Thirty-one years ago this month, a group of French traditional Catholics changed my life, and the lives of countless Catholics forever. Their organization is Notre-Dame de Chrétienté(Our Lady of Christendom), and at that time they counted among their number the revered pioneer traditionalist (and my old friend), Arnaud de Lassus (RIP).
In 1991, Mr. de Lassus encouraged The Remnant to take part in a little-known (at that time) event called the “Pentecost Pilgrimage of Tradition” to Chartres, France. With the help of Mr. de Lassus, The Remnant organized the first U.S. chapter in the history of that Pilgrimage. We called it Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas.
Thus began a journey which would take the traditional Catholic movement to the next level. It is not an exaggeration to say that, thanks to the Pilgrimage to Chartres, Traditionalism was able to publicly manifest its international influence, vitality, and youth for the first time.
This year Notre-Dame de Chrétientécelebrates its 40th Anniversary and, as U.S. Coordinator, I’d like to offer a word of thanks to my French brothers for the magnificent work, along with a few reflections on what the Pilgrimage to Chartres has meant to me over the years.
Notre-Dame de Chrétienté did not establish the Pilgrimage to Chartres. Rather, they reestablished what had been one of the most important pilgrimages of the Middle Ages. It is, in fact, the original French leg of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
In the Middle Ages, pilgrims who could not physically go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land would instead make the arduous journey to the tomb of St. James the Apostle in the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, consecrated some eight hundred years ago.
Down through the centuries, French Catholics who could not walk the thousand miles to Santiago de Compostela, would instead go to Notre-Dame de Chartres, the great gothic reliquary of one of Christendom’s most precious relics, the Veil of Our Lady – used both to wrap the infant Christ at His birth and to cover His nakedness as He died on the Cross.
The 12th-Century Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres is unique among Christendom’s cathedrals for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are no saints or kings buried in her crypt. Why not? Because nothing fearful or dark was ever permitted to mar the tranquility of what Henry Adams calls the “playhouse of Our Lady.”
In the Middle Ages, crusaders would travel to Chartres for the sole purpose of touching their tunics to the Veil before embarking on Crusade. On bended knee, they would pledge themselves to fight in her honor and plead for protection beneath her mantle.
For a thousand years, Notre-Dame de Chartres was a place of education for the pilgrims of Christendom, who would come to “be with their mother” and to study the “book of Christianity” that is the Cathedral. They could not read the printed word, but they were taught to read Chartres’s catechism of glass – the famous stained-glass windows, which teach the story of the Incarnation from Adam to the Apocalypse.
I once walked through the Cathedral with the famous Malcolm Miller, world renowned expert on Chartres. He told me that, though he’d been leading tours of the Cathedral for 50 years, he knew less than half of all there is to know of the mysteries carved into the stone and set in the windows of Chartres. There are sacred images sculpted even into the Cathedral’s roof, thus visible only from Heaven’s vantage point.
Chartres, in other words, is a massive catechism carved in stone. And when one walks to Chartres today, he does so in the footsteps of Christendom’s greatest saints, scholars, kings, and queens who revered Chartres as a veritable vestibule of paradise.
The Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres continued uninterrupted, even down into modern times. It was postponed during the World Wars for obvious reasons, but it took the Spirit of Vatican II to cancel it completely.
Which brings us back to Notre-Dame de Chrétienté.
In 1982, as a labor of love for Our Lady and the Traditional Latin Mass, the French traditionalists began unearthing the old pilgrimage route from Paris to Chartres. But on their first Pilgrimage, the doors of Notre Dame were closed to them. They were obliged to offer the Latin Mass outside.
But they persisted and, by the time I walked the Pilgrimage in 1991, not only had the doors of the Cathedral been opened to us, but the number of pilgrims had swelled to over 10,000. The average age of the pilgrims was just 25 years old.
The Chartres Pilgrimage represented the youth movement that Traditional Catholicism had become. I too was twenty-five when I first walked to Chartres and witnessed the “clans” of Tradition unite beneath the banner of Christ the King, an army of God, who welcomed the newly arrived Americans as brothers.
These are the sons and daughters of the original traditionalists – the Catholics of the Vendee in Western France who, two hundred years before, had laid down their lives for altar and throne against the Revolution.
Grounded in the Faith planted deep in the forests of the Vendee by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort a century before, the Vendeans went to war under the banner of the Sacre Coeur – the Sacred Heart of Jesus, sewn into their uniforms and emblazoned on their battle flags.
Theirs was a Royal and Catholic Army and, though they eventually lost their battle against the Enlightenment’s first act of genocide, their blood watered the tree of Tradition throughout France. And in 1991, I found myself in the company of their sons and daughters, still marching against that Revolution behind banners of the Sacre Coeur.
It is difficult to describe the impact the Chartres Pilgrimage had on my young life as a Catholic. It instilled in me an earnest desire to spend the rest of my life standing with the Vendeans, wearing their Sacre Coeur, and uniting our “clans” with theirs.
I am a cradle Catholic, and so I did not “find Tradition” on the Pilgrimage to Chartres as so many thousands have done. But I think it’s fair to say that I found myself. I had grown up traditional Catholic, learned to serve the Latin Mass offered by underground priests, received the Sacrament of Confirmation in secret from Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I had literally played at the feet of Michael Davies.
I grew up with Tradition, in other words, and yet it was on the road to Chartres that I experienced firsthand all that had been taken away from us by the Revolution, i.e., our birthright, our identity, our raison d’etre as Catholics.
And it was in the shadows of the Chartres Cathedral – kneeling on stones where Louis IX might have knelt and hearing the only Mass Joan of Arc ever knew – that I began to understand the Christocentric majesty of the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ, rooted in Tradition, sustained by a Christian culture so abiding that it became the foundation of Western Civilization.
I could plainly see that love had built the Chartres Cathedral – the playhouse of the Mother of God, the unsigned masterpiece of Christian faith, the castle of hope whose spires point us to heaven itself.
Standing awestruck beneath her forests of flying buttresses and vast rose windows, I wept as the “clans of Christendom” sang out in one voice, all ten thousand of them: Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.
In that defining moment, the blindfold fell away. My father’s war became my war, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life fighting for the restoration of the thing I’d found on the Road to Chartres: The Faith of our fathers, the Mass of our fathers, the glory of God, and the joy of being Christian. Je suis chrétien! voilà ma gloire.
On that first pilgrimage – after three days walking on blistered feet, falling asleep to the songs and evening prayers of the French scouts, getting up in the morning cold and wet but strangely eager to begin again – I fell in love with the Catholic Thing.
And now in 2022, after a two-year hiatus due to the evil scourge of Covid, God has seen fit to permit us to return, perhaps in preparation for an even worse war, to pledge fealty to Notre Dame de Chartres, begging her to lead us out of the darkness of the present and back to the future.
And on this 40th Anniversary of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté, I thank God for the Pilgrimage to Chartres and for our French brothers and sisters who restored to our sad and desperate world what Michael Davies called the “most important annual event happening in the Church today.” Indeed. Ad multos annos, Notre-Dame de Chrétienté!
We are all Chartres pilgrims now, eager to answer the call of Chartres – in this life and in the next – to give honor and glory to Christ the King: Chartres sonne, Chartres t’appelle! Gloire, honneur au Christ-Roi!
Vive le Christ-Roi!