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Pilgrimages and Catholic Tradition

14 May, 2014 0 Comments

Some signs of a half-full glass

By Lyle Dunne

Most of the discussion among traditionalists is about the Mass, but the rest of Catholic life suffered to an even greater extent at the time of “reform”. Confession has all but vanished, benediction is almost unknown, and a whole variety of aspects of Catholic life, offering various combinations of charitable, spiritual, intellectual and social aspects, have disappeared altogether.

But one thing that seems to be enjoying a resurgence is the idea of pilgrimage.

This may be due in part to plenary indulgences offered for pilgrimages in the 2012-13 “Year of Faith” – but I think there’s more to it.

I have been meaning to put together, for some time, a piece on the role played by pilgrimages within the Catholic tradition, with contributions from some pilgrim veterans in the traditional community – some of which I’ve been sitting on for some time.  (The contributions, not the veterans.)

That time has now come. I present a series of pieces on important pilgrimages, in order of seniority.

It would be false modesty, however, to refrain from mentioning my own singular contribution to the pilgrimage tradition, namely the invention or popularization of what I call “pilgrimage lite”. This consists in either arriving late, or (ideally) turning up at the start of a pilgrimage (which usually involves little actual serious walking), but fading quietly away for much of the middle, only to merge seamlessly with the crowd and share in the rejoicing at the end.

Having recently returned from doing about one-third of the first of these pilgrimages, and around half the second, I can tell you that, while challenging, they’re not necessarily an “all-or-nothing” experience, reserved for the young, fit and radically devout.

The theme that emerges from these stories is, for me, one of hope.

Camino de Santiago

When: Any time (But I suggest avoiding August, and the winter months)

Where: There are a number of routes converging on Santiago de Compostella, but the most popular is the Camino Frances (French Route), from St Jean Pied du Port. I met quite a few people who had started in France, or even farther afield – and I know one local lad who’s going to do it from Paris in 2016. In keeping with the “Pilgrimage Lite” theme, I did a section from Pamplona to Burgos (avoiding the Pyrenees section from St Jean as more than I was ready for at the start).

Practical details: there is no single source, but useful sites include; (“Official” information) (Voluminous Q&A on every aspect) (Australian friends of the Camino – get your “Pilgrim Passport” here)

A section of the Camino near Burgos

Here are some reflections on my Santiago “sampler”, about a third from near the beginning. Most of the terrain was much easier than this photo suggests! God Willing I’ll get to finish it. Lyle.

For a slightly romanticised take, see The Way, which I reviewed here; this film is credited or blamed for an even-greater increase in recent numbers on the Camino, especially among us Anglophone baby boomers.

This Pilgrimage is by far the oldest (operating since the 8th Century) and largest (up to 200,00 participants annually) – and also the least “Traditional” (Latin Masses are very scarce in Spain, for some reason).

Numbers were reputedly much larger in the Middle Ages, but dwindled to almost nothing by the 1970s. Its subsequent resurgence, however mixed the motives of participants, is surely cause for optimism.

The Camino is something of a “do-it-yourself” pilgrimage: there is no particular starting time, and no central organisation. Masses are available en route, of course, but it’s not always easy to find out when. As a (partial) result, relatively few pilgrims seem to attend Mass. Indeed, there’s not an obvious high level of commitment to the Church per se – many people seem to be on some kind of spiritual journey, but it’s relatively uncommon to encounter overt evidence of Catholicism, let alone tradition.

I did start a Salve Regina with an Australian nun in a twelfth-century church in one town, to test the acoustics and spiritual temperature. A quorum soon emerged, and someone from Modena(!) launched into the Asperges!

But compared with the other “event” pilgrimages, there’s no structured singing, prayer, group liturgy etc, though a great deal more time for private prayer and reflection. (Not, in my view, TOO much – but if I’d done the full 4-6weeks I might have a different view.)

I did take along Prima Luce, Tallis Scholars etc on iPod – together with some country music, folk etc to get me up hills, and yes even some James Taylor – but it’s not the same.

