Carrying wooden crosses and religious banners, the traditionalists set off on Saturday on the 30th “Our Lady of Christianity” pilgrimage, which takes place each year during the Christian festival of Pentecost.
“As a pilgrimage, it’s about praying, singing, suffering a little bit, and also it’s a good way of reflecting because for three days, it’s kind of a retreat from the world,” Hervé Rolland, the president of the Notre Dame Association which organises the pilgrimage, told RFI.
“It’s a spiritual exercise in that you do it in offer to God, it’s penitential but you have a great reward in the end,” said Philippa D’Halluin, who came from Australia for the fourth time.
Her husband, Emmanuel, said he would be praying for friends who could not come and for prisoners in the maximum security jail where he works.
The traditionalists celebrate the mass in Latin – a practice authorised by Pope Benedict in 2007 – and have conservative views on some social issues.
The pilgrimage is “a public act aiming to tell the world we are proud of what we are, we are proud of our Christian roots, and we think that the natural law, the projected of the divine law in ourselves, should be respected, which obviously means there are a couple of laws that in our view are wrong laws,” said Rolland. “For example, same sex marriages, the potential euthanasia law, are obviously things we cannot accept.”
On their way to Chartres, where they are expected to arrive on Monday, the traditionalists may meet members of the even more conservative Society of Pius X, who are travelling in the opposite direction before heading for Orleans to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc.
The fundamentalist group, which was founded by Mgr Marcel Lefebvre because its members rejected Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II reform of Catholicism, was effectively expelled from the church in 1988.
Vatican II called for religious freedom and ended a 2,000-year doctrine that the Jews were a “deicide people”.
Lefebvre and other leading members of the society have expressed support for absolute monarchy in France and the collaborationist Vichy government. The movement has been accused of anti-Semitism.
Since 1977 its supporters have occupied Paris’s Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet church, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen had her children baptised. Her party, the Front National, has a Catholic traditionalist wing.
The fundamentalists have organised recent protests against cultural events they deem offensive to Christians, including the play On the concept of the face of the son of God at Paris’sThéâtre de la Ville last year.
According to leaked Vatican documents, Pope Benedict has been negotiating the readmission of the society to the Catholic church. A German-based movement, We are the Church, on Thursday called on bishops to resist reconciliation with the “ultra-conservative, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic” movement.