Faith on Foot: The Christus Rex Pilgrimage

If hundreds of people from all over Australia were marching through the countryside in favour of “the Voice” there’d be saturation coverage on the ABC. If they were out in force to extol the pride and pretensions of “rainbow people” there’d be police and premiers marching at their head. None of those honours came the way of the more than 600 Christians who took part in the annual Christus Rex pilgrimage recently, and chances are that the only media report you’ll encounter about this march is here. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s unnewsworthy: ignoring an event like this is merely one more illustration that Christians aren’t news unless they are doing something—such as questioning unlimited abortion or wondering whether wholesale “transing” is the solution to every adolescent’s personality problems—that gives the bien-pensant classes the excuse to point out how hate-filled and antediluvian they are. But by any rational measure the Christus Rex pilgrimage is a remarkable event: a three-day trek across ninety kilometres of central Victoria between the regional cities of Ballarat and Bendigo. The pilgrims are Roman Catholics, with plenty of young people among them and—especially notable this—many families of the philoprogenitive sort, not just your national average of 1.1 offspring per couple.

This report appears in December’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

The Christus Rex pilgrimage, at a time of year with Christmas on the horizon, is in honour of the feast of Christ the King, a commemoration instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, partly in the hope of establishing a Christian corrective to resurgent nationalisms in Europe that as it turned out would lead to Nazism and Fascism.

The pilgrimage in Victoria is now in its thirty-first year, and is emphatically not one of those Australian events that we cringingly call “world-class” when we’re not quite convinced that they are. It is one of three principal Christian pilgrimages in the world, the others being the enormous Paris-to-Chartres pilgrimage with thousands attending, and the Walsingham pilgrimage in England which was actually begun on the model of the Australian pilgrimage. The celebrated Camino of St James to Compostela in Spain still draws large numbers but since the Spanish tourist industry took it up as a national attraction its religious character has declined. Its typical pilgrim is now less likely to be a devout Catholic wishing to honour the apostle James and his putative visit to Galicia than a freethinking vegan feminist walking to keep fit.

Pilgrimages in Anglo experience disappeared at the Reformation, the most notable loss being the one described by Chaucer, which was permanently cancelled when iconoclasts smashed up the shrine of the “holy blissful martyr” St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. So when lay Catholic Bill Rimmer launched the Ballarat-to-Bendigo pilgrimage in 1991 with a handful of tentative participants the event was a novelty. It now attracts pilgrims from far beyond Australia.

And if their primary motive is spiritual they have to be physically fit as well. An average of thirty kilometres a day tramping along the grass and gravelly verges of back country roads—the pilgrims avoid the principal highways—is a long walk for most people. The weather doesn’t help. The end of October is a time of erratic weather in central Victoria—no, not “unprecedented climatic events”, it’s the same every spring—and this year much of the distance was through drizzle and downpour over squelchy ground, waterlogged after a fortnight of heavy rain. If you’re an adult male pilgrim the ground is where you try to sleep at the end of a hard-walking day, though women and children (old-fashioned notions of gallantry still prevail on this pilgrimage) sleep in public halls.

The pilgrimage is, for want of a better term, a “traditionalist” Catholic venture, in that its liturgical acts, the Masses and Benediction along the way, for which a fine demountable pavilion-church has been made, are in Latin in the Tridentine rite superseded in most Catholic churches by the vernacular rite imposed after the Second Vatican Council. The Latin rite was reintroduced on a considerable scale with the permission of Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. Its subsequent severe restriction by the present Pope has been a slap in the face to traditionalist Catholics—who, incidentally, represent the only section of the Roman Catholic Church that is actually growing—but even so the old Mass is still celebrated in more than fifty churches and chapels throughout Australia, and in the event the restriction has proved to be a spur to traditionalists, who compared with the overall Catholic demographic are disproportionately young.

Pilgrims pay a fee of $230, or there are single day bookings. This covers coach transport for their camping gear (or for a lift if you feel you couldn’t face another kilometre) and meals. This aspect of the pilgrimage is not inspired by traditional asceticism, sitting down to eat five times a day being not normally associated with a spirit of renunciation. But pilgrims need energy. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are prepared by volunteers and are abundant. For breakfast there is porridge and toast and on Sunday bacon and scrambled eggs. Lunch the first day was vast plates of hefty sandwiches with old-fashioned fillings such as egg and lettuce, cheese and gherkin; the second day it was paella from a van, the third sausages and salad in bread rolls. Dinner is meat (except on Friday) and vegetables, with a simple pudding. As well as all this there is morning and afternoon tea.

In the evenings, in Chaucerian spirit, many pilgrims make for the pub in one of the two townships where the pilgrimage stops for the night, Smeaton and Newstead. These are tiny hamlets, with pubs that are not much more than a public bar. Both record their busiest evening of the year when the pilgrims turn up. There is friendly give-and-take with the handful of regulars who are the mainstay of the pub at other times, and this year there were songs around the piano, led by the pilgrims’ choir. A couple of beers is as good as any a way to soften the prospect of the cold hard bed on the buffalo grass of the local recreation reserve. Sleeping arrangements apart, compared with 1991, the pilgrimage is rather a luxury tour. The early pilgrims carried everything they needed with them—and disappeared into the bush if they had to. Today there are portaloos stationed every two or three kilometres.

Another difference, and a true sign of our times, is the dead weight of a bureaucracy scarcely dreamt of in the earlier pilgrimages. You now need permits to walk through the bush as a group. You need a permit to proceed along the verges. Someone gets paid to issue and check those permits. Someone is paying the road patrols that appear from time to time to “monitor compliance”. (You sometimes get the impression, Victoria being a Labor fiefdom, that bureaucrats are regarded as a more valuable asset to the state than the taxpayers who make the money to pay these ever-increasing armies of “public servants”.)

The early organisers chose Ballarat and Bendigo because they wanted two cathedrals far enough apart for a three-day walk, and it helped that Bendigo Cathedral with its great spire is one of the finest churches in Australia, an astonishing building to have been completed in the twentieth century. But as the colossal organ thunders to welcome the pilgrims at journey’s end, some may feel that it is among the trees and hills of the countryside they have passed through that they are most at home in their worship, where the currawongs echo the sanctuary bells and the scent of wet eucalyptus mingles with the incense. 

Christopher Akehurst, a frequent contributor, lives in country Victoria. He wrote the article “Boutique Identity” in the October issue

One thought on “Faith on Foot: The Christus Rex Pilgrimage

  • Phillip says:

    Great News Christopher,
    Your opening paragraph sums up the whole scene of today’s challenge’s.
    The numbers of young adults and young families are continuing to grow in attendance to traditional catholic (pre Novus Ordo – Vatican 2) mass, because that is where the truth is.
    It is just a shame that the Vatican and the seat of the Bishop of Rome have been usurped by Globalists and anti Catholics.
    The young people today are searching for Christian doctrine and fibre to nourish their faith. Once they’ve been to a traditional, pre 1962 or 1955, catholic Latin mass, it is odds on they will never return to a novus ordo mass again.

Leave a Reply