One might imagine this to be fertile ground for traditionalists. In the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella are housed what are considered to be the remains of the apostle St James (the greater). Discovered there in the 8th century, in the last corner of Spain free from Muslim domination, by a shepherd who saw a vision of falling stars in a field (hence the name, “St James of the Field of Stars”), they were immediately proclaimed as genuine by the local bishop, and became a major pilgrim site. A popular image, then as now, is “Santiago Matamoros” – St James, Hammer of the Moors: the Saint wearing a pilgrim hat, on a white horse, with a sword in his hand, decapitating Moors.

The relics, their popularity boosted by the pilgrim tradition, formed the focus of the great long push back against Islam, the Reconquista, culminating in the fall of Granada and final unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella – Los Reyes Catholicos – in 1492.

In other words, a fairly unambiguous manifestation of the Church Militant. The sort of image that might make the present pontiff slightly uncomfortable.

So it comes as something of a surprise that the Camino should now be overwhelmingly popular among not only Catholics of all kinds, but a range of new-age types as well.

The spiritual profile of Camino pilgrims is a complex question, however. The film The Way shows pilgrims with motivations on different levels, not always apparent to the casual interlocutor. In a debate on the theme of “what is a pilgrim?” on one of the websites listed above, I made the observation that in an “exit poll” of pilgrims arriving at Santiago, 95% nominated “religious” or “religious and cultural” as their motivation; only 5% chose “cultural” without the religious element.

I think there is a great opportunity for some selfless traditionalists to run an albergue, or have a similar presence on the Camino!

Some practicalities:

  • Accommodation is mostly in albergues (hostels) provided by municipalities, religious orders etc; most are cheap and generally provide a cheap pilgrim dinner (or have a deal with a nearby café) and breakfast. However in summer they often fill up, so pilgrims should look to arrive early or book ahead (not always possible).
  • As with any pilgrimage (only more so, given the duration), footcare (double socks, worn-in boots, regular “ventilation”, taping at or before first sign of blisters) is vital.
  • Everyone takes too much gear; err on the side of less (and light quick-dry clothes), remembering there are shops on the way, and if necessary post some ahead, or use the pack-carrying services.
  • Take rest days as needed – in a hostel rather than an albergue if you can, to avoid being woken at dawn

I started off with the view that doing it in several sections was a bit slack, but ended up concluding it was the only way to go for me. Brierley, the generally-sensible-but-slightly-wet author of the best guide, says most people do it in about five weeks. Much faster and you risk it focusing unduly on the physical.

I wanted to do a few side trips, which add to this. Also, to me it seemed a crime to stride through cities like Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon with having a look around. There are some absolutely glorious Churches, monasteries, pilgrim hostels and the like, ranging from simple and austere Romanesque wayside chapels to magnificent altarpieces embodying all the splendour which Spanish Baroque art (and South American gold) can produce.

Also – due to some combination of the music as mentioned, weather conditions, the glorious scenery, perhaps something spiritual, the wine fountain at Irache – there were a couple of occasions when I was particularly struck by a sense of the sublime.  I don’t think I would’ve got so much out of a forced march.

Paris to Chartres

When: Pentecost weekend

Where: Paris to Chartres!

Practical details:

Australian pilgrims outside Chartres cathedral (photo courtesy of Patrick Giam.)

This pilgrimage is a revival of an ancient tradition – to the extent that it is now a Traditional pilgrimage, ie all liturgies are in the Extraordinary form.

Due to the large size (up to 20,000 participants), there is limited catering, and the pilgrimage is divided into national and regional “chapters”. The Australians usually walk with the English or other English speaking chapters, however I was fortunate enough to be able to attend (on the “lite” basis – there’s some excellent B&B accommodation nearby!) the 30th anniversary of the revival in 2012, when for the first time we had a separate Australian chapter. Here are some reflections from Helen Cooney, one of the organisers.)

“The Australian Chapter of the 30th Pentecost Pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres was a delicate balance between insanity and grace. On the one hand, in quite hot weather, we walked a long way, over rocky terrain – at a pace that at times seemed insane. On the other hand, approximately twenty Australians joined eight to ten thousand Catholics walking and praying in honour of Our Lady. It was a Christian witness to the World. We returned to Australia in what the Bishops here were calling the “Year of Grace”.

