It is often cold over night, camping on the pilgrimage, and given that the day had been relatively mild, I put on extra layers before crawling into my sleeping bag. Nonetheless, I awoke in the small hours feeling very cold, and struggled to get back to sleep. For once, I was grateful when it was time to get up (at 5.00) and that cheery French voice that we know and love of old resounded throughout the campsite via the formidable PA System: ‘Bonjour, chèrs amis pèlerins, il est cinq heures, et il est l'heure de se réveiller.' Within minutes, he is chivvying us further. “Chèrs pèlerins, il est l'heure de sortir de vos tentes pour les démonter.’ And only seconds after that: “Je vois qu’il y a toujours des tentes qui ne sont pas démontées!' And all too quickly: "Les premiers chapitres départent en quelques minutes!"
Despite having been so cold, we were surprised to find that there had been such a heavy frost that some of our tents had ice on them! Packing wet tents with frozen fingers is not a lot of fun, but it did make us appreciate the hot coffee (or hot chocolate à choix) provided for breakfast, along with the ubiquitous bread rolls.
We were some way down the marching order, so had plenty of time to get our luggage to the legendary camion sac (étranger), before raising our flags, gathering the chapter together and starting out again.
We started the day, as usual, with a morning offering, and then, it being Pentecost, sang the Veni Creator Spiritus. And then on with the same routine: marching, rosaries, meditations, songs sacred and secular, chat...
Perhaps it is worth reflecting a little on the role of the Chef de Chapitre. Nobody has ever given me a job description, but Julie Carey, (who along with her husband Francis organises the whole thing every year) let slip that they had identified me as a future Chef on hearing me sing Green Grow the Rushes-oh with great vim one year... So I conclude that one aspect of the role is to keep the chapter singing, at least intermittently. And it is certainly important: clearly singing fifteen decades of the rosary every day is at the heart of the spirituality of the pilgrimage; but also the hymns and songs are very helpful in keeping weary feet marching.
At the end of the first day, there is a long and steep hill: when one has been marching for nine hours or more, and covered some 23 miles, it is easy to find the heart sinking a little at the sight, and for limbs to feel heavy, and the whole thing to slow down. But we sang our way up the hill with gusto, and although it was long and steep (and of course, singing requires more oxygen) that really does help.
So motivating the chapter to keep going is a key role. Not least because we are, of course, required to march to someone else's pace. That is one of the things that is not immediately obvious, but actually makes it tough. There are times when the pilgrimage proceeds very slowly, with lots of stops and starts, when we have to cross roads etc. And then there are times when we are walking at a fast pace, normally to make up time when we are behind schedule. Our job is to maintain a constant distance between ourselves and the chapter in front: close enough to stay in touch, but not so close we are breathing down their necks.
That gap also allows the priests to walk between the chapters and hear confessions. But of course it gets more difficult when people in the preceding chapter start to straggle behind. We maintain the distance, they drop further and further behind their chapter, and suddenly their is too large a gap: we have to overtake them and catch up. And so on.
Allied to that is the maintenance of a modicum of discipline: keeping the group together, and not allowing our chapter to spread out too far, to the inconvenience of following chapters.
Then there is the aspect of looking after people as they walk: particularly keeping an eye out for anyone struggling; but also for anyone who is alone, especially new pilgrims, and trying to make sure that they are integrated into the group.
And then there is balancing the activities as we walk: trying to have the right amount of praying, meditating, singing, chatting and so on, so that people feel that they are busy with purposeful spiritual activity, but also have sufficient unstructured time for chat, or private prayer and reflection.
As always with me, I am very much better at the theory than the practice of this art...
The highlight of this second day, of course, is the big Pentecost Mass, celebrated in the open air on a magnificently constructed altar. We were a long way back from the altar, but there was also a large screen and a good PA system, so that we could see and hear everything. Also, one of our pilgrims, Mordi, kindly does a simultaneous translation of the sermon for us, so that we can follow that (the rest of the Mass is in Latin, of course, so following it is easy).
The Consecration is always an important moment, of course; and at this Mass is marked by the banners to the sides of the altars bowing, as well as the bells ringing; for some reason I always find that a moving spectacle.
Distribution of communion to so large a gathering (I think between 8,000 - 10,000 this year) could be problematic; but not so. Large numbers of priests, each accompanied by a server carrying an communion plate, and another carrying a large umbrella as an ombrellino, distribute communion to the pilgrims, who kneel in the dust and receive reverently on the tongue. It can be done, where there's a will...
And after Mass, we had a lunch break, and then three more marches to the campsite; on this second day we had covered 27 miles, but again the mild weather had made it very much less arduous than in some previous years. We arrived singing loudly, as before, and then collected luggage, pitched tents and had some soup for supper.
The campsite is in an old quarry at Gas. Here there is another altar, and adoration continues throughout the night (indeed I was awoken at 4.00 am by the Tantum Ergo, followed by the Divine Praises in French...). But for myself, I just made a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament before retiring for the night: I find that sleep is very important (if possible) if I am to maintain that cheerful demeanour and high energy level that seems a requirement of the Chef de Chapitre role. It was another cold night, but not quite as cold as the previous one; and until the early morning Benediction, I slept well.
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