This is part eight in “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas, a series of reflections on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
Chartres cathedral, sixty miles south from Paris, is a stopping-off point for pilgrims on the Way of Saint James to Compostela. It is also a place of Catholic pilgrimage in its own right, as a major medieval shrine of Our Lady. In these times when Catholics look inward at internal Church divisions and wonder how unity can be rediscovered, Chartres cathedral gives a solid witness to the outward-facing Christian community that built it, as a beacon of evangelization.
The annual Pentecost walking pilgrimage from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to Notre Dame in Chartres is one of the highlights of the traditionalist calendar, so there was great disappointment last week because it was not possible for it to go ahead in its usual form. Due to the Covid restrictions, only a limited number of pilgrims were allowed to walk the three-day route at Pentecost. The closing Latin Mass of the Pentecost Pilgrimage in Chartres cathedral was available in a live stream last Monday and it was an impressive reminder of a tradition kept alive by those who are dedicated to it, wherever you stand on matters of liturgy or however you regard Vatican II.
While I no longer identify with the traditionalist movement, I could nevertheless readily empathize this Pentecost with the disappointment of thousands who were unable to experience the pilgrimage to Chartres in the usual way. Some 40,000 took part in 2019 but this year most were deprived of the experience and only a few hundred were able to participate fully. Regular international chapters, such as the contingent from the USA, did not travel to France at all, and so many missed the special grace they look forward to each year in the physically challenging pilgrimage, the opportunities for daily adoration on the route, and the closing celebration of Latin Mass in the shrine of Our Lady of Chartres, a building that provides us a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem.
I no longer believe the Latin Mass is the most fruitful way to evangelize young people or revitalize moribund parishes, simply because of the divisive and rebellious ideological baggage that often accompanies it today. The perennial optimistic reports of multitudes of young people queuing up to demand the EF Mass always spoke of a phenomenon of which I never saw any real evidence, even in the days when I flew the flag for it. However, it is an observable fact that the Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres normally attracts thousands of young people: from Scouting groups and other lay youth to young seminarians and religious. Inevitably, vocations also result from such large events, in normal times, but it is difficult to celebrate that while I see a danger that young people may fall prey to the political ideologies that seem to now accompany traditionalists’ enthusiasms. When traditionalism is cynically exploited by co-opting political positions that many find morally repugnant (and that’s before we get to propagation of weird conspiracy theories), then of course there will be no option but to abandon ship. Even so, there is no contradiction in looking upon an event such as the Chartres Pentecost Pilgrimage with a tinge of nostalgia, for it still has a semblance of something fine, in Catholic piety and studious liturgy, and in itself—without other agendas, it is quite admirable.
Also on Monday of Pentecost—by coincidence or design—traditionalists’ fears that Summorum Pontificum might be overturned were given new expression by breaking news from Rome, seeming to confirm imminent publication of a document intended to reinterpret the motu proprio of Benedict XVI. It is not in the best interest of Church unity that any group should feel they are under threat in that way, and there should always be a place for those who keep alive the Tridentine tradition. They successfully did so in various Catholic societies long before the motu proprio and presumably they shall continue.
We who left the ranks of traditionalism should allow ourselves to recall the good that we once saw in it, while at the same time distinguishing that experience from the political ideology introduced into it by clever media influencers and the increasingly undisciplined rantings of a handful of rogue episcopal manipulators, with which it has now become increasingly inextricable. If Pope Francis does indeed intend to ‘reinterpret’ the motu proprio, it may be simply to remind the faithful that it was never intended as an invitation to a rebellion.
So at Pentecost I empathized, in solidarity as a fellow Catholic pilgrim, with the traditionalists’ loss of their usual big annual event. I know that key Compostela pilgrim routes are likewise affected. Travel from England is not possible on the Route des Anglais, the historic route from the Channel port of Dieppe to Chartres. The current Covid rules state that no UK arrivals are currently permitted in France (as of 31 May), making this Compostela route impractical in this Jacobean Holy Year.
During the past year’s experience of confinement, we have often learned to place greater value on experiences we once took for granted, and through absence, we draw closer to people and places from which we find ourselves cut off. Empathy for the traditionalists’ loss of their Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres and also thinking of the Compostela pilgrims blocked from walking the Route des Anglais led me to consider and reflect on what the cathedral itself has meant to me. Notre Dame de Chartres is the finest church building in the world, the mother of all cathedrals, a model of the heavenly Jerusalem “garnished with all manner of precious jewels.” Is that an exaggerated claim? Why should Chartres cathedral be so special?
There are some very good reasons, both practical and spiritual. It was built at a time when a flourishing new architectural style developed in the 13th century: the high Gothic period, and I will recommend only one book, the classic 19th-century text by Émile Mâle which—like the cathedral—has stood the test of time. Secondly, there was a holy miracle: the original building had been burned to the ground in a devastating fire in 1194, but the main relic, the garment reputedly worn by Our Lady when she gave birth to Jesus, was salvaged unharmed from the smoking ruins. The news of this miracle traveled fast in France and wider Europe and enormous sums of money were raised. The belief was that this wondrous sign showed that Notre Dame de Chartres wanted her cathedral rebuilt to house her relic, so the job must be done in record time!