Before the pilgrimage, we scouted around for camping gear, bought supplies from the supermarket, and said a rosary in Sacré Cœur. On the Thursday, Philippa, another of the organisers, worked tirelessly finalising our Pilgrim’s Primer, while I answered questions from a group of largely first-time pilgrims, and debated flagpole heights with Emmanuel, our French-Australian chef de chapitre. (His preference for the taller ones prevailed, not only because he was my ‘chef’ but also because it was his job to take them on the metro in peak hour!)

We gathered as a group for dinner on Friday night, the eve of our penance. There was some panic at the apparent absence of non-meat options, but this turned out to be linguistic confusion. Eventually everyone agreed that, yes, the restaurant did specialise in seafood, even if we couldn’t recognise the names, eg “Sea Wolf” turned out to be fish: we weren’t expected to eat carnivores. At 6:30am on Saturday we attended Mass in the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, were blessed, marshalled, and finally walked out of Paris.

The morning was hard work: it was hot, and you were expected to have brought your own water. For first-timers, this was a reality check. But even for those with stamina, the afternoon leg is the toughest: a hill climb, struggling up rocky goat tracks. I drew on St Mary of the Cross because I wasn’t up to singing Help of Christians, Guard This Land. But I was helped by the Rosary in French, sung at speed by our friends from Chavagnes International College who walked with us.

That evening, as we rested our tender feet and ate our soup, many doubted whether we could continue – but the next day we drew on our reserves, and pushed on, helped by a night’s rest, and litanies led by Fr Michael Rowe. We also pushed forward to keep up with Fr Mark Whithoos, who was just ahead of us with Juventutem England.

On day two you need stamina, which for me was faltering after an exhausting preparation period. I pulled up stumps for the last ten minutes and watched the pilgrims walk by. While the Dutch were keeping up with the tune of folk songs played on two ukuleles, the French yelled at each other to be supportive. The English complained, while the Irish thought they were downtrodden. The Americans were youthfully brash, and said wholesome things like “Drat, I wanted to serve for that Mass!”

Our Chapter, not unlike our country, was a haven for people who didn’t fit into any of those cultures. On day three, the group, now swollen from 20 to 50, heard about sin and other rarely-spoken-of aspects of our faith from the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer (formerly the Transalpine Redemptorists), of Papa Stronsay in the Orkneys, and Christchurch, NZ. Their sermons were supplemented by those from our Chaplain, Fr Mannes Tellis OP. It was a true blessing to have Fr Mannes’ gentle guidance. The Priests worked three full days. They heard confessions, said and served at Masses and walked throughout. I’m pleased the French hosts looked after them with a hot meal.

On seeing Chartres Cathedral, despite the practice being banned, the Australians fell to our knees and prayed the Salve Regina. We were blessed to make it inside the gracious edifice for Mass. The peace was punctuated by discussion of the cleaning of the building and the controversy it has caused. Luckily for me, I was spent and hadn’t noticed, so I wasn’t annoyed by the idea that something old must be dirty. Instead I just spent the whole time focussed on prayer, which as an organiser you rarely get to do. Prayer, punctuated by creaking my body into position to be duly respectful to the Blessed Sacrament.

It’s nearing two years since I walked from Paris to Chartres under the patronage of St Mary of the Cross while taking inspiration from Our Lady Help of Christians. With a little bit of distance, I can safely say that celebrating Catholic life in that way was mad but a true Grace.

Australian Chartres Pilgrims are a special breed many of whom can be found on facebook. I hope to return to the pilgrimage every three years, the next time being in 2015. In the interim, I must learn how to change the URL of a facebook page.

More excellent photos by Patrick Giam of the 2012 pilgrimage with its historic Australian Chapter can be seen here:

Christus Rex

When: Feast of Christ the King, last weekend in October

Where: Ballarat to Bendigo (with a brief bus leg)

Practical details:

The Christus Rex Pilgrimage was begun in 1991, inspired by the revived Paris-Chartres Pentecost Pilgrimage. It has become a central part of the traditional calendar in Australia, especially for the young. Slightly shorter and perhaps less penitential than Paris-Chartres, it also fulfills an important role as an opportunity for traditionalists from around Australia to share knowledge of liturgy and sacred music, network and socialise.

Tony Pead, a veteran of every Ballarat-Bendigo Pilgrimage – yes, that’s 23 of them – shares with us some insights gleaned from the unique perspective of this experience.

