Day 50 of Walking Out of the World, in which the diversion to Moustey turns out to be a fool’s errand. The last 1000 kilometres to Compostela will be offered as a prayer for the unity of the Catholic Church and adherence of the faithful to the authority of the Bishop of Rome.
The morning began with blood sugar level at zero after no supper and no breakfast, packing up a wet tent in the morning rain, wearing the wet clothes from yesterday that I had slept in, and fighting mosquitoes by the side of a stream flowing with muddy undrinkable flood water. I tried singing “La pluie de le matin…” but gave up after one verse. I just wanted a coffee and croissants, anything. There was a heron on the opposite bank. I toyed with the idea of hitting it with the bourdon and eating raw heron for breakfast, but being a Franciscan this was clearly not the kind of breakfast solution that the Poor Man of Assisi would countenance, so I simply wished the heron a good morning.
At the last road junction before I camped in the wood I had seen a sign for Moustey, so I knew it was only a short distance away. I climbed up a muddy path by a bridge over the stream, onto the tarmac road, and headed for Moustey. After a shin-cracking march through miles of wet forest, I made it to the mairie in Moustey at 11.55, knowing they’d close at midday.
Dripping wet, I stood in front of a lady in a beige cardigan in the entrance and I explained that I had come for the special 1000km tampon. She looked completely blank. There was no such stamp. She could stamp it with the town hall tampon if I liked. I showed her all the identical town hall stamps in my credencial, put there by ladies in beige cardigans all the way from Normandy. “Like these?” I asked.
“Yes, like those,” she said. She opened a drawer.
I closed my credencial and shook my head. “I didn’t spend the night soaking wet and attacked by mosquitoes just for another mairie stamp,” I said.
“Je suis desolee monsieur,” she said. “Ne’st pas derange.”
I tried to remember how many people in France had told me not to be deranged, but I was not far from the Pyrenees now, so I would not hear it much longer, and by walking all this way in the rain I had shown that my derangement was a fair match for their foul weather. I sighed. At least I had the photo to show I was at the 1000km stone. And then, as I made my way out, dripping over the town hall tiles, she suddenly said, “Maybe the grocery shop will have a stamp. It is opposite the church.”
I made my way to the grocery store and explained about the 1000 kilometre stamp that Pierre in Normandy had shown me. Yes, that stamp had been issued by this very shop until just a year ago. But they had lost it! They had a new stamp. She put it in my credencial but it did not have the “1000 km” in the middle.
“You could just write that in the middle,” she said, helpfully. She had a red pen. I wrote it in the middle of the stamp. This was the most depressing morning of my entire life. “There’s a restaurant next door,” she said. “Show them your credencial and tell them you have walked from England.”
It was still raining. I looked across the road at the 1000 kilometre stone. The restaurant was immediately opposite on the corner of the entrance to the village. It was early for lunch but there would be nothing ahead on the road for many more kilometres. I went in and took a window seat opposite the 1000 kilometre stone. I put my credencial open on the table in front of me.
“Ah, you have the stamp,” said the waiter. “We always have pilgrims coming to see the 1000 kilometre stone.”
“I walked from Worcester, in the west of England,” I said. I showed him the Worcester cathedral stamp, the London stamp of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The Dieppe stamp of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.
“We can offer a pilgrim menu for fifteen euros,” he said. “A good lamb stew for a day like this, with a half bottle of Bordeaux and a dessert or coffee.”
As he went to get the wine, I looked at the Moustey stamp with the “1000 km” written in red ballpoint pen, and I chuckled. My sense of humour had returned after the challenge of the past 24 hours.
“Do the red, say the black,” I said to myself. In the liturgical books of the Church, where there are instructions printed in red, you do them (like making the sign of the cross, standing, kneeling) and whatever is printed in black is to be said aloud. “Moustey, Compostelle, was the prayer. Do the red! Do the 1000 kilometres.”
It was a very good lunch. I resolved to do the last thousand kilometres of the pilgrimage as a prayer for unity in the Catholic Church and an offering of penance for my part in its divisions. There had been no 1000 kilometre stamp, but my diversion to Moustey had added something new to the pilgrimage to Compostela. It had not been a wasted effort.
It was another twenty-four kilometres from Moustey to Labouheyre and the very good lunch stood me in good heart for the constant heavy rain for the entire walk. In this journey from Dieppe across France, I calculated that I had been outside in the rain for a longer period than during the rest of my entire life. This was no idle conceit: it was a reasonably sure calculation and it was a fact. This pilgrimage had been a baptism. Thankfully, I had not once developed a cold.
My mind turned once again to the ghost of Robert Sutton and the mysterious pilgrim who was ahead of me on the road. My diversion to Moustey meant I had not kept up with that bourdon ahead of me on the road and the pilgrim who people said wore a broad brimmed hat and had come from England.
