...In which our intrepid pilgrims march out of Paris, and brave the hottest day of the year...
The Mass at Notre Dame started at 7.00, and it was about 8.30 by the time the procession had left the Cathedral.
The walking started at about 8.45 for the first Chapters. As you would expect, a statue of Our Lady leads the whole pilgrimage, and is carried the entire distance on the shoulders of a succession of volunteers.
This year, the Rhone-Alpes region led the pilgrimage for the first day, and the first chapter was the parish of St André, from Grenoble. The 12 chapters from Rhone-Alpes were followed by another 12 from Provence/Languedoc (led by the chapter of Sainte Madeleine of Le Barroux), and then 20 chapters from the Nord region. After them were the Normandy chapters, which included us and the Australians as guests. So we left Notre Dame at about 9.00. There were another 9 regions behind us (as well as the Family and Children groups of chapters, which had a different itinerary). In total there were nearly 200 chapters, with about 50 pilgrims in most chapters, so I think that makes it nearly 10,000 people marching. The last pilgrims were due to leave Notre Dame at 9.30, though I didn't stay around to check that they did. So it took about 45 minutes for the procession to pass any one point.
The first march took us through the streets of Paris: down the Boulevard St Michel, past the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg gardens, and then through various suburban parks. In our chapter, we started with a Morning Offering, as we did every day, and then sang Faith of Our Fathers and other hymns and then some marching songs as we walked through the bright Parisian sunshine. Once we were out of the traffic, we sang our first rosary of the day: the Joyful Mysteries. These were sung in Latin, and took the best part of an hour. For all of that time, our priests were available in the spaces between the chapters to hear confessions, and we were frequently reminded of the importance of confession as part of the pilgrimage. This first march of the day was long: about 2 hours and 45 minutes (12.5 kilometres). So we were grateful to reach the first rest point, and collapse on the grass, having been handed fresh bottles of water and apples as we arrived.
But the brutal organisers only allow 15 minutes for a break, so all too soon we were on our feet again, putting our boots back on, shouldering our packs, raising our banners,hearts and spirits as best we could for the second leg. It was getting much hotter now, and we were grateful that some of our way, at least, was through woodland paths. We listened to a meditation, sang more marching songs, and then sang a second rosary. As we approached the lunch field, some 90 minutes and 6 km later, we were asked to stop singing, as the Children's Mass might not be finished. It transpired the family and childrens' chapters (some 20 of them) had not been made to get up for the early sung Mass. Instead a magnificent altar had been set up in the field and they had heard Mass there just prior to our arrival.
For lunch, you are issued with bread rolls and water. Anything else you want, you bring with you - or scrounge from friends. We had some wonderful cheeses and cold meats which Mrs T had thoughtfully put in a cool bag - and they had indeed stayed cool. The lunch break was alleged to be 60 minutes, but it passed all too soon.
Then came the toughest march of the day. In the bright, hot sunshine, from around 2.30 to 5.00, we marched another 10 km. Again, we spent the time singing the rosary, listening to meditations, chatting convivially, singing rounds and marching songs, and simply keeping each other going. The spring in the step was noticeably less than a few hours earlier, and the only relief was the fact that packs were lighter after lunches had been eaten. However, this is also the time when friendships are being forged: not the easy conviviality of the morning, but friendships forged in the heat of the day, when it is easy for the mask to slip...
And so it went on. We had another break, another march, another break and a final march. All the way along, there were regular first aid posts, doing a brisk trade in treating people for sprains, heat stroke and so on. Likewise there was ample water, and we were constantly reminded to drink plenty and keep our heads covered. There were also buses at each stop to pick up anyone who could not walk any more. Nonetheless, it was hard walking: so much so that my eldest, Antonia, who has done the pilgrimage many times in its entirety, was overcome by the heat and was brought into camp in an ambulance...
It was soon after 8.00 pm that we arrived at the Camp Site, and we marched in singing, to show the French we were undaunted by a stroll like that. It was about 11 hours since we had started walking and we had covered 41 km on a blisteringly hot day.
One of the nice features of the Pilgrimage is that the children's chapters, who walk only part of the distance and are then bused ahead, are encouraged to wait at various points and cheer us on to encourage failing limbs... So we were frequently greeted by hoards of small French Scouts and Guides singing 'Allez, les anglais!' with great gusto.
I have to admit that I was pretty tired by this stage, so Dominique and I collected our luggage and Ant's from the Etrangers lorry, and found a spot in the Normandie enclosure to pitch our tent. I then lay down (just for a moment, you understand) and next thing I knew, Dom had pitched the tent, and Ant had turned up, feeling ready for bed. So she crawled into her sleeping bag, while Dom and I got some of the communal soup which is served up by the vast makeshift catering facility. Then after a quick splash in the cattle troughs that pass for basins, we too, gratefully, crept into the tent. Sleep was instant.
Thoughts for Lent from Father Willie Doyle (d. 1917) - “The path of life is rough and stony. Sharp flints and hidden thorns are thickly strewn upon its surface, wounding our weary feet as we toil ever onwards a...
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