This led to a rapid building program exemplified by the ‘cult of the carts’ where hundreds of men hitched themselves to quarry carts—as if they were oxen—to bring the stones to the cathedral site. Instead of taking centuries, and building in successive architectural styles, the building was completed in twenty years, so Chartres has a unified style and complete program of sculpture and stained glass that is uniquely coherent. Finally, the geographical position of Chartres, set in the middle of the great plain of Beauce, a rural setting—the ‘Bread-basket of France’—protected the cathedral from suffering the fate of others situated in more volatile urban settings. It was not damaged by vandals in revolutions or wars but remained perfectly intact. We see its program of sculpture and stained glass just as the 13th-century butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers would have seen it when they had finished raising the money and the last tradesmen’s guild watched their dedicated stained glass window being lifted into place.
Perhaps at this point, the reader who is less engaged by matters of art history might say, this is all moderately interesting but then ask, how can mere architectural style justify my opening remarks that this building teaches us about unity and evangelization? Well, the answer is surprisingly straightforward! The short time-scale in which the vast program of sculpture and glass was executed, together with the theological coherence behind it, meant that this building told the complete story of salvation—from the Creation to Judgment Day—as a continuous narrative woven into the fabric of the cathedral. The turning point of the Incarnation—that moment in and out of time—was tangibly present in the cathedral’s main relic: the miraculously preserved garment that was worn by Our Lady when she gave birth to Jesus, the Word made flesh.
This building is a library containing the books of the Old Covenant, in the sculptures and stories on the north side (the side in shadow, for they had not yet seen the light) and the New Covenant on the south side (lit by the sun’s rays). The program of stained glass seen from the inside relates to the sculpture on the outside, and all of it constitutes a teaching aid for evangelization, presenting biblical completeness, God’s perfection. It is the story of man’s salvation presented in a manner perfectly suited to a people who did not yet have printed books, nor could they have read them. This was a building designed to preach the Gospel message visually.
Malcolm Miller lives in the medieval quarter in Chartres, where the clear shallow stream of the river Eure flows through the same channel it followed when the cathedral was being built. This English guide and lecturer has been studying the cathedral since 1958 and he hasn’t quite finished yet. He gives his lecture tours in English to visitors in the cathedral each weekday in the summer and visits the USA in winter to give lectures. After reading a particular story-window to visitors, or interpreting a Bible narrative from a group of sculptures, Malcolm always tells his audience they cannot see Chartres cathedral in a day and he finishes his lecture tour with an invitation to return: “I will be here until Judgment Day.” When you return twenty years later, and he says the same thing; then again after a further decade, you begin to take him at his word. His face will surely one day appear somewhere among the stone figures of the great tympanum above the south porch, showing Christ judging the living and the dead, who will judge Malcolm well, and praise him as a faithful and effective evangelist, if I am any judge.
In this Postcard from Chartres, I hope I have presented more than a travel guide, although a trip to Chartres cathedral should certainly be added to your ‘must visit’ list. When talking of the need to heal divisions in the Church, it might sound glib to suggest we examine the things we unarguably share in common; but it really is that simple. Look at the example of Chartres, this queen of cathedrals, this lighthouse radiating the Good News of Jesus, and marvel at the way Catholics in an earlier age fashioned it from stone and glass, binding into it the pages of the entire biblical narrative from the beginning to the end of time. There are no traddies nor modernists in this story, no conservatives nor liberals: for the Logos didn’t ask us to engage in that sort of thing.
We ask how we might evangelize effectively and catechize well. Look no further than Chartres cathedral and its sparkling Gospel message written by Christians acting with complete unity of purpose, whose mission continues to bear fruit many centuries later. I first visited Chartres cathedral forty years ago to study the sculpture and stained glass. When I returned home to London I knocked on the local presbytery door and asked to be baptized.
 Chartres Cathedral website: http://www.cathedrale-chartres.org/
 Paix Liturgique, “Summorum Pontificum, L’Ouevre Majeur de Benoit XVI en Peril?” (25th May 2021, as reported in French which fits my theme, but it was widely re-blogged in English.)
 Details of the reduced 2021 Pèlerinage de Pentecôte de Paris á Chartres with photos and video of the closing Mass can be seen on the official website: https://www.nd-chretiente.com
 Émile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France in the Thirteenth Century (1889). A recent paperback English edition was published by Icon Editions. (Marcel Proust reputedly carried a copy around everywhere with him to study French church architecture.)
 Malcolm Miller is now 87 but he updated me for this article and he will continue guiding at Chartres this year: “When life returns to normal I shall guide daily at 12 noon until mid October , but not during August nor on Sundays.” He is also available for private tours. Email: millerchartres(a)aol.com
Images: Header photo of Chartres, freewaydrone.com; Belle Verrière window, Dr. Simon Cotton; Compostela plaque and Saint James on south door, the author; Malcolm Miller photo by John Preedy.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).