Drawn to Tradition: Chartres Pilgrimage Attracts Devotees of the Latin Mass

A record number 18,000 pilgrims from around the world took part in the 62-mile walk from Our Lady in Paris to Our Lady in Chartres, ‘all here for Christ…’

The pilgrims walk from dusk to dawn.
The pilgrims walk from dusk to dawn. (photo: Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)

Organized by the Catholic lay nonprofit organization Notre-Dame de Chrétienté — “Our Lady of Christendom” — since 1983, the pilgrimage to Chartres gathers each year thousands of pilgrims from all ages and nations in what has been called one of the most attended events in France.

Mainly attended by devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass, the pilgrimage culminates each year in a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the traditional Roman rite in the Cathedral of Chartres, this year celebrated by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith.

His eminence Cardinal Gerhard Müller celebrating a Solemn High Mass in the Cathedral of Chartres at the end of the 2024 Chartres pilgrimage (credit Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)
His eminence Cardinal Gerhard Müller celebrating a Solemn High Mass in the Cathedral of Chartres at the end of the 2024 Chartres pilgrimage.(Photo: Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)

Arousing the curiosity of major national outlets, the closing Mass was for the first time since the pilgrimage’s creation livestreamed on a French national news channel.


Honoring an Age-Old Tradition

Although the pilgrimage is inspired by French Catholic poet Charles Péguy, who on June 14-17, 1912, undertook a 4-day pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres to ask the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary to help his ill son, Chartres has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries.

In 876, King Charles III of France donated to Chartres one of the most important relics in France: the veil of the Virgin Mary. According to tradition, the cream-colored piece of silk dating from the first century was worn by the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation and the Nativity.

It is believed that the veil was first preserved in Constantinople before the Byzantine Empress Irene of Athens, donated it to Charlemagne — the emperor of the Carolingian dynasty responsible for uniting most of Europe and spreading Christianity — who in turn gave it to his grandson.

The veil escaped the fire of 1194 that devastated the cathedral of Chartres, as monks protected it in the crypt. However, it was not similarly spared from the French Revolution when in 1793, it was cut into pieces. Only two fragments survived, which are today displayed in two reliquaries.

Hence honoring a 1,000-year tradition of pilgrimage, the 42nd annual pilgrimage from Our Lady in Paris to Our Lady in Chartres gathered more than 18,000 people, a new record number in the history of this three-day pilgrimage.

‘I Want to See God’

Equipped with flags and banners, and divided into chapters, the pilgrims — whose average age is 23 — walk for three days from dusk to dawn and spend the nights camping at their daily destination. The days filled with cheerful pilgrim songs and chanted prayers usually come to an end much quicker than expected.

“Our pilgrimage has three goals,” Odile Téqui, head of communication at Notre-Dame de Chrétienté, told the Register. “To faithfully and integrally transmit the heritage of faith, to educate all on the Church’s social doctrine in order to encourage engagement in society, and to evangelize those who do not believe or no longer believe, through the beauty of the liturgy and the demands of the faith.”

The pilgrimage attracts the youth, with the average age of participants being 23 (credit Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)
The pilgrimage attracts the youth, with the average age of participants being 23.(Photo: Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)

Every pilgrimage has a theme chosen and announced a year in advance during the Pentecost Mass. This year’s theme, “I want to see God,” focused on the last things, “a topic often neglected or skimmed over because it is considered too difficult or sad,” Téqui noted.

“This is surprising, as the last things are the cornerstone of our faith, the ‘why’ and ‘for whom’ of our lives: to see God. The last things define hope and give meaning, importance, and beauty to human life. We are all pilgrims on our way to heaven, we are all called to holiness. Only the thought of eternal life gives meaning to our earthly struggles.” 

The pilgrimage, Téqui added, helps pilgrims to grow in faith and hope by “bringing them back to basic fundamentals: prayer, the Eucharist, and penance. These are the three best ways to step out of our self-focus and turn toward God.”

Téqui emphasized that the pilgrimage’s greatest strength “lies in tradition, which does not adapt its content to societal changes but remains faithful to the deposit of faith. It is demanding but true. Our pilgrims seek this. They genuinely aspire to be uplifted. They express it with different words, but which all translate their thirst for authenticity, solidity, and transcendence.” 

“The second strength of this pilgrimage lies in the clarity and practice of the teachings,” Téqui added, “which concretely lead each pilgrim to take a look at their lives and encourage them to live out Christianity in their daily lives.”


Filling up the Tank with Grace and Hope

While the majority of pilgrims are French, some 1,500 come from abroad — a number that is also growing each year. This year, 50 of those came from far up north.

After hearing about the Chartres pilgrimage from friends and participating in it for the first time in 2016, 26-year-old Catholic youth leader Max Martin Skalenius, from Göteborg, Sweden, decided to start a Swedish chapter the following year, known as St. Eric’s chapter. 

