who come every year to accompany the marchers, to walk as they do, to listen to them, to heal them in confession, to counsel them, to offer them the riches of their personal attachment to the traditional rite, are mostly young, whereas the average age of priests in France is over 70?
These young people and these young priests are the face of the future.
First and last photos republished with permission of Notre Dame de Chrétienté. Central interior photos were taken by the Olivier Figueras (published with permission). Central exterior photos are by the author.