The annual Paris-to-Chartres pilgrimage, a three-day march at Pentecost marked by prayers, hymns, banners and old rite Masses, had to turn away participants due to over-subscription this year.
This is the first time this has happened since the pilgrimage began in 1983.
About 16,000 pilgrims left Paris last weekend on the increasingly popular 97km hike, accompanied by 330 priests. It ended on Monday at Chartres, whose famous medieval cathedral can be seen across the fields from far away.
The annual pilgrimage is sponsored by the lay association Our Lady of Christendom to promote devotion to the Blessed Mother.
This year is marked by “the historic presence of the relic of the skull of St Thomas Aquinas”, said lead chaplain Fr Jean de Massia. Normally kept in Toulouse, the relic is on show to celebrate the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Dominican saint's ordination.
Although they are attached to the pre-Vatican II liturgy, many pilgrims dispute the term “traditionalist” because their priests are in communion with Rome. The Society of St Pius X (SSPX), which has fraught relations with the Vatican, holds a smaller Chartres-to-Paris pilgrimage at the same time.
Jean de Tauriers, head of the lay association, said about half the pilgrims were under 20 years old and some came from abroad, notably Spain, Argentina and the United States.
“We shouldn’t be discouraged by the fact that there are only two per cent of practising Catholics in France!” he said.
Recent limits on the pre-Vatican II liturgy do not appear to have had much effect of these young Catholics. Many said that they felt more sanctity in the old rite but said they also attended novus ordo Masses.
According to a survey of French World Youth Day participants in Lisbon this year, La Croix found that 38 per cent of them appreciated the older liturgy and 8 per cent said they preferred it. Many of them identified as politically conservative and came from practising Catholic families.
According to sociologist Yann Raison du Cleuziou, this showed that “it is not Catholicism that is shifting to the right but right-wing Catholicism that is perpetuating itself better than left-wing Catholicism”.