“It was the first Nordic chapter to ever join the Chartres pilgrimage,” Skalenius told the Register, “and I remember that, because we come from one of the most secular countries in the world, our presence was greeted with cheers by the organizers.”

Since then, Skalenius has been head of the Swedish chapter, increasingly made up of young converts or young people interested in Catholicism.

Max Martin Skalenius with other leaders of the Swedish chapter of King St. Erik of Sweden (courtesy photo)
Max Martin Skalenius with other leaders of the Swedish chapter of King St. Erik of Sweden.(Photo: Swedish Chapter)

Reflecting upon the many “obstacles and distractions which hinder us from seeing, hearing and listening to God” in modern society, Skalenius emphasized that on the pilgrimage, during which all distractions are stripped away, “we learn to trust in God in the hardest of times, and more than anything, we learn the power of prayer.”

“The conversion of Sweden has always been our chapter’s special intention,” Skalenius shared, “and this year we printed St. Maria Elizabeth Hasselblad’s prayer for the conversion of Scandinavia and distributed it to other pilgrims so that they too could pray for us.”

The fruits of the pilgrimage are clear and visible, Skalenius noted. Several new seminarians for the Swedish diocese, he shared, have participated in the pilgrimage and spoken of the role it has played in their discernment journey.

Hopeful and enthusiastic, Skalenius has together with some friends organized a “Nordic equivalent” to the Chartres pilgrimage in southern Sweden for the last few years, just as the president of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté has encouraged every chapter to do.

“For me and many others, it is as if the year revolves around the Chartres pilgrimage, as if the year isn’t complete without it,” Skalenius shared. “It is as if we get to fill up our tanks with grace and hope so that we can survive another year in our secular, atheistic, socialist, and growingly Islamic Sweden.” 

“The pilgrimage is truly a taste of how the Catholic western culture and society once was and should be,” Skalenius added.


Living a Time of Christendom

“Originally, the pilgrimage was created by a smaller group of French Catholics who were passionate about the Traditional Latin Mass in order to diffuse and defend it, alongside with traditional doctrine and devotions,” French priest Matthieu Raffray told the Register. 

“However, I was especially struck this year by the number of reverts, converts and even non-Christians who attended the pilgrimage,” added the priest of the Institute of the Good Shepheard, who has attended the pilgrimage every year since he was 7. 

Explaining that there has been a certain “revival of the faith” in France for the past 4 years — as can be seen in the rising numbers of baptisms in the country — Father Raffray said the number of converts and non-Christians at the Chartres pilgrimage shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The pilgrims gathering on a field for a Solemn High Mass in the traditional rite for Pentecost (credit Notre-Dame de Chrétienté).
The pilgrims gathering on a field for a Solemn High Mass in the traditional rite for Pentecost.(Photo: Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)

“Young people are looking for an authentic, assumed, traditional, and proud faith,” the French priest, who organizes chapters for converts and reverts through his popular Instagram account, explained. “These young people, who don’t come from Catholic families, are fleeing the disappointments of the modern world and searching refuge in the traditional Catholic faith. They are looking for transcendence, truth, and are drawn by timeless rituals.”

The Chartres pilgrimage really shows how “tradition is missionary, how it evangelizes,” he said. “It is able to reach those who are far from the Church, and those who have fled the Church.” 

Father Matthieu Raffray organizes chapters for converts and reverts through his popular Instagram account (courtesy photo)
Father Matthieu Raffray organizes chapters for converts and reverts through his popular Instagram account.(Photo: Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)

Arguing that young people are “not interested in a Church that tries to be young and in time” since “they know the world and they are fleeing it because of its dangers and limits,” Father Raffray also shared his suspicion that Pope Francis’ restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass may have fueled an interest and growing support for the ancient liturgy among young Catholics.

Speaking against the claim that a pilgrimage is a form of idolatrous superstition and attempts to suppress popular devotions in order to intellectualize and spiritualize the faith, Father Raffray emphasized that “a pilgrimage is a beautiful act of faith and charity” which “follows a long Catholic tradition.”

Eucharistic adoration during the evening at each daily destination (credit Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)
Adoration during the evening at each daily destination.(Photo: Notre-Dame de Chrétienté)

“It consists in renouncing many things, in separating oneself from one's comfort, in accepting voluntary suffering, and in uniting one’s struggles and oneself with Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world.” 

Underlining the importance and beauty of community and mutual support during the pilgrimage, Father Raffray commented, “For three days, we truly live in a time of Christendom, and experience what a truly Christian society is.” 

“The pilgrims are all here for Christ. They all love Christ, and they are happy and proud to be Catholic. They don’t have to hide and they are not ashamed. Their flags and banners are flying high with the wind.”