The Pilgrimage to Chartres
Thousands to return to France in May 2010
Michael J. Matt
Notre Dame de Chrétienté
The Remnant Tours will again be organizing the American Chapter on the 2010 Notre Dame de Chrétienté Pilgrimage to Chartres, France. As there’s been a great deal of new interest in the famous “Chartres Pilgrimage” on the part of visitors to this site over the past few days, we’ve decided to reproduce a 2005 report on the Pilgrimage that conveys some sense of what it is like to walk the 70-mile, 3-day pilgrimage across France. If you are interested in making the Chartres Pilgrimage, please click here for more information. MJM
There’s no feeling quite like standing outside a Paris hotel in the pre-dawn gloom and looking up at a bank of black clouds rolling over the city. Only those who’ve previously walked the 70-mile Pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres can appreciate what those clouds can mean for pilgrims. In a word: misery.
By the time the Remnant chapter of some 55 Americans reached the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris that morning those same clouds had given way to a downpour, the worst I’d seen since the Pilgrimage of 1993. Once we’d raised the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the American flag we had to slosh through puddles on our way into the Cathedral for the send-off ceremony.
Once out of the rain, the thought of starting out on a 3-day walk in such inclement weather was more than daunting, it was depressing. All that mud, those drenched forests—for three, long days! After walking dozens of miles per day in water-logged shoes, we’d get to sleep in wet sleeping bags and on soggy ground. Oh, goodie!
The spirit wasn’t even willing to say nothing of the flesh. As dread overwhelmed us, my thoughts ran something like this: “What am I doing in France? After fourteen years of this, haven’t I learned? What’s the matter with me!” Vintage Chaucerian musings, I’m sure.
But the grace of pilgrimage is a funny thing, and it manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Just when I was about to duck into a café and deny even knowing that small army of wet pilgrims, a Frenchman whose name I don’t know but who’s wished us “bon pelerinage” every year for fourteen years, slapped me on the back and shouted through the falling rain: “Once again, my friend, we meet. Who is crazier—me, the Frenchman who should walk home rather than to Chartres? Or you, the American who travels 3,000 miles for this?”
In an instant, the sense of dread was undermined by a good laugh as my nameless friend smiled broadly through the raindrops. Veterans of the Chartres Pilgrimage are brothers even if they don’t always remember each others’ names.
Moments later, thousands of those brothers knelt on the stone floor of the ancient cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris—Frenchmen, Americans, Australians, Germans, Englishmen, Canadians, Spaniards, Poles, Swiss, Irish, Scots, Catholics one and all!—to receive the pilgrim’s blessing from traditionalist priests who stood before them in the sanctuary to send them into the heart of what’s left of Christendom.
Suddenly the storm outside the stone walls didn’t seem quite so fearsome. Why shouldn’t an old-world pilgrimage be rained on by a new world which despises the very idea of pilgrimage. The good spirit began to return and with it, even despite the driving rain, an eagerness to get started. The pilgrimage and the storm became a sort of metaphor for life. In the safety of the old church the raging tempest outside seemed less threatening, even if the pilgrim must still walk through it in order to reach the other side.
The raised statue of Our Lady of Christendom was the first to venture out of the safety of the Cathedral. Behind her an army of thousands filed into the driving rain. An endless column of Catholics took to the streets of Paris. Christendom was on the move.
Rain? What rain!
And so it began: the 3-day walk into the past that is the Catholic training ground for the future. “Why do you go back every year,” they ask. But those who ask this question haven’t experienced singing the “Credo” with 10,000 Catholics. They have not yet heard Mass behind walls a thousand years old. They don’t know what it’s like to sing Ave Maria over and over again, with tears of pride and joy streaming down their faces. They don’t know the Chartres Pilgrimage.
Here in what’s left of Catholic France Americans are removed from the modern world and set down in the heart of a Christendom they thought existed only in the pages of old history books. At every turn in these woods, at every genuflection in these cathedrals, at every night in these camps the baggage of the modern world is purged away and crushed beneath the feet of 10,000 pilgrims. At Chartres the soul is renewed not in the spirit of phony Renewal but in that indomitable spirit of the sacred that is as old as history.
Lying in a damp sleeping bag on the first night of the Pilgrimage and drifting off to sleep one can quite easily imagine what it must have been like to be alive in the days of Christendom. Through the walls of the tent one hears the night sounds of 10,000 preparing for sleep. The hushed voices, the gentle pounding of tent stakes into the ground, rain drops tapping against tent flaps.
Somewhere across the camp French scouts sing their evening prayers while on the other side the Swiss chapter sings itself to sleep with an old shepherd's song. With the stress of the modern world having been barred at the gates an indescribable peace fills the soul. There are no cell phones, no laptops, no TVs, no Blackberries, no noise—it’s a night filled with the forgotten things of the real world. Blisters notwithstanding, sleep comes easily on the Pilgrimage to Chartres.
