2011-12-29 FRANCE

Pilgrimage to the Marist Places

Our pilgrimage (October 31 to November 12 – 2011) was not about seeing new things. If that had been the case, several of the group would have gained little profit from the experience, since most had already visited the Marist foundation sites. It was more about re-connecting with the lives of the spiritual ancestors who had affected our lives, of reviving fading memories and prayerfully expressing our gratitude to God and Mary for the rock solid foundations laid by our founder, Marcellin, and the early Brothers.

With these sentiments in mind, on the afternoon of October 31, we Brothers of mature age flew from Rome to Lyons on the first leg of our twelve-day pilgrimage to the region of our Marist foundations. On arrival, we were met by our faithful and jovial bus driver, Claude, and his wife Denise, and were driven to the town of Belley, east of Lyons. Early next morning, we were driven through thick fog to Geneva, Switzerland, where Br Jim Jolley explained the work of the Marist Foundation for International Solidarity (FMSI), and how, in the name of the Marist Brothers, he is working through the United Nations to promote the rights of children around the world. In the afternoon we enjoyed a tour of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

The next morning we left our lodging in Belley, a recently renovated former seminary dating back to the 1930’s, to visit ‘Bon Repos,’ the nearby home of the Marist Sisters. We were warmly welcomed there by Sisters Teri O’Brien (Canada) and Marie Challacombe (England), who very skillfully led us through the story of the early foundations of the Marist Sisters and the struggles of Jeanne-Marie Chavoin as she sought to bring her vision of the Sisters to life. A moving moment was our Mass together. This was followed by a picnic lunch in sunshine as we sat outside the Sisters’ home, absorbing the beautiful views.

After lunch, we visited the school named after the poet Lamartine where the first Marist priests lived and taught, with Père Colin as the headmaster, and carried out mission work in the wild Bugey mountains. We walked the corridor upstairs where the priests had their rooms, and then at La Capucinière we saw the former chapel – now a room for catechetical work – where the Marists, Marcellin amongst them, made their first vows in the Society of Mary. Fittingly, we Marist Brothers and Sisters renewed our vows together as we recalled this act of our first Marist priests.

This was the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (John Keats – ‘Autumn’). For most of our time in France, we experienced the mists of autumn, but we also became aware of the stunning beauty of the countryside, especially on the day when we departed from Belley to follow the Rhone River valley. It was mid-autumn (fall), and that part of the season when the green of the valley floor and the autumn colours of trees covering the nearby hillsides were at their most vivid. A brief halt allowed us to marvel at the crystalline waters of the spectacular Cascade de Glandieu. We passed through village after village, in which solid, rectangular houses built of stone displayed changes effected in the course of centuries, each village strung out along the narrow road, silent villages seemingly devoid of life. Passing through Vienne (and elsewhere), the observant noticed a modification of the English language evident in shop signs inviting us into the jeanerie, sweaterie, chocolaterie, saladerie and the sandwicherie! We arrived at last at our home for the next ten days, Our Lady of the Hermitage. We were welcomed by the community of mixed nationalities, made up of Marist Brothers and laypeople, including Br Benito Arbues, former Superior General, and Br Neville Solomon, a former history teacher and headmaster of Marist College, Ashgrove, Australia, now sharing his expertise in Marist history with visitors, especially anglophones. There is only one community residing in the Hermitage now, and its raison d’être is to be of service to visitors and pilgrims.

The transformation of the five-storey building erected by Marcellin, through the recent renovations, has been amazing. The central open area of former times has been enclosed. Spacious ensuites are heated and possess a phone. Two lifts are available, but two stairways for the more agile, one with 95 steps worn by countless numbers of Brothers over 190 years, the other with 86 new steps. Marcellin’s bedroom has been opened up on one side to allow for prayerful meetings. A newly organized museum focuses on Marcellin and François, while several meeting rooms, large and small, three chapels, Internet, a souvenir shop, a reception area and a comfortable TV room with meeting facilities seem more than adequate for most needs. Unless informed, a visitor might be unaware that paneling conceals a building almost 200 years old. The scholasticate wing built in the early 1900s has also been refurbished. The new dining room with conference room above, close to the entry, is connected to the main building by an enclosed walkway over the River Gier. A company provides varied and tasty meals, with the menu posted for each week.

Wonderful memories will linger long of Marhles, Le Rosey, La Valla, Maisonnettes, the Donnet farmhouse of the Memorare in the snow, Fourvière, St Genis Laval, a relic of the Montagne house, le Puy-en-Velay, La Louvesc, and la Neylière, as well as all the places that were so sacred for Marcellin and the early Marist Fathers and Sisters. Specific incidents spring to mind: the call to sit around the table at La Valla; the prayer in Marcellin’s bedroom; standing before the graves of Brothers Louis, Laurence and Stanislaus; our commitment at Fourvière; looking down from Fourvière upon the cloud-covered city of Lyon, not a building in sight; climbing the slender volcanic plug (82m.) to the chapel of St-Michel of Aiguilhe near Le Puy-en-Velay; gazing down at the valley in which Marcellin was lost in the snow storm; gathering for a minute’s silence on 11/11/11; watching anxiously and in hope as Claude squeezed his big bus through the eye of the needle; listening to Denise sing her aria, ‘Sainte Claire, garde la pluie en l’air.’ But each of us will have additional memories.

From the time of preparation for this event, before we left Manziana, the notion of ‘pilgrimage’ was emphasized by our leader, Br Barry Burns. We were not a group of tourists. Apart from the visit to Le Puy, we had little contact with shops and little to distract us from our stated purpose. In prayer we expressed our thoughts and feelings according to the place and occasion. We heard again the stories from our early traditions that contain our Marist ideals and values, and we realized that they served to bind us together. Narrated in the context of their origin, these stories, though heard before in some form, were received with greater sensitivity and appreciation than when told in our own home situation. The pilgrimage to France was an experience that made for a deepening of our own spirituality, an experience that will be inspirational for us in these harvest years of our lives.

Brothers Jim Norton & Bill McCarthy


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