Sunday, June 5, 2011


Freedom of Religion — In the Church

By Theresa Marie Moreau

First Published in New Oxford Review, October 2005

It’s 5:15 in the morning. I’m sitting, in the dark, in the rain, in front of Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris.

However, I’m not alone.

Around me, thousands of fellow Catholic pilgrims from around the world converge in the plaza before the Parisian Gothic beauty, the symbol of sacred Catholicism in secular France, the nation still known and heralded as the “eldest daughter of the Church.”

Clergy, wearing traditional black cassocks, cross the cobblestones, splashing through the puddles. Members of the laity, loaded down with backpacks, search for fellow countrymen.

Everyone is soon coated in the light drizzle that baptizes the penitents rushing about, preparing for the journey ahead: the twenty-third annual, three-day, 72-mile pilgrimage from Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres.

It’s going to be a tough three days.

The pains and sufferings—of which there will be many endured this Pentecost weekend—will be offered as a penance for the special intentions of the resurrection of the Latin-rite Mass.

This gathering in the pre-dawn darkness only adds to the symbolism of the spiritual darkness swallowing up the Conciliar Church, the Catholic Church born from the minds of men gathered during the four autumnal meetings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Our hope, my hope on this Saturday morning, the Vigil of the Pentecost, is simple. Freedom of religion. Freedom to celebrate the traditional Mass, as celebrated since the early days of the Church, in all its honorific glory.

Simple? Not so.

But hope exists in the square, where people start forming into the individual groups. Before the sun rises more than one hundred chapters will have gathered together to join spiritual forces in this Church Militant, in this inspired army numbering more than 6,000 men, women and children strong.

Darkness still hides the gargoyles stretching their necks from Our Lady’s famous bell towers when a man’s voice booms from the loudspeakers. He calls each group to enter the cathedral.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he announces, summoning the group I’ve joined, one of two from the United States. Our chapter leader raises the American flag. A second man raises the banner painted with the image of our journey’s patron saint. We file into the cathedral behind thousands of others who had entered before us and were now seated in the chairs that filled the nave. Only the two side aisles remain available. That’s where we head when we turn to the left.

During the blessing of the banners and prayers of encouragement, the sun begins to rise and shine through the stained-glass windows several stories overhead. The reds, yellows and blues depicting the lives of the saints silently offer their own encouragement.

The roster of chapters is called out once again. With banners waving, pilgrims file out of the cathedral consecrated in 1182, seized during the French Revolution and dedicated in 1793 as a Temple of Reason. In 1802, Our Lady returned to religious worship.

It’s around 7 a.m. when the first chapter begins the march. But the number of pilgrims is so great and the line so long, it takes about an hour for the pilgrimage to be in full motion. The last chapter joins the penitential parade after 8 a.m.

Catholics from Austria, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States pass through the doorways, under the arches and the watchful eyes of Christ, the Apostles and saints.

While we walk across the Petit Pont, the Little Bridge, gendarmes with raised arms stop the traffic. Horns blare, echoing the discontent of drivers. One frustrated cabbie jumps out of his taxi and screams at the gendarme, the Parisian police officer who remains calm and keeps aloft his white-gloved hand.

Southward the pilgrims march along Rue St. Jacques, then a right away from the Pantheon, where Leon Foucault’s great pendulum continues its eternal swing back and forth beneath the great central dome, demonstrating the earth’s rotation.

As we turn our backs on the Pantheon, the seldom-used church dedicated, in spirit, to the material world, our march truly begins.

Even though different languages pose a communication barrier between neighboring chapters (I hear French ahead of us and German to the rear), language also binds pilgrims together.

Latin, the reputed dead language thrives in the traditional Church in prayer and in song.

I hear the voice of a young female prayer leader a few chapters ahead of us singing the rosary, with the aid of a megaphone:

Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum;

Benedicta tu in mulieribus,

Et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus.

Pilgrims respond:

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,

Ora pro nobis, peccatoribus,

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.


Priests, spiritual accoutrements in the material world, stand ready to hear confessions at any time, with stoles draped around their necks atop the pure white surplices. Most wear black cassocks with their sashes bouncing off their knees as they cross the terrain.

A few of the priests are diocesan. However, most of the men are from societies and orders devoted to the promotion of the traditional Latin Mass. Some are from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (motherhouse in Wigratzbad in Bavaria, diocese of Augsburg, Germany), others are from the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (motherhouse at Gricigliano, archdiocese of Florence, Italy), the Institute of the Holy Cross of Riaumont (diocese of Ars, France), the Benedictine Abbey of Ste. Madeleine at Le Barroux (diocese of Avignon, France) and the Dominican Fraternity of St. Vincent Ferrer (diocese of Laval, France).

