Finally I decided to do something about it: I went on pilgrimage.
A personal note from the editor
Loyal readers will have noticed that not much new has appeared in these pages in recent times. This is due to a number of factors, including a technical hitch that prevented the site from appearing in its proper format (thanks to the unsung tech guys for fixing that), but mainly a disenchantment with the state of affairs in Rome – at best, a kind of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” sentiment – and an associated spiritual malaise.
Finally I decided to do something about it: I went on pilgrimage. Specifically, the Christus Rex Pilgrimage (see www.crex.org) which commences in Ballarat and culminates in Bendigo with Mass for the Feast of Christ the King. This pilgrimage, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015, is the biggest event in traditional Catholicism in Australia.
Photo: Patrick Giam
While it’s true the pilgrimage commences in Ballarat, I didn’t. The bad news is that the pace of pilgrimage is such that I decided I couldn’t sustain it for 3 days. The good news is there are plenty of young people – and one or two not so young, see below – who can. I joined at about the mid-point, midday Mass at Campbelltown on the Saturday.
I turned up, not physically exhausted (unlike many) but not in great shape, with a dose of hayfever I was treating with everything big pharma and little herbal healing had to offer – some of which were probably fighting each other rather than their common enemy.
(Happily, though, the eyes were still working. I used to suffer radically from allergic conjunctivitis, until I went to Lourdes and bathed my eyes copiously. It’s been my habit to downplay this, but my wife reminded me recently that the year before Lourdes, I’d been unable to open my eyes except manually, had been injected with steroids and opioids, had taken a couple of weeks off – and she’d had to take time off work as well, because I couldn’t see well enough to take, or indeed find, the meds. In the intervening 25 years, I’ve only suffered the mildest of symptoms. Allergies come and go; draw your own conclusions.)
I was thinking I should’ve gone to confession; a priest in a stole materialised.
The Sanctuary Tent (Photo: Patrick Giam)
The Sanctuary tent looks a little like something out of an Arthurian legend, and the overall scene among the pines was reminiscent of the Mass in the forest on the Paris-Chartres pilgrimage, albeit without leather-shorts-clad scouts standing at attention while monoglot Anglos dozed through lengthy French Sermons.
The choir had their own pavilion, and for a marvel, a sound system that compensated for the nonexistent acoustic.
As Choirmaster Hugh Henry said, “Several people independently related to me afterward that they thought the audio guy was testing his equipment with a CD recording … until they realised it was the choir!
I was kneeling among the pine-needles, trying in my usual limited and rationalistic way to avoid distractions by focusing on the Missal. Then, I think just before communion, “trusty hearing” kicked in: something in the singing reached out and bypassed the rational intellect with a glimpse of what was actually happening, and for good measure disabled the eyes, not with hay fever but tears.
Mass in the Forest (Photo: Patrick Giam)
Afterward, when the choir joined in after the magnificent solo in the Ave – a Josquin Ave, according to Hugh, which they only begun to practice the previous day – I recall thinking “there weren’t that many choristers – surely some of those voices must belong to the angels!”
The Angels joined in (Photo: Patrick Giam)
For the Sunday afternoon Mass, the music always steps up a level, even when this doesn’t seem possible; some, but not all, of this is due to the acoustic of Bendigo Cathedral. In truth, not everyone in the congregation is in a position to appreciate it, many of them having walked for three days. (That’s OK – it’s not, ultimately, for them.) But the achievement is the more remarkable when one remembers that most of the choir have also been walking for three days, with only the briefest of breaks for rehearsal.
The Final Mass (Photo: Patrick Giam)
Being “flash-mobbed” by your own choir
But extraordinary things can sometimes be achieved, despite these constraints.
At the end of Mass, Hugh faced an experience he describes as being “flash-mobbed by your own choir” with a favourite piece.
It seems Hugh had been a bit obsessed with Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater since first coming across it in the 1970s – despite only being able to put a name to it after twenty years.