The pilgrims rise before the sun the next morning, Pentecost Sunday. Breakfast consists of French bread and hot chocolate. Then on blistered feet and aching knees, they set out again on the road to Chartres, the words "Come Holy Ghost" on their lips. First stop, Mass in the woods, then lunch, more singing, meditations, rosaries, happy conversations...and walking, walking and still more walking through the forest and over the fields of France until the sun sets again.
On the second night, the camp plays host to a special Guest. Exposition of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament runs from dusk to dawn, and begins in the usual way—with Benediction. As one kneels in wet grass the sun having long since set and the shades of night falling, it again becomes a simple thing to return to the days when the old Faith was Europe.
Up on top of a little slope and beneath a white canopy the figure of a priest, flanked by two candle-bearing servers, can be seen holding a golden monstrance over a sea of kneeling, mud-spattered pilgrims. Except for the lonely sound of a single bell silence reigns supreme.
The King has entered the camp.
The look on the pilgrims' faces is the same from one to the next—serene but deadly serious. As they kneel here on the ground it isn’t difficult to imagine them with bloodied scabbards secured to their belts and soiled red crosses emblazoned across their chests. And why not? These are no less crusaders than the ones of old; they too fight for the survival of the ancient Faith and the protection of the holy places, especially those inside their hearts. They are cross-bearers in every sense of the word. It’s a privilege to pray with them!
Thousands kneel quietly before Our Lord but they don’t have to be here. Their tents, comparatively warm and dry, are waiting, scattered over the nearby hillside and beyond. They are exhausted; no one would even notice, let alone blame them, for staying back and seeing to their blisters. And, yet, here they are in the rain and on their knees, consecrating themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
All hope is lost? Please!
“Pardonnez moi, Monsieur.” I turned to see three jeanettes—little scouts from the famous Catholic village of Riaumont. They were dressed in the traditional navy blue skirts and berets of their Catholic troop, and they couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. Two of them were assisting a “fallen comrade” whose ankle and knee were freshly wrapped in a bandage. It was painful to look at the suffering little one as she grimaced with each step.
They were returning from the medical tent, obviously, and I surmised they were taking the injured girl back to her tent. But I was wrong. They were looking for a place to kneel down, and, when one was found, that’s what they did. The injured girl kept her arm around the neck of her patient friend, and there she remained for the duration of the vigil, her little shoulders shaking in the cold night air.
“I remember these little ones from years ago,” I thought. But, no, the first time I walked this Pilgrimage these hadn’t been born. The ones I’d first seen years ago are now married and have children of their own. I know some of them still. They make up the heart and soul of the traditionalist movement in France.
In other words, what’s been happening each year on the road to Chartres cannot now be undone. I again saw proof of this during Benediction—a whole new generation of traditional Catholics was kneeling in the rain before the altar of Christ the King.
France is not going to lose the old Faith. Generations of traditional Catholics are being confirmed in it each year along the plain of La Beauce between Chartres and Paris. And it’s not just the Pilgrimage of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté. Going in the opposite direction at the same time—from Chartres to Sacre Coeur in Paris—is yet another traditionalist throng of thousands making the Pentecost Pilgrimage under the auspices of the Society of St. Pius X. Every spring on Pentecost weekend, over 20,000 traditional Catholics shut down the city of Chartres, Montmartre and a significant portion of Paris over the course of three days in order to bring the old Faith back to the bosom of the eldest daughter of the Church.
The Revolution can quite easily handle our “rightful aspirations” for the Mass “we prefer,” but when traditionalists take to the streets, under the mantle of prayer and public penance, and put into play a Catholic idea that is larger than the Revolution itself… this is something else entirely!
The theme of this year’s Chartres Pilgrimage was “Our Lady, Rampart of Christendom”, and, indeed, that is precisely what she is— the rampart that stands against the advance of the modern world. She leads us through this “storm” and we follow her, not out of obligation, but out of love, the love of a child for his mother—a concept the Revolution has spent five hundred years trying to destroy.
The powers of hell have one temptation for us: There is no God, and the Catholic Church is a medieval collection of superstitious myths! But at Chartres one sees the folly of this lie. The ember of the old Faith continues to burn against all odds in France, America, Australia, Germany, England, Canada, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and in every other country. The old Faith is alive and well in a movement of global Catholic restoration that is in love with the Mother of the God.
We are not alone, and those who bear witness to the Truth—to the Light that the darkness cannot comprehend—will continue to believe and will not cease believing. At Chartres this reality becomes overwhelmingly obvious, which is why we not only return every spring but also bring with us as many young Americans as possible.
Let the storm hammer against the “rampart of Christendom”. It will have no lasting effect. The Catholic Church will always rise again. With the old-world ideas of pilgrimage, prayer, penance and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church will outlast the Revolution as surely as the sun will rise again tomorrow.
When Pentecost Monday dawned this year the rain had ceased, the skies had cleared and the storm had passed. And so will all storms pass. Catholics living in the modern world will find the courage to remain on the path of pilgrimage that leads out of darkness and into light--the Light of the World. On the road to Chartres all of this becomes perfectly clear. Benedictamus Domino!
Michael J. Matt
Notre-Dame de Chrétienté