The tradition of walking pilgrimages is a very ancient one. The Holy Family took part every year in the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2:41), evidently with a crowd of friends and relations (Luke 2:44). In the Middle Ages even those who could afford to travel on horseback or in a carriage might choose to walk instead, sometimes barefoot, especially for the final stages of a pilgrimage, as King Henry VIII did to Walsingham in 1511. This tradition has held an increasing fascination for modern people, as the figures for the great shrine of St James at Compostela (Santiago de Compostela) show: from a trickle of pilgrims in the 1970s, the numbers have ballooned since. In 2016 more than a quarter of a million were officially registered.
Whereas the pilgrimage to Compostela is done by individuals and small groups, large-scale organised pilgrimages have also been revived since the 1970s, most famously the Chartres Pilgrimage, which has over the years attracted up to 12,000 people to walk from Paris to Chartres with the Extraordinary Form Mass, roadside confessions, a wonderful spirit of comradery, and lots of singing. This was the most direct inspiration for the LMS Walsingham Pilgrimage, which also references the old Guild of Our Lady of Ransom pilgrimage to Walsingham, which took nine days to go from London to Walsingham.
One characteristic of the Chartres Pilgrimage which we have adopted is singing the Rosary. As a tribute to the Chartres tradition, we even sing the Hail Mary in French, as well as in English and Latin: the French ‘Je vous salut’, with its relentlessly jaunty tune, is very evocative of the Chartres pilgrimage for former participants. We also have a repertoire of hymns from around the English speaking world, from Newman and Faber to less familiar hymns from Ireland and Australia.
We have made a special effort to include a lot of Gregorian Chant, and have discovered that with the help of a confident cantor (and a megaphone), chants with refrains work extremely well on the road, such as ‘Gloria laus’, ‘O filii et filiae’, ‘Mane prima sabbati’, and the litanies.
As pilgrims and soliders have known through the ages, singing while walking is a wonderful way of keeping up the pace and keeping up morale, and makes light of the long miles to be covered. For the most difficult parts of the day’s walking we keep in reserve a few familiar secular songs, like ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Men of Harlech’, which never fail to lift the spirits.
Being on a smaller scale than Chartres, the Walsingham Pilgrimage is more intimate and informal, and we can provide pilgrims with a proper hot meal in the evening, by contrast with the simple bowl of soup given on the road to Chartres.
The centre of the pilgrimage is the liturgy. We have a Sung Mass in the Extraordinary Form each day, usually before breakfast, and we have generally been lucky enough to have sufficient clergy to have High Mass with deacon and subdeacon. This ancient liturgy puts us into the closest possible continuity with the generations of Catholics who have made the pilgrimage to Walsingham over nearly a thousand years. The solemnity of the liturgy, and the quality of the accompanying singing—by a schola of pilgrims—is intended to match the physical efforts of the pilgrims, as an offering to God for our private intentions and for the intention of the pilgrimage as a whole: the conversion of England.