Apparently choir members had become aware of this obsession, which had never led to a performance since it’s an eight-part setting with challenging ranges.
According to the UK’s Hyperion Records, this work
is renowned for combining one of the most ingenious canonic structures possible with complete musical mastery… the composer achieves an enviable variety not only of harmony, but also of counterpoint, texture, and speed of harmonic motion, creating a musical structure that fully deserves its reputation as one of the finest masterpieces of the sixteenth century.
– not the sort of thing you’d normally attempt with a scratch choir (in the sense of one which had had limited opportunities for rehearsing together). Generally you’d need the Tallis Scholars or Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen to do it justice.
After mass, the choir normally revisits their “greatest hits” from the pilgrimage. Hugh suggested reprising the Josquin; the choir mutinied. Someone handed him a score: Mouton’s Nesciens Mater, and a note from the choir:
We know you’ve always dreamed of conducting this piece. So we held secret practices across Australia to get it right. Now we await your directions – maestro.
Your pilgrimage choir.
I don’t know if you can imagine what’s involved with rehearsing a complex work in eight parts with a choir dispersed around Australia.
Somehow he got through it, and found his trust that the choir would’ve rehearsed it to be fully justified – “All I had to do was keep time”, he said. (You’ll be able to form your own view about whether this is true.)
Was it worth it? You be the judge – have a look at the video here. (Note the moment of drama, the false start and the “mutiny” in the opening minute!)
Finally, here are some reflections from Tony Pead, on the occasion of his receiving an award, on the 25th Anniversary pilgrimage in 2015, as the only person who had attended all 25 pilgrimages – an astonishing feat:
Reflections on the Silver Jubilee of the Christus Rex Pilgrimage
In late October 1991, I was one of a ‘brave band’ of about 25 pilgrims who walked on the inaugural Christus Rex Pilgrimage from St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat to its final destination, the grand and impressive, relatively recently completed, neo-Gothic Sacred Heart Cathedral, Bendigo.
The Pilgrimage – in honour of the Feast of Christ the King – sprang, as a project from the Ecclesia Dei Society of Australia, from a desire to revive the Catholic tradition of pilgrimage within the context of the nascent Traditional Latin Mass movement; a tradition which, because of the paucity of saintly relics and the ‘tyranny of distance’, had never taken root in Australia. The pilgrimage, as a celebration and witness to the social reign of Christ the King, would also provide the occasion of Solemn (High) Masses together with the singing of the Church’s many litanies, hymns and recitation of rosaries en route.
On that first pilgrimage, I remember that about six of us men battled manfully with the Gregorian chants for the Masses; we did a workmanlike job, sure enough, but many of us were still struggling with the chant notation. Similarly, the MC’ing and serving of the Masses was, whilst competent, a field of limited and rarefied expertise; the Traditional Latin Mass had lain dormant, nigh extinct, for 25 years, and much remained to be done to revive the ‘skill base’ for its worthy execution by priest and layman alike.
The word ‘tradition’ drives from the latin word ‘tradere’ – ‘to pass on’ – and over the ensuing 25 years, I have had the privilege to witness the torch being passed onto a younger generation. Indeed, the largest demographic on the pilgrimage is now the 15 – 30 year old age group. Many kids who were younger than 10 years of age on their first pilgrimage are now in their 20s and 30s; a number of them have met prospective spouses on the pilgrimage, and now have families of their own. In consequence, there is now a sizeable group who know how to serve the Mass and can now perform, proficiently, both Gregorian chant and polyphony from the Church’s own sacred treasury of music – and dozens of them, too – ‘tradere’, indeed!
Generational Change! (Photo: Patrick Giam)
the defining Catholic cultural event in Australia
The pilgrimage has become, I believe, the defining Catholic cultural event in Australia. It serves to provide a vital gathering for traditional Catholics to both bond together, as well as to expose many other Catholics who come along each year (from “normal” parishes rather than dedicated Traditional Mass communities) to the ineffable beauty of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and its associated prayers, hymns and litanies en route.