Although the guide to the Via Turonensis had finished long before Bordeaux, the signage across the Landes indicates that the Way of Saint James still belongs to the same route. It seems curious that the guide book does not extend to the whole route from Paris to the Pyrenees.
I walked through Pissos and onto the marked Chemin Saint-Jacques towards Labouheyre. Having resolved to focus the next 1000 kilometres on prayer for unity in the Catholic Church, I began to reflect on the question.
When I had converted from the Anglican to the Catholic Church in the early 1990s, I had mistakenly thought that I would leave all the factionalism of conservative and liberal churchmanship behind me, as I entered the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, an ecclesial body which was united under one earthly representative of the eternal Church: the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – and successor of the apostle Peter. But, of course, we are human and we will never find that things work out as simply as that.
This is a virtual pilgrimage – one based on an actual past journey, with a nod to the 15th century, and re-lived in the present moment – so I want to look at the question of unity in the Catholic Church as a present issue. Walking to Compostela on a virtual pilgrimage on this blog, in the Holy Year of the Xacobeo 2021, what does a focus on unity in the Church involve? This is a personal experience, not some theory or the view of a Catholic media pundit, and I have no expertise on this subject; but only the reflections of what has happened to me and what I have seen and heard.
The Catholic Church was polarised over the resignation of Benedict in 2013, and afterwards by the presence of two popes. On social media, the divide was between the ‘traditionalists’ still supporting the theology and ecclesiology of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and the ‘liberals’ who were overjoyed by the election of Pope Francis. The disappointment of the traditionalists was such that many blogs began promoting conspiracy theories to explain his departure: it was all the fault of a ‘homosexual cabal’ in the Vatican; or the ‘St Gallan Mafia’, a supposed shadowy group of extreme liberals; or the age old conspiracy loved by the fascist right throughout the twentieth century, a masonic plot hatched by secretive groups; but also, if you are a trusted conspirator, you may whisper your conviction of the inevitable Jewish plot, an idea which is too repulsive to ordinary people for it to ever be spoken about in public, but because you are traditionalist intellectuals, you are not bound by these social norms.
Eight years after the extraordinary resignation of Benedict there is no sign that the ‘traditionalists’ ever regained their senses. Nor did the ‘liberals’ ever give an inch, and the signals sent out by the Church of Pope Francis have at times seemed designed to enrage the conservative traditionalists. Most of the faithful – as in all ages – simply continue with their Catholic lives and faith without particularly identifying with either faction in the Church, or if they do recognize such a divide they would mostly err on the side of the more liberal wing of the Church, and that is where the majority of the hierarchy position themselves. But the partisans – the professional Catholic voices – had now discovered ‘social media’ (a misnomer which refers to platforms that are filled with quite antisocial behaviour) and these ‘echo chambers’, as they are frequently and rightly described, have the effect of increasing the extreme positions of their followers.
So we find ourselves in the extraordinary world of January 2021 when many ‘Catholic’ blogs are still carrying the lie that the US election was ‘rigged’ to favour the Democrats – a lie which led millions of voters to think they had been defrauded and which caused social unrest and long term damage to democracy – and these ‘Catholic’ blogs still perpetuate a partisan political lie, on behalf of a disgraced demagogue, simply because it coincided with their one-issue moral outlook. This is mainly about the pro-life anti-abortion teaching of the Church, which is certainly its undisputed position, while the full range of other social teachings of the Church are simply ignored, as if they had no value, while the other side, the ‘liberals’, focus on them with full commitment. The partisan politics here is a complete disaster for the unity of the Church.
How do we address this on the level of personal prayer and reflection? That is now the subject of my pilgrimage focus on prayer for unity, within the context of the Xacobeo 2021. For a Catholic pilgrimage – if undertaken in a spirit of prayer and repentance – should not be simply about travelling through a holy religious Camino, feeling good about our spirituality of pilgrimage; it should open up our minds and our hearts to the practical realities of witnessing to the faith in our time and our situation.
This is an example of the kind of false teaching now commonly found on so-called ‘traditional’ Catholic blogs. The alliance with the radical extreme right is explicit in this example, as the interview is done by Steve Bannon whose influence in promoting fascist movements all over Europe is well-documented.
To support this strand of the virtual pilgrimage, I have now produced a drop-down menu at the top of the page: Xacobeo católico. There are already two pages in this menu:
1. Catholicism Pure & Simple? A page recounting the potential for extremism among the ‘traditionalist’ wing of the Church and its bloggers. This is written from personal experience.
2. How do we recognize false teachers? A page giving the example of a wolf dressed as a shepherd, Archbishop Viganò and the co-opting of the Catholic Church by the fascist ultra-right.