You may consider walking from Ballarat to Bendigo in late October to be neither religiously inspiring nor particularly traditional. However, hundreds of people every year, many of them still under 30, would thoroughly disagree.
The walk in question is a pilgrimage in honour of the Feast of Christ the King, or Christus Rex. This Feast falls on the final Sunday of October in the calendar of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
Last October, over three hundred pilgrims walked from St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat, on a chilly Friday morning, to Sacred Heart Cathedral, Bendigo, on Sunday afternoon for Solemn High Latin Mass in the presence of Most Rev Les Tomlinson, the Bishop of Sandhurst (Bendigo).
Modelled on the Paris to Chartres pilgrimage in France, which takes place on the days leading up to Pentecost Sunday, the October 2012 Christus Rex Pilgrimage was in its 22nd year.
After a blessing of pilgrims in Ballarat Cathedral on the Friday morning, the Christus Rex pilgrims made their way through the streets of Ballarat, praying, singing hymns, and waving flags and banners in honour of Christ the King. Following a morning of walking and praying, the pilgrims found themselves in the beautiful bluestone Church of St Augustine's, Creswick, for a Solemn Latin Mass.
After lunch and a chance to rest one's feet in Creswick, it was back on the road for the afternoon, until the pilgrims arrived at their evening's destination in Smeaton. After a hearty meal, the day's formal proceedings ended with the singing of Compline (from the Divine Office).
On Saturday morning, it was back to walking through the beautiful Victorian countryside. The prayers, hymns and banner-bearing continued until the pilgrims reached their destination for lunch in Campbelltown. There, an outdoor clearing was transformed into a charming venue for an outdoor Solemn Mass, complete with an ornate covered sanctuary, log pews and a rustic confessional. Even the birds joined in during Mass in praising Christ the King!
Saturday afternoon's walking is paused in Sandon Cemetery where the pilgrims t00k time to pray for the dead. Then it was back on the road until they reached Newstead to get a well-earned night's rest and refreshments. There, the pilgrims were treated to entertainment after dinner by the Children's Chapter, showing their talent and hard work over the preceding days. Then for those whose desire for a sing-along had not been satisfied on the road, there was an opportunity again to sing Compline.
Although on Sunday morning one's feet were blistered and legs aching, there was an air of excitement and expectancy about arriving at the final destination of Bendigo Cathedral for Solemn Mass later in the day. However before all of this, for those who still had the strength, there was an annual tradition amongst the pilgrims of a race up "Heart Attack Hill" on the outskirts of Bendigo, aptly named from the lengths that one may have to go to be victorious.
In a similar manner to their departure from Ballarat in song and fanfare, the pilgrims walked through the streets of Bendigo towards the Cathedral full of praise for the Kingship of Christ. While doing so, there could hardly have been a more splendid sight for an exhausted pilgrim than that of Sacred Heart Cathedral appearing ever closer on the horizon. However, this may well have been bettered by the truly magnificent sight of the Cathedral within, with its expansive use of space, inspiring use of light, and polished white marble and statues. It truly appeared the pilgrims had arrived at the heavenly homeland!
At the Cathedral, the pilgrims were greeted by Bishop Les Tomlinson, who remained throughout the Solemn Mass in choir. The pilgrims were also treated to a polyphonic Mass setting by Palestrina, courtesy of the Christus Rex Choir. After Mass, the pilgrims took stock of their achievements and said their goodbye to their friends – though the farewells for some took a little longer as they included a visit to the pub in the evening and a return to the Cathedral for Mass the next morning.
Among the many highlights from the 2012 pilgrimage were the splendid sermons that the pilgrims were treated to by the inspiring priests present. One particularly notable preacher from 2012 was Fr Ronan Murphy from Ireland via the US. He disclosed his reputation to us early in the pilgrimage: that he had not only kissed the Blarney Stone, but that he had swallowed it! By the end of the weekend, the pilgrims could understand how he got this reputation.
Also among the highlights were the splendid liturgical ceremonies that took place along the way. No doubt the Sacred Ministers and serving team made every attempt to ensure these ceremonies didn't collapse on the sanctuary floor.
The music was also a particular highlight of the weekend, and many a line of harmony was added to the hymns along the way. Moreover, the Christus Rex Choir combines the various Extraordinary Form choirs from around the country to produce an ensemble of very high standard. Having pulled off a polyphonic Mass, three Gregorian Chant propers, and many motets, by the end of the weekend the choir had every reason to be pleased with itself.
Above all, though, the greatest highlight may well have been be the new friendships developed along the way, and the inspiration to be gained from one's fellow Christians in living the Gospel.
While it has the full support of the clergy, the Christus Rex Pilgrimage remains predominantly the work of the laity, with enormous effort each year going into its organisation. The result is a pilgrimage akin to those of Europe, which provides a deeply profound religious experience for those involved, and is a worthy tribute to the Kingship of Christ.
The next Christus Rex Pilgrimage will take place from 25 to 27 October 2013, and details can be found in due course at crex.org.