Student Cross pilgrimage: more relevant today than ever

By Tania Mann

Over Holy Week, more than 250 people of all ages walked across England to participate in Britain’s oldest annual pilgrimage: Student Cross. Upon arrival on Good Friday, the majority of the pilgrims had travelled about 120 miles, carrying a life-size wooden Cross in small groups along city streets and country paths to reach their destination: the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Norfolk.

Though it may be the oldest yearly pilgrimage in Britain, it is “more relevant today than it has ever been”, said the national director of this year’s event, Dave Stanley. Amid an increasingly complex and uncertain society so laden with material burdens, “going on pilgrimage is a fantastic way to strip back to the basics and examine the fundamental questions in life”, he said. L’Osservatore Romano spoke with Stanley on his way to Walsingham on 30 March.

The pilgrimage – which began in 1948 and became officially ecumenical in 1972 – is a way to observe Holy Week that attracts all kinds: “from people who feel secure in their faith as Christians, to people who have simply found that walking with friends restores them in some way; fit and unfit, wildly enthusiastic and apparently reluctant. What we have in common is that we find this pilgrimage an invaluable way of connecting with what is most important in our lives”, said the director, adding that this year’s Student Cross has drawn people from New York, Mexico and the Philippines.

From its founding group of 30 students, the pilgrimage has grown to see numerous participants return year after year. It is divided into 10 different groups, called “Legs”, that depart from various parts of England and travel different distances. Six of the 10 groups walk approximately 120 miles over Holy Week, but there are also less intensive programmes, such as the two organized for families. These meet in Norfolk for a series of short walks and activities.

And that is precisely how Dominique Gelder Smith, a 22-year-old student of Durham University, has gone on Student Cross every single year of her life. Her parents had participated in the pilgrimage since they were students, and they took her with them on these  family pilgrimages when she was an infant.

Now, for Gelder Smith, Student Cross and Holy Week are inseparable. The same goes for Stanley, who said that the pilgrimage offers a unique way to celebrate the holiday. But he added, “To me, it’s not just something that I do at Easter; it’s become a cornerstone of my life”.

Stanley – who met his wife on Student Cross – spoke of the strong intimacy intrinsic to this experience of carrying the Cross together. He emphasized just how profound the relationships are that form over the week and endure long after Student Cross is finished. This intensity stems not only from the opportunity to spend a week so charged with meaning with a close-knit group of people but also from the difficulties that the group must overcome.

“It seems that there’s nothing that could make you imagine how terrible the experience of Christ actually was until you carry a Cross across the country”, said Gelder Smith in a telephone interview given en route with the “Midland Leg” on 31 March.  “You get a mixed reception – there are lots of people who are encouraging and welcoming, but often you come across people who are quite hostile, as well”, she said. “But because we’re all sharing the experience, carrying the Cross together, it brings us closer. To actually be carrying a symbol of faith – it’s a really good witness to what we’re doing and what we’re all about”.

Beyond these reactions, the physical aspect itself is the most difficult, said Stanley. “One hundred and twenty miles is a long way, and it hurts. Even with three people carrying –  two in front and one in back – the Cross feels heavy, particularly as the miles go on”.  But at the same time, he continued, “You do feel that very immediate connection between the witness of carrying it on the road and the suffering that Jesus went through”.

The Crosses that each “Leg” carries are all the same size – over 7ft tall and over 4ft wide – but are made of different kinds of wood and thus vary in weight. On average, the pilgrims who walk the entire week spend from about 9a.m. to 6p.m. on the road each day, with a break for lunch and 2-3 other rest stops. As they walk, some pilgrims sing or even play instruments. There are also “stations”, modelled after the Stations of the Cross, during which they pause to share and reflect.

When the ten groups converge on Good Friday, they walk the last mile into Walsingham –  a place of pilgrimage since medieval times – together.

“Even though I’ve been going for so many  years, it’s always overwhelming to arrive on Good Friday, if only for the sheer number of young Catholics that descend upon the town”, said Gelder Smith. “We all meet just outside the Shrine, and go in group by group. There are always people cheering you on as you walk into the Shrine, where each group spends a few moments of silence, and prays together for the last time on their own”. Everyone is very emotional when they arrive, she said, after having reflected for the whole week on the significance of the weekend’s celebrations.

In Walsingham they participate in a Good Friday service at the Church of the Annunciation, and on Holy Saturday, an ecumenical prayer service is held in a Methodist church. Easter Vigil Mass is followed by a celebration that begins at 2a.m. and, for the majority of pilgrims,  lasts until Sunday. Since there are so many regular participants, the event functions as a sort of yearly reunion for people who do not see each other otherwise. Easter Sunday begins with an Anglican service, followed by a “holy trot”. This entails parading the Crosses –  decorated with flowers – around the holy sites of Walsingham, pausing three times for reflection.

“Student Cross enables people to think deeply about the direction they are taking, how they can see their role in the world and how God can play a part in their lives”, concluded Stanley, who hoped that every pilgrim might come away with a similar experience to his very first, when he was 19:

“I was awestruck by how powerful it was. It makes you look at life and at relationships in a completely different way. You start to think not just about what makes you happy, but about how to serve others”. Likewise Gelder Smith said that the pilgrimage is a wonderful way to reaffirm one’s faith, and that “you go home filled with the grace of God”.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster also commented to L’Osservatore Romano on the profound significance of the event: “Going on pilgrimage is one of the oldest expressions of our Christian discipleship”, he said. “Carrying the Cross on pilgrimage shows our awareness of our own sins and the forgiveness that comes from the Lord”.

“May this Student Cross Pilgrimage bring us all closer to Christ”, the Archbishop concluded.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 04/07/2010

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