James Elston describes a pilgrimage to Paris


During Lent a small group of pilgrims made their way from the Thursday morning mass at St Pancras Old Church to St Pancras International Terminus and then on to Paris. Inspired by Fr Edward Dowler’s New Directions article last November we sought to connect our own experience of Catholicism with that of the wider catholic church, and in particular in the urban setting of Paris.

We stayed in the Marais district next door to the church of St Gervais, which is home to the Monastic Community of Jerusalem. The monks and nuns of this community strive to put prayer into the centre of the city and to create an oasis in the urban ‘desert’ of solitude and anxiety, which besets so many city dwellers. Having embraced the rhythms of the city, the community pray the Office in the morning, at noon and in the evening followed by mass. The community bears the name of Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the patron of all cities. The community welcomed us, and our group met with a brother and sister (ably translated by Kristian Hewett, an ordinand at Westcott House) and the brothers generously lent us their private oratory for our daily mass.

We were struck by the beauty of the Offices sung in French with chants inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions, and by the sheer number of people attending. People of all ages would fill the church three times a day to be part of the prayer life of this thriving community in the city centre and many of our pilgrims went to pray at the all-night exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. We were inspired at how prayer faithfully offered in the centre of urban life can draw so many in. This challenged us about how we in Camden might draw more people to the catholic worship and be an oasis in the desert of the city.

Our short pilgrimage also included a visit to the Church of the Miraculous Medal and the Shrine of St Vincent de Paul, and both he and St Catherine Labouré moved our pilgrims to real devotion. Both of these saints are powerful witnesses to Christian love and service being worked out amongst the urban poor and take us to the roots of Anglo-Catholicism in the cities of our own land.  

By immersing ourselves in the life of the Catholic Church in Paris in these particular ways for just a few days we were able to see ourselves as part of that greater whole and, as Fr Dowler put it in his New Directions article, ‘receiving a blood transfusion from the wider tradition.’

Fr James Elston SSC is team rector of the parish of Old St Pancras