Along the way, I hear about a second pilgrimage, under the spiritual guidance of the Society of St. Pius X (motherhouse in Ecône, Switzerland). This group began its journey almost the exact same time as ours on Saturday, only in the reverse direction.

Veterans of the spiritual march tell me that, originally, the men of the Society had been a huge driving force behind the Paris-to-Chartres pilgrimage after its resurrection in 1983.

But that all changed in 1988.

That’s the year when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (who founded the Society in 1969 to keep the traditional Mass alive) was "excommunicated," by Pope John Paul II, for consecrating four bishops, without papal approval.

And since anyone following Lefebvre, (who died in 1991) was also declared excommunicated, the Society’s pilgrimage cannot offer Mass, any Mass, in a diocesan church. Therefore, for the sake of the Mass, the members of the Society of St. Pius X graciously bowed out of the pilgrimage and began their own. What is ironic is that without the Society, traditionalists believe there would be no trace of the ancient Latin Rite remaining in the Church.

In our pilgrimage, the first Mass is offered midday on Saturday. A makeshift altar stands alone under the protection of a white canvas tarp, surrounded by the greenery in a cathedral of trees. Pilgrims sit on the wet grass. Priests sit in folding chairs and grant absolution to penitents confessing on their knees, sinking in the mud. All in the open. Only here can one see a stole-wearing priest listening to the sins of a young man, while a few feet away, another young member of the clergy dressed in cassock and Roman collar stands facing a tree, relieving himself.

Yards and yards of rope strung between trees serve as the communion rail where communicants kneel to receive the Holy Eucharist. After a few minutes, with barely enough time to offer thanksgiving, someone yells, Allons! Let’s go!

These are words of spiritual encouragement to 84-year-old Arnaud de Lassus, of France, who has participated in all of the twenty-three pilgrimages from Paris to Chartres since the re-launching in 1983 of the centuries-old tradition, in which kings, popes, saints and sinners have participated.

That year, de Lassus and about 1,000 other members of the laity resurrected the penitential march to help revive the offering of the Tridentine Mass promulgated by Pope St. Pius V on July 14, 1570, following the Council of Trent (1545-63), which codified the ancient traditions.

Compiled over the centuries, the Latin Rite was, and still is, the foundation of the faith for which the saints fought and for which the martyrs shed their blood.

However, that almost all ended on April 3, 1969 when Pope Paul VI pulled up the sleeve of his vestment and promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae. The New Order of the Mass had been slapped together by progressives of the Church who put their mitres together at meetings held during the Second Vatican Council.

But still, it was the Pope, who in a single signature, did away with the traditional Mass, deemed verboten by Church hierarchy. The ancient rite nearly met its death; however, Lefebvre stepped forward to save it, despite all the threats from the Vatican, and, yes, despite "excommunication."

Even the pilgrimage suffered the wrath of Rome aimed at the traditional Mass. Although offered by priests during each day of the spiritual journey, the celebration of the Latin Rite was not permitted inside Notre Dame de Chartres for the first five years, de Lassus says.

The Most Rev. Michel Joseph Kuehn, the bishop of Chartres from 1978 until he resigned in 1991, refused the group entry.

“The bishop did not want the traditional Mass celebrated in his cathedral. Many French bishops are against the traditional Mass. They do not understand why we keep the old Mass and why it is so important,” de Lassus explains to me over the telephone from his home in France. I ask him why the old Mass is so important to him and to so many Catholics.

“The new Mass gets away from the Catholic doctrine of the Council of Trent on many, many points, as explained by Cardinal Ottaviani in 1969. This is enough to be in favor of the old Mass and not the new one.” de Lassus says.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani co-authored with Cardinal Antonio Bacci “A Brief Critical Study of the Novus Ordo Missae,” most commonly known as the “Ottaviani Intervention,” which defends the traditional Mass against the new, point by point.

If Ottaviani and Lefebvre, the spiritual soldiers who fought for the traditions of the Church, could see the many pilgrims marching for the old Mass, they would be happy.

At one point, the pathway curls between the fringe-line of a wooded area to the right and acres and acres and acres of fields filled with yellow flowering rape plants to the left. To the front, the line of traditional Catholics stretches to the horizon. The true beginning, nowhere in sight. To the rear, the line of pilgrims stretches to the horizon. The true end, nowhere in sight. Only the banners bobbing over the yellow flowers.

