Sunday, June 8, 2008

March to Canterbury

On a Friday afternoon in late July of 2006, I joined over a hundred traditional Catholics led by priests of the SSPX at the walls of Rochester Cathedral to commence a three-day petition to Heaven for the return of England to the Catholic Faith. Our assembly of English, French, Welsh, American, German, Swedish, Croatian, Zimbabwean, and other faithful from around the globe culminated the 41-mile trek, footsore but ebullient, with a Mass set in the ruins of half-forgotten St. Augustine's abbey in the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral.

Our pilgrimage wound its way along the old Pilgrim's Trail often by the upper chalk ridge over road, field, and wood, ornamented with hymns, litanies, chants, and rosaries.

At the Friday night camp, after the tents were erected, we had a low Mass followed by a welcome hot meal. Saturday morning we rose to a sung Mass before resuming the march through the Kent Downs, spending one more night under canvas before arriving at Canterbury.

We processed in two columns through the narrow streets of the ancient town, parting the crowds while singing in Latin the Litany of Loreto in petition to the Holy Mother of God, a tribute to the Queen of All Saints in whose honor a Catholic England once bore the cognomen "Dowry of Mary." The curious and passers-by received leaflets about the Society and Tradition; many took photos and video of our traveling fellowship - souvenirs of what, Our Good Lord willing, will one day become a regular occurrence.

The majestic Gothic Cathedral of St. Thomas a Becket seemed to spring suddenly into view, a spectacular sight after traversing the narrow and constricting maze of city streets. One can only imagine what this site of grandeur, this hint of Heaven, would have seemed like to a medieval pious peasant who had known only hovel, barn, and stable.

We made our way past the cathedral to the ancient site of the abbey of St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury and the Apostle of the English who journeyed to the shores of the Sceptred Isle at the behest of Pope St. Gregory the Great. The foundation pillars of the abbey still stand, the bare bones of the old church, the rest having been swept away in the great tide that was the suppression of English monasteries during the rule of King Henry VIII.

Ethelbert, a pagan Saxon King, ruled Kent when Augustine arrived, and in the ruin one could almost imagine hearing the chant of the Saxon saint Caedmon when he sang about the creation of all things:

Praise we the Fashioner of Heaven's fabric,
The majesty of His might and His mind's wisdom,
Work of the world-warden, worker of all wonders,
How He the Lord of Glory everlasting,
Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a rooftree,
Then made He Middle Earth to be their mansion.

The sun shone hot down on us; no breeze or sound disturbed us there. At the Mass no instrument was heard save the voices of the schola, who sang the plainchant of that same Gregory who commissioned Augustine to quit Rome for Britain. The chief intention of the pilgrimage was the return of England to the faith, but each of us brought our own petitions as well; we united them with those of the priest at the altar, who stood in the place of Our Blessed Lord as the mediator between God and men, this alter Christus who offered our prayers and requests to the King of Heaven in union with that one supreme offering that took place 2,000 years ago in another forsaken, half-forgotten place.

And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face.

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