A report from Fr. Patrick Rutledge on days 3 and 4 of the SSPX's Youth Pilgrimage to France.
Youth Pilgrimage 2014: days 3-4
Normandy is the northern region of France whose name derives from its tribal roots. The Normans settled in this region and under William the Conqueror they even took over the kingdom of England for some time. It is known for its butter, dairy products and its Cavaldos (apple brandy), but it is home to one of the most well-known and loved modern saints─St. Therese of Lisieux.
Her family moved to Lisieux when she was four years old and they lived in Les Buissonnets for some time. One can still visit her home, as our youth did. Her hair can be seen and flowers grow in abundance in the gardens around Chez Martin.
One travels just up the street of the lush Normandy town and finds an impressively huge basilica to honor St. Therese. There, near the groves that surround the basilica, the youth were able to have lunch while they peered up at the colossal monument of the Little Flower.
Inside, our tour guide gave, amongst much good information, the modern picture of St. Therese, the presumptuous saint. In other words, it does not matter what you do, because God is not a punisher but One who only rewards and so all we must do is have confidence. The chaplain reminded her that this is not the message of St. Therese and that this is not what St. Therese would want the youth to hear since God is our Father precisely because He will punish those who do not live up to the Gospel. These little incidences on the youth pilgrimages are always good ways for the youth to learn how to deal with the modern mentalities which try to pick and choose from what God has revealed.
Of course, our trip to Lisieux was intended mainly to venerate the relics of St. Therese. In the basilica one can find her forearm in a large reliquary on the Epistle side, midway up the nave. It was this arm that wrote Story of a Soul, which has drawn many souls to sanctity, and so this specific relic was chosen for veneration apart from the rest of her remains. The remainder of her relics, except for a relic that travels around the world, rest under an effigy of her at the convent where she lived her short religious life. Above those remains is the original statue of Our Lady which smiled down on her that famous Christmas Day and brought back all joy to the little girl saddened by the loss of her mother.
Normandy is a land that has seen many wars. From William the Conqueror to the D-Day invasion, this peaceful, shire-like region has been witness to many decisive moments in world history. We were told that despite the many bombs that fell on Lisieux in 1944, the Little Flower protected all the buildings that were related to her. A bomb even fell on the roof of the basilica (which was not completed at that time) and yet it did not detonate. From Lisieux, we moved through cities that are immediately associated with World War II, such as Caen which was 90% destroyed during the war. As we approached farther and farther north, we saw restaurants welcoming Americans to eat there and streets flowing with flags of all the allied countries of WWII. American, French, British and Canadian flags lined the streets of many of these cities, but these are not ordinary decorations. It just so happens that these flags are symbols of welcome to the many visitors who would come to northern Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6th. What a propitious time for us to be in Normandy.
But before we ourselves visited the beaches of Normandy, we stopped in the town of Bayeux, which surprisingly was completely spared the ravages of WWII despite its proximity to the action. A large cathedral there dedicated to Notre Dame harkens to another time in history almost 1000 years ago. St. Edward the Confessor was dying in England without an heir and chose as his successor William, Duke of Normandy, his cousin. Because William knew that the king’s brother-in-law, Harold, would try to claim the throne, William asked Harold to vow on the relics of the cathedral of Bayeux that he would submit to his power once he was made king. Despite Harold’s doing so, he betrayed his promise [which he claimed was made under illegitimate duress since he was essentially a shipwrecked captive at William’s court─Ed.] and thus ensued the battle of Hastings in 1066, perhaps one of the most recognized dates of the Middle Ages. This whole battle between England and France would not end until the Hundred Years War in the 15th century.
It was there in the cathedral at Bayeux that our little group found a beautiful statue of Our Lady at one of the apsidal altars and prayed our daily rosary for our families and the benefactors of the pilgrimage. As we sang the Gloria’s the Romanesque stones of the church multiplied our praises with its customary reverberations.
Our dip into a period long ago was short-lived as we drove up to the very coasts of Normandy. Only 70 years ago, on June 6, 1944 the allied troops began the invasion of Europe to take it back from the occupying German forces. The allies landed at five main beachheads, with Utah and Omaha beaches being the American sectors.
However, we did not stop first at one of these main beachheads. Rather, we visited the impressive Pointe du Hoc, where over 200 U.S. Rangers were given the special mission to scale its cliffs and destroy some German artillery and guns which reconnaissance had reported there. There one can see the deep, even up 15-foot craters which remain from the shelling of the coastline. Our well-spoken tour guide explained at the spot, that it is called Pointe du Hoc due to the sharp looking ridge clearly marking the beach. These Rangers, landing at the same time as the other beach invasions at 6:30am, had to use their bayonets to climb these cliffs where they fought intensely for days. By the end, only 90 Rangers remained alive, out of food and ammunition, but they finally received their reinforcements having accomplished their mission. Due to the climb they made at Point du Hoc, a little monolith marks the spot in remembrance of this story which was one of many such acts of bravery by our American ancestors.
Just miles east was the famous Omaha beach where about 4,000 Americans were slaughtered as they stormed its coasts. Of the five main beachheads, this one saw the most casualties due to many factors. For one, the Germans had every inch of that beach covered by firepower, and for another, the Higgins boats, which dropped off the infantry, were often confined to leaving the infantry some ways out due to sandbars and underwater obstructions. Some men, with their 60-pound packs did not even make it to the beach, drowning before they could even receive a bullet. But their sacrifice was no less valuable.
All of this stirred the virtue of patriotism within our souls and led us to the final visit of this area─the American cemetery. There we prayed for our ancestors, as over 9,000 of them rest in this soil, which has been ceded to the United States. It was a pleasure to be back on American soil for a short time. Due to the coming anniversary, military equipment, trucks, tents and all sort of paraphernalia, could be seen everywhere in the area. It was like going back in time and a deep impression was made on us all.
Finally our pilgrimage sought out the prince of all those who battle: St. Michael the Archangel─he who led the angels in the battle that was the cause and root of all battles here below, made himself known on the very border of Normandy and Brittany. In the city of Avranches, he appeared to its bishop, St. Aubert, and asked for a sanctuary to be built where he would receive veneration just as he did at Mt. Gargano in Italy. Thus began the building of what is truly one of the Wonders of the West, Mont-St.-Michel. It was a fortress and a Benedictine Abbey, but today no monks remain. During the Revolution it was seized and used as a prison for some time. Every day the tide comes in to surround this island. However, one has to be careful because the tide rises close to fifty feet and comes in at a rate of 12 miles per hour. It is known to have swept people and cars away. At the summit, the monastery is so far above earthly things that the monks would have found that their prayers had only a short distance to travel up to heaven.
The religious aspects of the island did not stop us from enjoying the local cuisine as well. Poulard omelets are the specialty of the mount, as well as the lamb known for its saltiness given their diet of sea-watered feed. Day four of the trip ended in nearby Avranches where the relics of St. Aubert rest in the cathedral. Even though we were not able to see it, his skull can be venerated, still with a hole in his forehead where St. Michael had touched him, giving him a mission to build this castle to overlook these war-torn lands.