The Chartres Pentecost Pilgrimage of Christendom

My account, as one of 10,000 pilgrims, of the 70 mile journey on foot from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris to the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres—the largest annual pilgrimage in Western Europe.

The Chartres Pilgrimage is famous among Catholics who habitually attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. For 34 years, tradition-loving pilgrims have followed a 70 mile route between the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres. After Archbishop Lefebvre of the SSPX caused a rift among traditionalists by illicitly ordaining bishops in 1988, the annual pilgrimage was split in two. The “Pilgrimage of Christendom” walks from Paris to Chartres, and the SSPX’s “Pilgrimage of Tradition” walks from Chartres to Paris. Both pilgrimages occur simultaneously on the long weekend encompassing Pentecost Sunday.

Since 2000, the “Pilgrimage of Christendom” has been organized by a French committee called Notre-Dame de Chrétienté (Our Lady of Christendom), which works with bishops, abbots and hosts of volunteers to guarantee a successful pilgrimage for over 10,000 pilgrims, including the hundreds who travel from outside France. It is thus the largest annual pilgrimage—both in terms of numbers and distance crossed—in Western Europe.

Every year the Chartres Pentecost Pilgrimage has an overarching theme. For the past three years, the focus has been on each Person of the Blessed Trinity. The theme for 2016 was “Venez, Esprit-Saint” (Come, Holy Ghost), and its patron saints were Saint Catherine of Siena, St Pius X and the Holy Martyrs. Having volunteered to join the Scottish Chapter in its pilgrimage, I prepared a meditation on the first part of Saint Catherine’s Dialogues. Somehow I managed to put it together while feverishly preparing for the pilgrimage, assembling camping gear and increasing my hiking stamina. Seasoned Chartres pilgrims, especially the young, delight in telling neophytes about the rigors of the march: the heat, the cold, the pain, the pilgrims who fall ill, the pilgrims who fight over space in the communal tents. Although the pilgrimage is penitential, I permitted myself the luxury of a $35 personal tent. Blisters are one thing, having rows with foreigners quite another.

(photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

Friday, May 13, 2016

My flight from Edinburgh to Paris allowed a check-in bag of only 44 lbs, so I packed my tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, food and clothing into my lighter, more unwieldy suitcase instead of my heavier, sturdier suitcase. This was a mistake, as I discovered at about 10:30 PM in St-Michel-Notre-Dame train station when I began to haul my case up the stairs to the street. A tiny, moustachioed Frenchman insisted on carrying it for me, interrupting my stammered thanks with an impatient “Oui, madame.” 

I had followed my Chapter Leader’s advice to book a room in a hotel as close to Notre-Dame de Paris, and merely sighed as I paid approximately $137 US for what would be about five hours’ sleep. It was worth it.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The official rendezvous was at 5:30 AM. My alarm went off at 5:15 AM, and I forced myself to down a bowl of homemade muesli softened with coconut milk. Notre-Dame de Chrétienté would serve bread and soup on the pilgrimage, but pilgrims were responsible for additional rations. Keeping in mind the lack of refrigeration, I had brought the muesli and the coconut milk, both of which I hated and neither of which I ate again.

Notre-Dame de Cathedral was less than minutes from my hotel, and in the grey dawn, I spotted young people laden with backpacks and tents walking briskly in the same direction. By 6 AM, the square outside the cathedral was heaving with pilgrims. I quickly found the Scottish Chapter, which included seven beaming Girl Guides (three French), and the foreigners’ baggage truck. Enormous vehicles carried our supplies from Paris to our campgrounds and finally to the Chartres train station.

(photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

Banners fluttered, and French instructions bawled from an invisible sound system. By the time I had paid my 50 euro fee at the foreigners’ registration table, chapters of pilgrims had begun marching behind their banners into the great cathedral. My own chapter was nowhere in sight, so I went into the cathedral alone. I found a comfortable bit of floor in the north aisle behind a throng of French Girl Guides, and remained there through most of Mass. Mass was said in Latin, according to the Extraordinary Form, with the Epistle and Gospel repeated in French. The homily was also in French, so I scribbled in my notebook and admired the stonework. The small choir, well amplified, sang beautifully.

After Mass I found my chapter outside Notre-Dame and waited for the orders to join the march. It took about an hour and a half for the entire procession to pass a given point, and on this first day the Scots were rather near the back. We were placed between a Parisian chapter devoted to St. Tropez and the Breton chapter, who had a bagpipe-fiddle-and-drum band. We marched from the Cathedral through and out of Paris at a steady pace of about 3 miles an hour. On Avenue Jean Moulin, our leader’s husband rushed into a bakery and ran back to us with bags of croissants. They tasted of butter heaven.

