Since I became chaplain of the University of Tilburg in the academic year of 2012/3, I have proposed an over-night pilgrimage on the last weekend of June, that goes from the chaplaincy to the diocesan cathedral of ’s-Hertogenbosch. Here, the Sweet Mother of ’s-Hertogenbosch (Zoete Moeder) is venerated, represented by a medieval statute before which hundreds of people, living in one of the most secularized cultures in the world and often far from the church, come everyday to light a candle asking for help in their lives.
The pilgrimage, which covers five kilometers through Tilburg, then twenty-five through fields and forests, was designed along the same lines as Macerata-Loreto, in which I had participated various times as a seminarian and young priest. The idea of ending the year together with such a simple and concrete gesture seemed beautiful and useful to me, as it entailed bringing ourselves to remember and thank God for all of the graces received, while at the same time asking the intercession of the Madonna for the upcoming year.
It begins at 10:30PM with the Vigil Mass in the chapel of the University. After, there is time for coffee and exactly at midnight we say the Angelus together outside of the chaplaincy and begin walking. Around twenty to thirty people participate, between university students and members of CL. Like all of the activities of the chaplaincy, the pilgrimage is open to everyone: among the participants there are always Protestants and non-baptized persons. The gesture, which foresees the recitation of four rosaries, is, however, Catholic. At the beginning, this came off as a bit strange to some people: to those who, for example, come from the Calvinist tradition, all of those Hail-Mary’s have quite an effect. But the pilgrimage, in the simplicity of its essence, is able to encompass everyone. When we arrived to the Cathedral, tired but happy to have made it, we always sing “Romaria”: “And since I don’t know how to pray,” goes the song, “I came simple to show my face.”
The pilgrimage takes place at the end of June (this year, from the 30th of June to the 1st of July), a weekend which not only marks the end of the academic year, but also the period of the White Nights, the shortest of the year: in Holland, the sun goes down after 10PM and the first streaks of dawn appear around three in the morning. Thanks to God, we have always had beautiful weather, without rain and often which a serene sky that, full of stars, fills the heart with admiration and silence. During the night, you can see things that you never see in the city: the starry sky, the Morning Star (we always sing Chieffo’s song, in English, when we see it), the dawn, which takes three hours to pass from the first lights to the full light. Then there is the silence, even now and then interrupted by someone who, more or less tipsy, is returning from the club by bicycle and is struck by our group singing or walking in silence.
After Morning Prayer in the Cathedral, which opens its doors so early just for us, and the personal prayer before the Sweet Mother, where we place little sheets of paper with our intentions, we hike another two kilometers to the house of my parents, who prepare a large breakfast. Normally we eat in silence, due to the tiredness but also for the impression that the gesture made on us, as it expressed us so much more that we could have thought.
(Michiel Peeters is pastor of the university parish “Return of Christ-Maranatha” and chaplain of the University of Tilburg (Holland). In the picture, a moment from the pilgrimage to the diocesan cathedral of ’s-Hertogenbosch.)