Via Francigena

Report from the Pilgrims Crossing Borders Walk from Trondheim to Rome − 2015

Picture of Redazione AEVF
Redazione AEVF

Pilgrims Crossing Borders was an organised pilgrim walk from Trondheim to Rome, from 22 April to 14 October 2015. Six European pilgrim associations and 400 participants from 12 nations cooperated on bringing a pilgrim staff and a diary along the old European pilgrim ways to Rome.

The total distance covered was around 3000 kilometres. Our planned pilgrimage on to Nazareth and Jerusalem (18 – 27 October) quite understandably had to be cancelled, see the explanation for this on page 4.

The motivation behind the pilgrim walk was and is to create an idealistic endeavour. The concept was developed by pilgrim veterans Alberto Alberti from Rome and Stein Thue from Trondheim. Would we be able to use the old pilgrim ways (in our case the St. Olav’s Paths, Via Romea and Via Francigena del Sud) to build bridges between peoples and countries? The idea of a European pilgrim walk was launched and preparations started early in 2013. Six pilgrim associations contributed infrastructure and logistics assistance. Einar Vegge, the pilgrim pastor of Nidaros Cathedral joined the effort early on as a resourceful contributor and prime mover behind the cultural events and promotion of the walk. Trondheim local authority and the National Pilgrim Centre in Trondheim offered their support and contributed to the events.

Due to all these efforts, the idea of a walk from Trondheim to Rome and Jerusalem quickly gained support and acceptance. Volunteers signed up as stage leaders for the 175 day stages and accommodations were arranged. An impressive international joint effort gathered force, and thanks to voluntary enthusiasts and local pilgrim associations, we were able to arrange this marathon walk through Europe.

The walk started with a divine service and launch in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim on 22 April. The Dean gave a sermon and the mayor of Trondheim gave a speech. The Trondheim Soloists played music composed in honour of the event and the vocal ensemble Schola Sanctae Sunnivae sang beautifully. The painting/portable altarpiece by Håkon Gullvåg, painted in tribute to the walk, was displayed in public for the first time. After the service, it was carried in a procession to the square facing the West Front of the Cathedral. The detachable middle section of the travel altar would join the walk in Einar Vegge’s rucksack.

After being wished good luck and many greetings from enthusiastic participants, the walk commenced. Among the travelling companions on the first stage were, in addition to the many Norwegians, representatives from the Jacobi Church in Hamburg. This gave the walk an international aspect right from the first day. Participants would eventually include people from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Germany, Austria and the USA. Saba from Syria deserves special mention. She lived in a refugee camp in Scharnitz in Austria. When the pilgrims came there in late August, Saba offered to prepare dinner for us. The day after, she joined the day’s stage on the pilgrim way. We saw that the mutual generosity between “Pellegrini” and permanent residents blesses the road for both parties. The pilgrims will remember Saba in Scharnitz, and she will probably remember the flock of pilgrims who visited her there.

Of the more than 400 pilgrims who participated, some only walked a single day stage. Others walked for weeks, some for months. Günter Hannig (76) from Germany walked 1600 kilometres from his home town Hamburg to Roma, while Canadian Wilma Foyle (82) walked 1200 kilometres from Würzburg in Germany to Rome. The pilgrim flock has also varied greatly in number, age and composition − from two hearty souls to 70 pilgrims.

The specially designed pilgrim staff that has been carried on the walk came from Stiklestad in Norway (the site where St. Olav died in battle). Its inscription was artfully made by Nidaros Domkirkes Restaureringsarbeider (the Restoration Workshop of Nidaros Cathedral): “Pilgrims Crossing Borders 2015/Nidaros/Trondheim–Roma–Jerusalem”.

Right from the start we had made it a point that anybody who wanted to join was welcome to take part in the walk regardless of faith or life view. When in early August we came to Würzburg in Bavaria, meetings in accordance with the event’s traditions were arranged between Jews, Christians and Muslims. These meetings were initiated by the German pilgrim association. To highlight the wish for dialogue between religions, the pilgrim staff was inscribed here with symbols for the Jewish faith, Christianity and Islam. Through these symbols on the pilgrim staff, we presented our quiet hope for reconciliation, understanding and increased knowledge about different ways of living, values and religions.

The pilgrim ways of Europe remind us about the common history and cultural heritage of the continent. Thus, we have also chosen the European Council’s goal for Europe’s cultural roads as the motto for our event:

“May the faith that has inspired pilgrims throughout history, uniting them in a common aspiration and transcending national differences and interests, inspire us today, and young people in particular, to travel along these routes in order to build a society founded on tolerance, respect for others, freedom and solidarity.”

Now let us make a long story short and look at the events on 14 October on the final stage to Rome. A flock of 35 hopeful pilgrims were on their way along Via Cassia, walking towards St. Peter’s Basilica. The meteorologists had predicted a veritable flood of pouring rain that we were equipped for but saved from. We had sent notification of our arrival and preparations had been made, and it did not take long before friendly police officers met us to stop car traffic where we needed to cross the road. RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) insisted on interviewing us several times along the way. On the way up Monte Mario, the hill of joy for pilgrims in Rome, we were met by uniformed park attendants who guided us to places with the best views of the goal for our pilgrimage.

