Thursday, May 31, 2018

Chartres and the Spirit of May 1968.

This month, France marks the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968, a month of student protests and labor unrest subsequently regarded as a critical juncture in French history. Mai 68 remains a potent symbol, celebrated by many on the left as a moment when various forces for social change achieved a new measure of visibility and influence and lamented by many on the right on account of its consequences. Now, as the youngest soixante-huitards reach retirement age, the legacy of May 1968 is open to debate. Many former student radicals have long since retreated from the positions that they held dear fifty years ago, while some more recent trends in French politics – such as a pronounced neoliberal turn under François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron – suggest that some of the perceived gains of May 1968 were far from permanent.

In the popular imagination, one of the salient characteristics of May 1968 was the esprit de contestation, understood not simply as a spirit of protest but as a willingness to question received ideas. The spirit of contestation ultimately transcends ideology; indeed, now that members of the 1968 generation have ascended to positions of power and influence, the spirit of contestation is perhaps more in evidence among conservatives. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising; as my late mentor Father Tom King pointed out, the only revolutionary act possible in a technological society fixated on the ephemeral is fidelity to tradition.

In addition to the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968, this month marked the thirty-sixth installment of the annual pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres organized on the weekend of Pentecost by Notre-Dame de Chrétienté, an association of Catholic laypeople devoted to the Usus Antiquior of the Roman Rite. The Pentecost pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres annually draws over ten thousand participants, mostly but not exclusively French, with notable growth in recent years: estimates of the total number of pilgrims who took part this year range from 12,000 to 15,000, accompanied by over 300 priests and religious who serve as chaplains along the route. Though the celebration of the Usus Antiquior is an important feature of the pilgrimage, not all of the pilgrims are traditionalists: as Father Guilhem Le Coq, a former chaplain of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté, said in a recent interview, "Chartres is a pilgrimage for everyone," and first-time pilgrims are often struck by the warm and fraternal welcome that they receive.

Another notable characteristic of this pilgrimage is the youth of its participants: with an average age of 21, university students and young adults are particularly numerous. In the aforementioned interview, Father Le Coq also notes the relative youth of the priests who take part in the pilgrimage: with an average age of 30, "the clergy are almost the same age as the [lay] pilgrims," and this leaves a powerful impression. The Pentecost pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres is a genuine youth movement, one that reflects a turn to tradition and a desire for more durable markers of Catholic identity that are very much in evidence among young Catholics. One can also find signs here of a very real esprit de contestation, the true 'spirit of May 1968,' even if the revolution sought is ultimately spiritual and not political, pursued through prayer and song rather than confrontation and protest.

Though numerically impressive, the Notre-Dame de Chrétienté pilgrimage remains the work of a committed, energetic minority. In this sense, too, the pilgrims have something in common with the youth of May 1968: those who took to the streets then represented an engaged and vocal minority, even if they would ultimately wield significant influence. This should not be surprising, as small but well-organized groups of people have often played a decisive role in shaping the course of history. In a homily delivered at the close of the Notre-Dame de Chrétienté pilgrimage, Cardinal Robert Sarah noted the role that monasticism played in the development of European culture, urging the pilgrims to "return to the source" by drawing from the spiritual riches of the monastic tradition.

Christian monasticism has always been the task of a small but highly creative minority, even at times when monasteries engaged great prestige and influence. At the same time, it bears remembering that the fuga saeculi that defines organized ascetical life has always sought to influence society beyond the walls of the cloister, providing an impetus for cultural renewal. Picking up on historian Arnold Toynbee's insistence on the importance of "creative minorities" who guide civilizations, Pope Benedict XVI argued that the task of committed Christians in the secular West lies precisely in being such a minority, challenging their fellow citizens to be faithful to the best aspects of their common heritage.

The pilgrims who make the one-hundred-kilometer trek from Paris to Chartres each year on the weekend of Pentecost are just such a creative minority, offering a joyful and faithful witness to the Church and to society more broadly. I've written here before about the Church of the future, about the aspirations of many Millennial Catholics and the various ways in which those aspirations are expressed (including on TV). The pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres thus appears to me as a sign of hope, one that will continue to bear fruit in the lives of its participants and in the communities to which they belong. AMDG.