The procession continued through a gritty southern suburb, then outlying villages, and then fields and forests. The Breton piper whipped up the Scots by playing Scottish tunes between the Breton melodies. There were short breaks, featuring long queues for the porta-potties and volunteers handing out bottles of water and apples. We lunched in a field, and I introduced myself to Michael Matt of The Remnant newspaper, who was sitting with an American Chapter nearby. When we marched, the Scottish Chapter sang the rosary in Latin, English and French, listened to reflections, and sang hymns and folk songs. By the time I read my meditation on Saint Catherine of Siena through our megaphone, I was panting. My feet hurt, and it became a struggle to keep up with my chapter. By the time we marched into the first campground (Choisel), we had covered approximately twenty-five miles. 

My companions collapsed into the communal tent assigned to the Scots; I pitched my tent in one of the few dry spaces left by the hordes of German-speakers. Although it hadn’t rained, the fields and forests of northern France were damp and muddy—reminiscent of descriptions from the First World War. The temperature plummeted to 37 ◦F. I shivered in my sleeping bag and listened alternatively to German Boy Scouts chatting in the tent by my feet and to Poles snoring in the tent by my head. Too tired and sore to eat properly, I had stuffed berries into my mouth like a bear. I felt like a bear. I probably smelled like one, too.

(photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

Pentecost Sunday, May 14, 2016

At 5 AM we were awakened by a recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” and a warm French voice addressing us, his “amis pèlerins” (pilgrim friends), through a loudspeaker. I limped with throbbing feet through the dark towards the nearest porta potties. I was wondering if I could be any colder when I saw a troop of bare-chested French Boy Scouts preparing to do calisthenics. My misery gave way to acute gratitude that I was not a French Boy Scout.

In the confusion of striking camp, I lost my chapter, which unbeknownst to me had been assigned a place near the front. After dragging my beast of a suitcase to the foreigners’ truck, I stuck a bread roll in my pocket and joined the procession. I hurried ahead until I found the good old Union Jack and flag of Saint George. Thus I sang a rosary with the English continent and then chatted with an American-Polish expat from Chicago. When he went to have his confession heard, I skittered ahead in search of the Scots, passing company after company of French, then a company of Poles, and then companies of German-speakers, all alternating prayers and hymns in their native languages with prayers and hymns in Latin. Finally giving up the Scots until lunch-time, I bandaged my latest blisters and rejoined the English.

The Scots had had a nice lunch break by the time I found them sitting on a field of gravel in the Damoiseaux Basin. An altar had been set up under a great tent and an aisle roped off; I wolfed down a tin of tuna as Sunday Mass began. As on Saturday, Mass was said according to the Extraordinary Form of the Rite, with readings repeated, and the homily given, in French. We were told we were the “youth of God”—and then my French skills disappeared, so I scribbled in my notebook.

After Mass, we set off again, I being very careful not to lose my chapter this time. Our path crossed a highway here and there, but we mostly walked across or around great green fields of wheat or golden fields of canola and through sun-dappled forests, in whose mud we took our breaks. The sight of a long trail of pilgrims and banners already on the other side of a field, followed by a look back at the longer trail behind, was deeply moving. We were making incarnate the metaphor of the People of God being on a difficult but hope-filled earthy pilgrimage towards heaven. In Chartres, as in heaven, we would not have to get up at 5 AM and our feet would not hurt. When the cathedral’s twin towers, still miles away, first appeared on the horizon, the French pilgrims around me (I had fallen behind again) fell to their knees and sang Salve Regina.

(photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

The Scots arrived at the camp at Gas well before sunset, and I rushed to set up my tent before the foreigners’ section was swamped by German-speakers. By dusk the Germans’ tents were so thickly clustered I had to pick my way to the porta potties very carefully, so as not to fall over a teenage German/Austrian/Swiss Boy Scout and his guitar. The ground before the foreigners’ communal tents was covered with prickly vines as twisted as heaps of snakes. The French areas looked like vast tent-farms.

In a sheltered clearing, a tabernacle was sent up on a sanctuary under a canopy. Apparently there was Benediction, a consecration of pilgrims to Our Lady and all-night exposition there; I was too tired to investigate. When around 10 PM I crawled into my sleeping bag, I could hear beautiful singing amplified from the open-air church. Unfortunately, I could also hear German-speaking youth singing to a guitar. At first I gave them the benefit of the doubt—perhaps they were singing hymns—but when they broke into “Oh! Susannah” –oh, blessed earplugs!—I had had enough and escaped into sleep.  