Scene from Christus Rex pilgrimage 2011 – photo courtesy of

One of the most formative and enduring experiences I have had as an Aussie “Traddie Laddie” just has to be the legendary annual Christus Rex Pilgrimage between the cathedral churches of St Patrick’s, Ballarat, and Sacred Heart, Bendigo.

The Christus Rex (Christ the King) Pilgrimage was the combined brainchild of the Council of the old Ecclesia Dei Society (EDS), which sought to revive not only the Traditional Latin Mass but also all the wider cultural manifestations of Catholicism which came along with it – in this case, pilgrimages.

Inspired by the then recently-revived traditionalist Paris to Chartres Pilgrimage in France, where pilgrims walk from the Cathedrals of Notre Dame du Paris to Notre Dame du Chartres over three days, we thought that we should attempt something similar.  Of course, the reason pilgrimages had not ‘taken off’ in Australia hitherto was undoubtedly (a) the ‘tyranny of distance’ and (b) the lack of Australian saints and relics thereof.

The only state compact enough to allow a similar pilgrimage between cathedrals was Victoria, where the two dioceses of Ballarat and Sandhurst (ie Bendigo) adjoined, and the distance between them was walkable within a three day period.  The lack of indigenous saints and relics, it was decided, could be overcome by dedicating the pilgrimage to the honour of the social reign of Christ the King.

I was, by sweet serendipity, amongst the pilgrims on the inaugural Christus Rex Pilgrimage in October 1991.  There we were, about twenty-five of us, somewhat self-consciously walking through the beautiful Victorian countryside led by the intrepid Fr John Parsons, of Canberra and Goulburn archdiocese, while singing and reciting a myriad hymns, litanies and rosaries, and thinking repeatedly – like the Donkey in Shrek, having no idea as to the course we had before us – “are we there yet”?  I have never, I can assure you, been so fatigued as on that inaugural pilgrimage before or since.

Since that time, and especially since the advent of social networks like FaceBook, the numbers have increased at a steady rate, and in 2011, the 20th anniversary, there were nearly 400. A notable feature of Christus Rex is its wide-ranging age demographic, from babies through to 80-plus, but with the greatest number coming from the 15 to 30 age bracket.  Last year the most numerous age cohort was the 15 to 19-year-olds, just ahead of the 20 to 30s.  It was like a World Youth Day event, which augurs well for the growth of the traditional movement in Australia.  I thought to myself in a wry moment: the Bishops would be horrified!

The pilgrimage has been, and continues to be, many things to many people in terms of their personal intentions as they labour, at times quite painfully, through the 94km course.  But at its heart is a joyous manifestation of the pilgrims’ witness and assent to the social reign of Christ the King.

The Pilgrimage is also increasingly an event where the Traditionalist Tribe, from all its far-flung places throughout Australia, has a chance to meet up and bond.  This is important, especially for those folk from smaller TLM communities who come along and are re-energised to find that they are part of a much larger whole.  Following each day of walking, with hymns, litanies and prayers and the beautifully executed High Masses complete with superb Gregorian chants and polyphonic motets – the pilgrims socialise and over dinner, wine, ales and song.  One just knows in one’s bones that the pre-eminent poet of pre-reformation “Merrie England”, Geoffrey Chaucer, would have approved!

The pilgrimage also serves as a witness to the many people who come on the event who have never been exposed to the TLM – and I know of several people who have come to regard the pilgrimage as a spiritual life-changer for them.

Most important of all is the living witness given to the Catholic Tradition.  Tradition derives from the latin word ‘tradere’, meaning ‘to hand on’.  It is through this tradition that the Faith, its worship its rituals and customs are handed on to us from ‘the fathers’ through each successive generation.  This handing on is palpable on the Christus Rex. From my vantage point as an inaugural pilgrim who has walked every pilgrimage since 1991, I can say with absolute conviction that it has served, and continues to serve, a lively role in the revival of Catholic tradition in Australia.

For example, on that first pilgrimage in 1991, there were about 6 of us in the Gregorian schola – and how we mightily struggled to sing the chant. And how mighty a struggle was it to ensure that we had at least one master of ceremonies and a small group of servers sufficiently familiar with the ancient rite.  Compare that with recent Pilgrimages which literally teem with choral and liturgical talent. I frequently feel deeply moved and thrilled to see young adults I have known on earlier pilgrimages from childhood, who have either become adroit and expert at serving the Traditional Mass or have mastered the traditional chants and choral repertoire.

