Grace: The Rose Round Pilgrimage to France
A pilgrimage offers a very particular kind of catechesis. Our faith being incarnational, there is no substitute for actually applying your own knees to the places where the saints have been before us. Where thousands have prayed over the centuries, prayer is somehow rendered easier. For this reason we have begun to take a girls’ group from our parish and beyond, called the Rose Round, on pilgrimages to continental Europe.
This summer’s pilgrimage was centred around the theme of the Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We went to Paray-le-Monial and the Sacre Coeur in Paris, as well as the miraculous medal chapel in the Rue du Bac, and Notre Dame des Victoires. In Burgundy we stayed in St. Catherine Laboure’s farm, which has been transformed into a guest-house by the Daughters of Charity. On our way back to Paris we visited Vezelay, where the beautiful Romanesque basilica houses the relics of St. Mary Magdalene, and then stayed at the Abbaye de Fleury, where St. Benedict’s remains are kept. St. Joan of Arc came here to give thanks after winning back Orleans from the English (the lovely cathedral of Ste Croix in Orleans, which we also visited, has stained glass windows telling her story).
In the middle of our tour, we rested from our travels with the Benedictine Sisters of the Sacre Coeur in their mother house in the countryside near Giverny (where we also visited Monet’s paradisical gardens). This order was founded at the end of the 19th century specifically in order to assure perpetual adoration for the newly built basilica of the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Sadly anti-clerical laws forced the foundress, Adele Garnier, and her first companions to emigrate instead to England, where they founded the convent at Tyburn. Adele was never to return to France, but her sufferings have borne fruit. There are many young faces amidst the fifty or so gathered for the summer break at ‘Bethanie’. Their singing during Mass and the office is glorious.
Three of the younger sisters who spoke English spent time with our group, telling them about the monastic life, and preparing them for the Eucharistic Adoration which was to be the summit of our pilgrimage. For on our return to Paris, the girls were to engage in the nocturnal adoration at the Sacre Coeur. They each chose an hour (in some cases more) to spend in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the great basilica.
All the girls loved this part, even though it meant missing sleep. One or two insisted we wake them up again to do extra time later in the night. But as Sister Marie Elie, an English sister who welcomed us with great warmth at the Sacre Coeur, told the children, the important thing was not how long you stayed with Jesus in the church, but that during the time you did spend with him, you should be all his.
The attitude of all the religious we met was a major factor in the pilgrimage. The look of tenderness and peace in the eyes of another nun from the same order, at Notre Dame des Victoires, was as eloquent as the words she spoke about Our Lady. The Daughters of Charity not only received us with great kindness at the Rue du Bac, but also in their house in Burgundy. It was the birthday of one of the girls the day we arrived, and on discovering this the sisters suddenly produced a cake, with the requisite number of candles. The tour one of them gave us of the farm, and her description of St. Catherine’s childhood, helped us to locate in our imaginations the girl to whom the wonderful visions of the Rue du Bac were later vouchsafed.
We were privileged, in fact, to have our Mass at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal on the 18th July, the anniversary of the first apparition to St. Catherine. The sister who talked to us emphasised the particular wonder of this night: the fact that the Blessed Mother took time to be with her daughter, spoke to her about her life, her problems: just like a mother, only more so. For this mother is, of course, unhampered by original sin, and thus perfectly united with the intentions of her divine Son – hence the streams of grace that pour through her hands.
As with every pilgrimage, there were high points and low points. The heat was intense during several days of our trip, and getting into and out of Montmartre was gruelling, as our air-conditioned coach was not allowed to take us up the small winding streets of the butte. However we ensured the girls had plenty to drink, wore their sun-hats, and included as many ice-cream stops as we could, not to mention times of relaxation in the park and so on.
We took eight adults, including our chaplain, in order to ensure that the children were well supervised at all times. We also took a wide range of ages – we were delighted, for instance, to welcome two older girls and a lady from the Rose Round group in North Dakota, founded by the Bethlehem Community. With girls this age-mix works well, and we were able to pair each younger girl with an older teenager who acted as her ‘buddy’ when we were walking in public places or getting on the metro in Paris. New friendships were made, and old ones renewed. At meals (which grew increasingly jolly as we got to the end of the pilgrimage, with toasts offered and even the shyest of girls contributing a song!) the girls swopped around in order to talk to different people each time.
One of the high points of the pilgrimage was the daily Mass. Having a priest sharing the entire week with the children, and who can preach especially for them each day, is a wonderful gift. The nice thing about the pilgrimage Masses is that they can be child-friendly whilst being Christ-centred, as the liturgy unites divine realities with the human contribution. In our experience, the children had no problem with the more solemn, prayerful moments, welcoming the chance to rest their souls in the midst of all the touring. Making music is an important part of the experience. Some of the party had rehearsed for weeks beforehand, with a Dominican who among others things taught them to sing a Gregorian ‘Rose Mass’ he had written. Giving the readings, and the bidding prayers, are also important factors in the girls’ contribution to the Mass – linked to the offertory, in which they are able to place their intentions and those of others at the foot of the altar, confident that they will be taken up into the loving heart of the One who becomes present there, with us, at every Eucharist.
There were plenty of memorable moments. One was the Mass in the chapel of St. Margaret Mary’s confessor, St. Claude de la Colombiere, at Paray. Behind the altar is a beautiful mosaic depicting Our Lord showering grace from his flaming heart on the saints clustered about his throne. Fr Dominic’s homily drew together the threads of this powerful image: the burning charity that flows from the heart of the Redeemer into the hearts of those who love him, and hence their fellow men and women united with him through his body, the Church. By the tomb of St. Margaret Mary, who received the visions of the Sacred Heart at the Visitation, we said a litany of the Sacred Heart and reflected on the sufferings which this great saint had to endure to make this vital message known.
Another great moment in the pilgrimage was when the huge pilgrimage doors at Vezelay were opened for us, and we had a chance to test out the incredible acoustic of the basilica with Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Notre Pere’ (we also sang the Chartres setting of ‘Je Vous Salue Marie’ in Chartres Cathedral). The carving on the tympanum at Vezelay, which shows rays emanating from the hands of Christ as he gives each of his apostles their particular mission, helped inspire the title of our pilgrimage: ‘Streams of Grace’. This phrase is taken from the Abbe de Tourville, a great writer of the French school of spirituality which formed St. Therese. The image is echoed in the statue of Our Lady in the Rue du Bac, as her hands dispense the superabundant gifts her Son has stored up for us, and which we so often forget to pray for.
Heaven put on a final show for us on our last night, as we took a boat trip down the Seine. There behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the rays of the setting sun suddenly burst through the clouds in a glorious representation of what we had experienced during the week. It was awe-inspiring, and more: it was confidence-inspiring. We all came home renewed in our personal sense of connection with the God who, in union with his Saints, wishes to pour out that super-abundant grace into our lives.
Further details of pilgrimages, and help with running one of your own, can be obtained from the web-site of the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture in Oxford: www.secondspring.co.uk or by phoning 01865 552154.