When we passed along the final blocks toward St. Peter’s Square, car traffic had been stopped to allow us free passage. It was not without a deep sense of piety and tears of joy that we saw St. Peter’s Basilica at close range. Shortly after arrival we participated in a divine service with the pilgrims who had walked from Rome to S. Maria de Leuca (935 km in 45 day stages), they also being a part of Pilgrims Crossing Borders. A party of pilgrims who had walked from Assisi to Roma to arrive the same day as us were also among the churchgoers. The service became a time of solemnity where words fail to describe what the pilgrims felt after reaching the destination for their pilgrimage

The next day (15 October) there was a full programme in Sala Campidoglio at the Capitol (a prominent meeting room for receptions and conferences in Rome). Representatives of the Mayor of Rome and the Italian Ministry of Culture welcomed us. The undersigned introduced the Pilgrim Crossing Borders walk to dignitaries and representatives of various participant countries, and pilgrim associations gave speeches. A packed room listened when the speakers talked about and showed pictures of the walks through Europe.

In the evening, a concert featuring a quartet from the Trondheim Soloists was held at Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista dei Genovesi, a special medieval church with a cloister garden, in the heart of Trastevere, Rome’s ancient quarter. The concert included the composition by Tormod Tvete Vik in tribute to the walk. The work, called Pilgrims Crossing Borders, has been inspired by hymns from the countries the pilgrims crossed. The concert had its premiere performance in Nidaros Cathedral on 22 April, the first day of the walk. Then, as well as on this October night in Rome, the music created a harmonious atmosphere for contemplation and reflection. The musicians received standing ovations for their performance, and the audience successfully insisted on da capos. Again, we experienced music as a universal language that reaches out to everyone. The concert was sponsored by Trondheim Local Authority and the National Pilgrim Centre in Norway,

Another part of this story concerns the altarpiece by Håkon Gullvåg (see the picture below) which arrived in Rome the same time as the pilgrims. The middle section of the painting, which can be detached, had in late April and early May been carried in the rucksack of the pilgrim pastor as he skied from Trondheim to Oppdal.

Håkon Gullvåg’s travelling altar for Pilgrims Crossing Borders in Rennebu church.

In October, the altarpiece arrived with Einar Vegge as special air transport to Rome. Here the pilgrim pastor ensured that the artwork was on display and the story retold to the hosts and pilgrims in the meeting room at the Capitol Hill, as well as in the medieval church in Trastevere.  

We had originally planned to continue the pilgrim journey from Rome to Palestine during the final two weeks of October 2015. From Rome we would fly to Tel Aviv, and then walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem. This walk had been planned by the pilgrim pastor Einar Vegge in cooperation with a Palestinian travel agency. The plan had attached importance to meetings, dialogues and interaction between pilgrims and permanent residents. The Trondheim Soloists as well as the Schola Sanctae Sunnivae choir were to give concerts in Ramallah and Jerusalem. When the situation in Jerusalem and the border adjacent to Gaza became very tense, it was decided to cancel the pilgrim walk in the Holy Land. The decision was made together with Norway’s representation office for the Palestinian territories. While it must be said that this was a disappointing turn of events, it is important to take responsible action under the circumstances. When the Norwegian authorities advised against a walk where we had planned to go, it was wise to take this advice to heart. We again would like to thank Trondheim local authority and the National Pilgrim Centre for their promised support for the planned concerts with the Trondheim Soloists and the Schola Sanctae Sunnivae choir in Ramallah and Jerusalem. We hope that the situation for the local populations in the Palestinian territories and in Israel will soon improve. When the situation permits and the time is ripe, we will again consider a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Looking back, we consider Pilgrims Crossing Borders to have been a successful endeavour. We have walked through a diversified Europe on old roads where pilgrims have walked for centuries before us. We have met pilgrims and permanent residents with differing views of life and faiths and built bridges between countries and peoples. While Pilgrims Crossing Borders formally concluded on 15 October 2015, the international cooperation it has encouraged has created a European network of pilgrim enthusiasts. We will meet again to evaluate the walk and to discuss how we can use this network to strengthen the voluntary pilgrim activities in Europe. The walks and the cooperation will continue.

In conclusion we would like to point out that Pilgrims Crossing Borders was possible due to the cooperation between the following pilgrim associations and bodies:

  • The Pilgrim Confraternity of St. Olav, Norway

  • The Confraternity of St. James, Norway

  • The Confraternity of St. Hallvard

  • Nordjysk Pilgrimsforening

  • Hauptkirche St. Jacobi, Hamburg

  • The Via Romea Germanica, Italy

  • Jakobsgemeinschaft Tirol

  • Via Romea Stadensis

  • Gruppo dei 12

  • Club Alpino Italiano

  • Trondheim Local Authority

  • The National Pilgrim Centre in Norway

  • The regional pilgrim centres in Norway

If you would like to find out more about Pilgrims Crossing Borders, check our blog, which features reports, photos and our handwritten diary:

Trondheim, 10 November 2015
 Stein Thue