And so the torch of Tradition is passed on to the next generation.  To me, this is the lasting legacy of Australia’s annual Christus Rex Pilgrimage.


When: 22 to 24 August 2014

Pilgrims pass through Oxburgh Gatehouse. Photo: LMS

Where: Ely to Walsingham

Practical details:

Paul Smeaton, honorary Aussie,  survivor of several of Ballarat-Bendigo Pilgrimages, and the founder of the Ely-to-Walsingham pilgrimage (it’s nice to see we can repay some of our debt to the old world in this area!) tells the story of its foundation.

The story of the Latin Mass Society (LMS) Ely to Walsingham pilgrimage is the convergence of many living paths, as well as the revival of an ancient and holy trail.

I approached the LMS with the idea of founding a three day pilgrimage in the style and spirit of Paris to Chartres and Christus Rex shortly after returning from Australia in 2009, and indeed not long after completing my second Australian pilgrimage. For myself, I didn’t want to live without the joy and inspiration that pilgrimage had given me, and it was exciting to be a part of something new for England.

The LMS had organised a day pilgrimage to Walsingham for many years and the idea of a three-day walk was well known to English Catholics, who have organised a chapter on the Paris to Chartres pilgrimage for twenty years.

The intention of the pilgrimage is the conversion of England and in the road to Walsingham; we couldn’t wish for better ground on which to rekindle the faith of our fathers. Before the brutal persecution of the Church in England in the sixteenth century, Walsingham was the jewel in the crown of this ‘most devoted child of Mary’, Our Lady’s own dowry.

Walsingham itself is one of the most important and historic sites of pilgrimage in all of Christendom. Consider the following extracts from Anne Vail in her book Shrines of Our Lady in England.

More books have been written, more poems recited and more songs sung about Walsingham than about any other shrine in England. In the medieval world, this place of pilgrimage ranked fourth after Jerusalem, Compostela and Rome, and it was the only one of the four to be dedicated specifically to the Blessed Virgin. The history of this place stretches back to the eleventh century, and today Walsingham is once again the leading shrine dedicated to Our Lady in England, the focus of her dowry and the designated National Shrine.

Towards the end of the reign of Edward the Confessor and only five years before the Norman invasion of 1066, Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the manor of Walsingham, had a dream. In her dream, the Blessed Virgin transported her to the Holy House of Nazareth and, while Richeldis gazed at the home of the Holy Family, Our Lady requested that one of its like should be built in Walsingham. The dream was repeated three times, and Richeldis did her best to carry out Our Lady’s wish.

Try as they might, her builders were defeated. Richeldis retired to her room to pray throughout the night. As morning came she saw to her delight that the house had been built by angels, not in the place she had chosen, but some two hundred feet away, in the place where Our Lady wished it to be. In this place, Mary had explained, the people would celebrate the Annunciation, ‘the root of man’s gracious redemption’. She also delivered a promise to future generations who might visit Walsingham: ‘Whosoever seeks my help here will not go away empty-handed’. The little shrine was to become a place of prayer and consolation for people from all corners of the world.

The Holy House of Nazareth contained a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus seated on her lap. A priory was later built beside the Holy House. During the reign of King Henry VIII the priory was closed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the statue was taken to London and burnt. Our Walsingham pilgrimage concludes at the site of the original Holy House, in the grounds of the ruined priory. We begin in Ely, itself a great place of pilgrimage in previous centuries, the home of Saint Etheldreda, the seventh century East Anglian princess, Fenland queen and Abbess of Ely. Pilgrims have the opportunity to venerate a first class relic of Saint Etheldreda before Mass on the first day at the Catholic church in Ely.

As well as visiting these ancient sites, pilgrims are privileged to participate at Mass in a place where the Faith endured and continued throughout many dark times. Mass on the second day is celebrated at Oxburgh Hall. This fifteenth-century country house was a refuge to Catholic priests during the Reformation, and Catholic worship continued here even during times of persecution.

As well as helping to inspire, Australians have been part of the formative years of this pilgrimage, with pilgrims joining us from Down Under for the past three years. Long may this trend continue!

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