The idea of a Cathedral Chapter pilgrimage was first suggested a couple of years ago by Philip Mounstephen. We wanted to do something together that would build relationships between physically distant members of the Chapter. We wanted to say something about Christian fellowship across borders in the age of Brexit. And we were looking for something spiritually edifying. A pilgrimage from Trier (in Germany) to Echternach (in Luxembourg) in the steps of St. Willibrord and just two weeks before B-day fitted the bill perfectly!
There were 11 pilgrims, which when you add in our guide – the splendid octogenarian Brother Athanasios – makes 12: an excellent number.
Our base was the impressive Benedictine Abbey of St. Matthias in Trier. This Abbey links us with the very foundations of Western, Roman Christianity. The bones of Eucharius and Valerius, the first bishops of Trier, are interred in the crypt. And it is said that relics of the apostle Matthias, sent to Trier on the authority of Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, are preserved here. From Trier, Constantine ruled over a Christendom without borders that stretched from Scotland to Africa.
Our pilgrimage route took us along paths, tracks and minor roads along the German/Luxembourg border. We walked across fields and through woodlands, never far from the River Sauer, a tributary of the Moselle.
It was Lent, and the cold temperatures and abundance of rain gave our pilgrimage an appropriately penitential feel.
A pilgrimage is a journey with a religious purpose. Our walking was punctuated by visits to churches and a series of addresses by Canon Francis Noordanus on the life and times of Willibrord.
Border lands can be the focus of tension and conflict. Brother Athanasios took us to see this bedraggled concrete bunker almost hidden in the middle of a dark thicket. With considerable emotion, he described how this place marked the far southern edge of Nazi Western defences in the Second World War. From here, high above the Sauer, Nazi soldiers enjoyed commanding views over the villages below. Many people had died. Eventually the Americans had come and over-run this defensive line, and then many more people were killed.
I was intrigued by this gravestone in a nearby Luxembourgeois churchyard. Schuler is a German name. But the inscription is in French. Mathew Schuler died ‘for his country’ in Russia in 1944. But which country was that? The priest explained to us. Schuler was from a Luxembourg family. Many Luxembourgeois young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht when Luxembourg was invaded by the Nazis. Schuler lost his life fighting for the Nazis against Russia. But all such young men were allowed by the authorities to have a gravestone which read: ‘he died for his country’. Such are the ambiguities of border lands and the ironies created by occupation.
The local priest explained to us that his gorgeous and compact Church, near Rosport, is one of the most important Marian shrines in Luxembourg and is a centre of popular religion and adoration. The papal flag billows in the stiff breeze.
We eventually arrived, somewhat bedraggled, at our destination: the Basilica of St. Willibrord in Echternach.
The current basilica is built on the actual site of the church which Willibrord built in the early 8th century.
Willibrord was born in Northumbria in 658 and as a young nobleman was educated as an oblate in the abbey of Ripon under abbot Wilfrid. At the age of 20 he went to Ireland, where he was ordained priest in Rathmelsigi in 688. In 690 he came to the European mainland with eleven companions to work as a missionary among the Frisians. He built churches and established a cathedral in Utrecht. He is understood as the first bishop of Utrecht. In 698 he established the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach. After a career which sometimes entailed excellent relations with secular kings, and at other times left him fleeing for his life, Willibrord lived to the age of 81 and was buried, according to his wishes, in Echternach.
We held our final eucharist in this beautiful crypt, close to Willibrord’s shrine. It was an intimate and lovely setting to celebrate our togetherness as a Chapter.
A pilgrimage such as we shared has many spiritual effects. It draws us closer to the Lord and to each other. It puts us back in touch with nature. It takes us away from the cities where we live and work for a while. A slightly rougher few days renews our gratitude for the simple pleasures of life.
We walked between two cities with tremendous religious significance. The Emperor Constantine was crowned in Trier and ushered in a borderless Christendom which endured in one form or another for a thousand years. Echternach is the burial place of Willibrord, the saint who took the gospel from English Northumberland to Frisia. En route we traversed the open border between Luxembourg and Germany, in thankfulness for this freedom and the peace between European countries which it signifies and which we, for the time being and by the grace of God, enjoy.
Our short physical pilgrimage is an analogue of the spiritual pilgrimage in which we all share from the City of this world to the City which is to come. We seek a new country of peace, abundance and blessing. It is a place where people from every nation and tribe and language gather in worship around the throne of the Lamb.