Pentecost Monday, May 16, 2016

The pilgrims were allowed to sleep until 5:30 AM when we were awakened by Pie Jesu and the friendly French voice. I stood up—and promptly fell down. My feet did not yet work. However, I managed to dress and strike camp much more quickly this time and to find my company before they were sent off. A renewed cheer was palpable on our last morning. When we had our morning break in a grassy forest clearing, a young French wit cried out, “But, monsieur, there is not a single pilgrim who is sitting in mud!” The organizers were indeed going easier on us, but naturally our feet still hurt. At the lunch break, I waited my turn outside the porta potties on my knees. And there I had my downfall.

An angelic little boy was offering all the pilgrims in the toilet queue little pieces of meat from a plate. Although the afternoon was (for once) hot and sunny, I took a piece and within minutes felt very, very ill. A man at the front of the next queue offered to exchange places with me—which in the pilgrimage context was an act of supreme generosity—and so I was able to be disgustingly ill in private. I saw spots, my head swam, apparently I was going to faint. My pilgrimage was over, I thought; I would have to be ferried to the cathedral by the emergency minibus.

But a moment later, I rallied enough to totter back to my company. I lay down in the grass.

“To come all this way and to be defeated by a little piece of sausage!” wailed one of the mothers.

“I am not defeated,” I snarled from under my hat. “I just need a little rest.”

The mothers diagnosed low blood sugar. A father offered to take me to the nearby doctor. Our chaplain threw me a bread roll from his special priest’s rations. I ate the bread and an apple and soon felt entirely better. It was a pilgrimage miracle.

I fear my readers will be dismayed by the earthy nature of this report, but the physical challenges and privations were such that it was almost impossible to forget one’s corporeal nature during the pilgrimage. Prayer and praise became blessed distractions from the privations of the journey. The beginning of every rosary was a relief, and we sung more and more hymns the closer we came to Chartres.

(photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

At last the vast company of pilgrims turned onto a concrete road and the spires loomed large before us. The cathedral was still an hour or more away, but we were inspired. Chapter after chapter took turns singing “Chartres Sonne” (Chartres is calling), and as the first pilgrims reached the cathedral, its bells began to ring out a greeting. Young soldiers guarded the precincts with machine guns: in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, France is still on High Alert, and Christian pilgrims are just too obviously soft targets.

The Scots Chapter was lucky. Not all the pilgrims could fit into the cathedral, but we were assigned a space in the south transept. From our space on the cold stone floor we could see both the glorious rose window in the north transept and, if we stood, the altar. As the soles of my heels were raw, I didn’t stand. Instead I knelt and prayed in thanksgiving as tears dripped down my face. I was just so grateful to be there, so grateful to have got there on my own two feet, and so grateful for all the blessings God had given me in my life.

Beside me a French Guide leader in our Scottish Chapter, Claire Moreau, was quietly celebrating her 22nd birthday. She had completed her tenth Chartres pilgrimage—she made her first when she was eight—and was home in France after a university term in Edinburgh. Her mother and brothers were elsewhere in the cathedral, and this was the first time in ten years she had belonged to a chapter assigned a space inside Chartres Cathedral.

“But that’s wonderful,” I said. “It’s like a birthday present. It’s your birthday, it’s your tenth pilgrimage, and here you are for the first time celebrating in the cathedral. It’s all come together.”

(photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

As Claire teared up, I stammered an apology.

“No, it is just emotion,” she replied. “It is as you said: it has all come together.”

An hour later, Mass in the Extraordinary Mass began. Again the readings were repeated, and the homily was given, in French. Subsequently, I have discovered that the homilist was the Benedictine abbot of Fontgombeau. Of his homily, I understood only snippets. There was something about our hurt feet, and we were asked why we had come to Chartres in the first place. As a physical challenge? To meet friends?

That was a question I had asked myself many times on the journey. Was I there for God or because I hadn’t wanted to disappoint my Chapter leader? Had I been looking forward to being part of the traditionalists’ principal international event, to waving the tradition-loving flag? Well, perhaps all those things. And if I was hoping for spiritual fruits, those came too—but they came afterwards. It was not until the pilgrimage was over, and I was back in Scotland, that I began to taste them.

However, the Whit Monday Mass was itself incredibly moving, especially when over ten thousand voices rose up in hymns of praise. Because these hymns were Latin, they belonged—and didn’t belong—to the pilgrims, French or foreigner, equally. As the procession left the cathedral—carrying on a dark cushion the recently acquired ring of Saint Joan of Arc—priests and pilgrims sang in one voice: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus, Christus imperat!

(Photo: www.nd-chretiente.com/)

About Dorothy Cummings McLean 23 Articles

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.