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Why I am a Catholic

Catholic Journeys

by John Coleman

Scot Glyn Stanworth, knapsack on back, seemed bewildered when I met him at the top of the 134 steps leading to the World Heritage-listed Notre Dame Cathedral at Le Puy en Velay, southern most city in France's Auvergne region.

"I don't know," he responded when I asked him why he was walking hundreds of kilometres on the centuries-old pilgrimage from France to the grave of the Apostle St James in Spain's north-east.

Glyn, 42, from Aberdeen, told me he wasn't a Catholic, but had read about the famous pilgrimage of St Jacques [James] de Compostelle before leaving his job. Le Puy en Velay's cathedral is one of the starting points for the pilgrimage which covers four routes.

"It's a funny thing," said Glyn. "Something drew me... After reading about the pilgrimage, I heard about it five times. I took that as a bit of a hint."

Now, he said, "I'm trying to find a direction in my life."

In an extensive tour through eastern and western France, across mountains roads and tiny villages, we met many pilgrims, young and old, on their way to reflect at the saint's grave.

At the little village of Aubeterre, in the Charente valley, we spoke with a Dutch couple - the husband a 55-year-old retired Shell executive, a Protestant, his wife a Catholic - who were cycling 2500km as part of the pilgrimage. Over a beer, they told me they were simply "enjoying the peace and natural surroundings."

Martine, 60, our guide at Le Puy en Velay, who had walked 800km on the pilgrimage, said of it: "It's difficult to explain. You learn to know yourself better. I recognise now that I have some limits. I met a lot of people - it's a very rich experience."

Locals related the legend that St James was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44AD, his body placed in a boat and carried by the wind to Spain, to which he is credited with bringing Christianity. His grave is said to have been found in the ninth century.

Martine told me the pilgrims are given refreshments and help with accommodation at Le Puy en Velay. They eagerly seek special stamps in folders as they complete sections of the pilgrimage.

According to legend, the 12th century Notre Dame Cathedral, overlooking the city and built of volcanic rock, was the site centuries ago of a miracle when a woman was cured of fever.

Looming over the cathedral and its mediaeval streets where women sit stitching bobbin lace, is a 22-metre red metal statue of the Virgin and Child. Weighing 110 tonnes, it was erected in 1860 from more than 200 cannons captured by the French at Sebastopol.

Aubeterre's amazing underground Church of St John is a noted stopping point for the pilgrimage. Parts of the church date to the fourth century and is thought to have been developed by Benedictine monks in the 12th century.

The 20-metre pillars are carved from single rocks as is the reliquary, symbolising Christ's tomb. The nave has a baptismal tank which was used for total immersion. The church was built within natural limestone caves: it's assumed the monks worked with hammers, chisels and wood scaffolding - the chipping marks can be seen on the walls.

Europe's tallest church, a French writer summed up the mystical starkness as "a cathedral of emptiness."

The church was a graveyard until 1865 and during the Revolution it was partly converted into a saltpetre factory. It is now administered by the local council and is occasionally used for Christmas Masses. Tours cost around $6.40 for adults, $1.80 for children.

Aubeterre, classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, has a population of 360 people - which swells to 45,000 with the summer influx of tourists.

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