Bits of the French countryside cling to bits of memory. Split-rail fences. Cement posts. Stone crucifixes at crossroads. Slate roofs. Private cemeteries. Twisted trunks of wisteria that weave together towns, holding onto the last of the fading blossoms that hang over the stone walls that divide the inhabited countryside. Scotch broom. Queen Anne’s Lace. Lupine.

Along the walkways and roadways, where a few houses cling together, a few of the French stand and watch. They often clap and cheer us on.

“Courage,” they shout. They smile.

Mothers kneel beside their children, pointing to the mud-caked passersby.

The walking rarely stops. The daily routine, simple: From sunup (around 6 a.m.) to sundown (around 10 p.m. in Europe), the marching continues. Extended stays are reserved only for lunch. Medical stations and port-o-potties are placed every few miles. The continuous motion only halts the first night in a field of floorless tents set up somewhere in Choisel.

We sleep, until morning, when a recorded soprano sings over a loudspeaker, “Pie Jesu, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem,” waking the pilgrims before sunrise.

Translation of the Latin: “Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest.”

In less than thirty minutes, the men and scouts with more expertise than carnival roustabouts, break down, roll up and pack away the tents in the trucks used to haul the sleeping gear. Hot coffee is provided by volunteers from Notre-Dame de Chrétienté (Our Lady of Christendom), the organization that plans and coordinates the annual pilgrimage.

Jump started by the caffeine, marching, despite the blisters, begins. Singing of the rosary soon starts.

The second day becomes like the first: praying, singing, mud, woods, fields, flowers. The first day I picked flowers and placed them in my prayer book. I planned to do the same on the second day; however, I find I’m too exhausted to bend over and exert any excess energy (if I had any) to snap a twig. All focus is on one foot in front of the other.

Many, too exhausted to stay awake or even eat, sleep through the Mass offered on Pentecost Sunday.

Late in the day, the pilgrims march, past growing grains on stalks, down a gully. Around the corner to the right and just ahead, promises the chapter leader, just ahead in the distance a spire, maybe two, will appear.

Toward the horizon, eyes scan. The day, overcast. Still, a grayish black silhouette fades into the horizon: Chartres.

With Chartres just within reach, the pilgrims reach camp set up in a field somewhere in Gas, somewhere in France. Sleep overtakes the tired travelers until the soprano wakens all again. Improvised morning ablutions follow with gulps of hot coffee. Focus returns to the goal: a traditional Mass in the Chartres cathedral.

After a grueling thirty miles (approximately) the first day, thirty miles the second day and twelve the third, pilgrims climb the final hill on Pentecost Monday. The last mile to the cathedral with the mismatched towers is an uphill climb winding up the final curvaceous road.

More Frenchmen stand on the sidelines and cheer us on. Two older men in rumpled suit jackets clap. We overtake and buzz by a middle-aged couple.

Some pilgrims weep. From exhaustion. From exhilaration. From ecstasy.

Through the gates the pilgrims pass, followed by 126 priests, seminarians and religious who precede Dom Louis-Marie de Geyer d’Orth, abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Ste. Madeleine at Le Barroux, dressed in red, symbolic of the blood he would readily shed for the Church.

Some of the men walk, others limp, most still wear the muddied boots they had worn during the journey. Hems only a few inches above the ground carry the muddy evidence of the arduous journey through the material world, symbolic of the difficult journey to the spiritual world.

After Dom Louis-Marie offers the sacrifice of the High Mass, he bestows the blessing upon the exhausted-yet-exhilarated pilgrims, who head for hotel rooms and hot baths.

Another American and I head back to Paris and walk toward the trains docked at the station. The first is filled to capacity with the Scouts, sitting, standing, hanging off the handrails. On the second, we board and find two seats. My companion peels the cargo bag from my hands and hoists it into the overhead compartment. He takes the window seat, and I flop down beside him. Over the next hour, we talk about, what else, the Church.

He’s a Brooklyn-born Sicilian. Found the traditional Mass in 1994 after visiting a church in Paris, St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, that offers only the Latin Rite.

“A convert?” I ask him.

“I call myself a revert,” he says. We laugh.

Near the end of the train ride from Chartres to Paris, we joke about Novus Ordo nightmares. We scoff at the materialism of the Conciliar Church, the new Catholicism born out of Vatican II. We complain about its lack of contemplation and tranquility. We lament the triviality placed on the sacraments. We malign the priests who disdain the traditions and the old Mass.

We both grow silent and stare out the window at the French countryside.

My companion stops smiling and says, perhaps prophetically, “They’ll pay for what they’ve done. They’ll all pay.”

Theresa Marie Moreau can be reached at