Student documentarian pulls pilgrimage into focus

14 Jan 2009

By The Record

A Sydney media student has won top marks with her documentary on a Catholic pilgrimage.                                                  


Bridget Spinks out amongst, recording the action of the Christus Rex Pilgrimage. Seen here with two volunteer marshalls.


By Anthony Barich
The ancient Catholic traditions of the Latin Mass and Sacred Polyphony are reaching a new, younger audience in Australia, a Sydney University of Technology media student has found in an online documentary she prepared.
Just over 275 pilgrims attended the annual 100km Christus Rex (Christ the King) pilgrimage from St Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Bendigo on the last weekend of October in 2007; in 2008 it was closer to 350.
Of the 30-plus choristers who sang at Masses celebrated each day of the pilgrimage most were young people in their teens and early 20s and came from states including South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and NSW.
Bridget Spinks, final-year Bachelor of Arts (Communications) student, said in her online documentary production notes that there is therefore “a need for a documentary that exposes and explains the growth in interest around the Latin Mass for younger Catholics”.
“After going to World Youth Day last year, I realised that the idea of ‘pilgrimage’ is a curious one to many people. This documentary gave me a chance to explain and educate my audience on so many beautiful tenets of the faith in a way that will hopefully appeal to a broad range of people not just Catholics, but Christians as well, and those who are on their own journey or pilgrimage through life,” she told The Record.
By conducting interviews during the pilgrimage, she also sought to offer explanations on key traditions for those who are new to the old rite.
She said that “although foreign to many Catholics, [the Latin Mass’s] growing influence is becoming mainstream in Catholic society, especially since 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter Motu Proprio that recognised the continual importance of the older form of the Mass”.
The pontiff’s letter also stated that groups of the faithful no longer needed their local bishop’s approval to celebrate it with a priest. “(The documentary) is not intended as a promotional piece,” she said, “but rather a historio-graphical, travel and spirituality piece that exposes a new contribution to Australian society.”
Interviewing a teenager, a 30-something mother, a reformed former rock band roadie, the pilgrimage’s chief organiser and a tour veteran, Miss Spinks found that the arduous pilgrimage strengthens participants’ experience of God through offering up their sufferings.
They also reconciled their internal conflicts and drew closer to those they were praying for by offering up their sufferings for them.
The most revealing interview of Miss Spinks’ documentary was ‘Bernie’, a former roadie for heavy metal rock bands who is on the road to conversion. Though admitting the over 30km-a-day pilgrimage was painful and tiring, Bernie, 36, found himself drawing closer to God by offering up countless Rosaries for his 11-year-old son and his familyin the midst of a custody battle. Having admitted to making mistakes in his former life and hurting people he loves, he now offers it all up in a tangible way, “praying that Mary will intercede for my son”, not so much to grant him custody to see his son on weekends but just to bless his son and family.
The Christus Rex pilgrimage started in October 1991, inspired by John Paul II’s Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei encouraging the use of the Latin Mass according to the 1962 Missal.
Then, just 25 people embarked on a pilgrimage with only Turkish bread and cheese to sustain them on the 100km walk, mirroring the famous and centuries-old 70-mile Paris to Chartres pilgrimage.
But the Christus Rex pilgrimage merely traverses highways and pales in comparison with the French event that sees participants cross forests, muddy fields and paddocks.
Young Sydney mother Carmen Sands admits that bringing young children on the pilgrimage is “really difficult” for her and her husband.
But the children have learned in a real way the self-sacrificial spirit of living for others, and offering up their own suffering for others.
Mrs Sands admits that she “used to dread” going on the pilgrimage, “but the thing that pushes me on is to drop everything as a family for the sake of Christ the King and purify our love for God with suffering”.
“It’s really difficult for us, with the kids especially. It’s not just sore feet – all sorts of things happen to the kids. But overall I really enjoyed coming. They love walking through the countryside; they can’t do that at home. We can take time out from the busy, frantic pace of life.
“They’ll remember walking through the countryside, and it teaches them something about suffering. They tell me they’ve got sore feet and they’re offering it up.”
Eighteen years after the first pilgrimage, the food is slightly better but amenities are still limited – women and children sleep in community halls and the men sleep outside in the cold tents.  Showers are non-existent after the first morning. Up to 60 volunteers run the event marshalling on the roads, driving trucks, and organising priests, food and port-a-loos,but John Gresser, a 32-year-old father of three, says he is jealous of the 25 pilgrims who went to the first one in 1991.
“It’s my spiritual highlight, this will get me through another year,” said Mr Gresser, a regular since 1995. “The idea of a walking pilgrimage really spoke to me; the idea of walking to a holy place, walking or travelling is a penance.”
He says that catching up with people year after year, even if names are not remembered, is like a “meeting of souls”, as they have suffered and prayed together; and when they finally arrive at Bendigo’s Sacred Heart Cathedral it’s clear that the pilgrimage is a microcosm of life.
“You’ve just been on an extremely long journey, but every year when you walk into the Cathedral you know God is really here.
“Even though Jesus being in every tabernacle in the world is a matter of our faith, you just have this overwhelming sense that what we believe is absolutely true, because your whole body senses that God is present.” In their exhaustion, he said, the sense of God’s presence is stronger.
For the record, Bridget, a former work experience cadet with
The Record, got a High Distinction for her documentary.