Catholic World – The Dancing Procession of Echternach

Dancers in the Dancing procession of Echternach; photographed on 13 May 2008 by David Edgar; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn the year of our Lord 690 a vessel from the island of Britain left upon the coast of Catwyk, in Holland, twelve young Anglo-Saxons who had abandoned their newly-converted country to carry the blessing of the Gospel to their brethren of the Continent. Chief among these young men, several of whom were of noble birth, was Willibrord, predestined from his mother’s womb to be a glory to the church and famous in the estimation of men. The young strangers separated, to work, each in his own way, in the vineyard of the Father. Willibrord began that very day the long and heroic apostolate of fifty years which ceased only with the pulsations of his heart. If we except his two journeys to Rome, where the great servant of the Papacy twice received the blessing and encouragement of the Sovereign Pontiff, he did not relax for a single day his labors in the vast region which stretches from the mouths of the Elbe and the Rhine to the banks of the Moselle. At his voice nations sitting in darkness rose up to behold the light, idols crumbled before the amazed eyes of their worshippers, churches arose from the soil and gathered about their altars multitudes of Christians, lay society organized itself little by little after the model of spiritual society.

Tradition and history show us by turns the great Anglo-Saxon apostle in Friesland as the master of Saint Boniface; in Denmark, preceding by more than a century the famous Saint Anscarius; in the island of Helgoland, destroying the idol of Fosite and braving King Radbod’s wrath; in the Isle of Walcheren, where he nearly fell a victim to his heroism and apostolic zeal; in Campine as the friend of Saint Lambert, another untiring athlete of Christ; and, finally, in Luxembourg, where even more than elsewhere his name is glorified and revered. For half a century he stood with Lambert and Boniface in the breach, the father of civilization in Western Germany and one of the most signal benefactors of mankind.

The common people, though they forget great poets and great generals, preserve the memory of saints. Seventeen churches in Belgium and fifty-eight in Holland are under his patronage, without counting those in the valleys of the Moselle and the Rhine, where his fame is equally wide-spread. Sixty-three leagues apart, a small section of Saint Willibrord’s vast itinerary, two villages to-day preserve in their own names the undying memory of his works: Wilwerwiltz on the sterile moors of the German Ardennes, and Kleemskerk on the low, fertile plains of maritime Flanders. Drawn, as it were, from nothingness by this great man, these two localities, were other witnesses wanting, would tell to later ages the glory of their sublime founder. Answering one to the other across the whole extent of Belgium, they testify to his vast labors and his devotion to the Roman Church, which we unworthily defend to-day against the barbarism conquered by him twelve centuries ago.


During his apostolic missions through the forests of Luxembourg Willibrord remarked one of the most charming and romantic spots in that fine country. It was at a turn of the Sûre, which even to-day flows on beneath the shade of savage rocks and deep forests. The valley, widening at this place, must at that time have presented a most imposing aspect, while it offered every facility for a settlement of human habitations. Indeed, the dwellings were even then of ancient date. The place bore a name recalling incontestably its first Celtic occupants: Epternacum. There, too, the Romans had left traces of their passage. A short league from Echternach archæologists may still read beneath the great shadowy oaks and thick brushwood that half hide it the following inscription engraved on the base of a monument:


The upper part of the monument is gone, but enough remains to show that it represented two persons—no doubt the goddess and her worshipper, with a hunting-dog crouched at Diana’s feet. He who overthrew the false gods of Helgoland and Walcheren must have crushed in holy ire this monument of the paganism he had just destroyed. At all events, the image of Diana, once proudly throned above the valley at the edge of the wood, now hides, degraded and mutilated, in the dank gloom of brambles and brushwood—an eloquent emblem of Saint Willibrord’s work in this country. Echternach, where even then two little Christian oratories stood on the site of the two churches of to-day, attracted the great man’s attention and heart. He built there a Benedictine monastery, which was favored from its foundation by the bounty of two royal families, the Merovingians and Carlovingians. Around this focus of Christian life habitations gathered, and, as always happened, the monastery expanded and became a town. Such was the origin of the commune of Echternach, one of the most flourishing in that happy country of Luxembourg which knows neither great cities nor great miseries.

The monastery of Echternach was always dearer to its founder than his other foundations. There he loved to pass his rare hours of repose. There, on the 6th of November, 739, at the age of eighty-one years, he reached the term of his mortal career. His remains were laid in the basilica of the abbey among his monks and his people. Even in the tomb he continued to be the father of that country and to exercise over men the sovereign authority which his virtues and labors had won. Death has no hold upon the saints; when we lower their bodies into the grave we rear their images upon our altars. Saint Willibrord, more than any other patron of the country, is one whose sepulchre may be called glorious. Few tombs have inspired a veneration so extraordinary, attracted the faithful in such crowds, excited acts of faith so intense. No sooner was he laid in his grave than multitudes came to invoke the apostle of Luxembourg, and frequent miracles bore witness to his powerful protection. A century had not elapsed when this wonderful devotion was spoken of by the greatest writer of his time—Alcuin, the biographer of our saint. His festival was celebrated by an immense concourse, who filled the air with his praise. “See, brethren,” says Saint Alcuin. “Behold the glory of serving God. Our holy patron, for love of Christ, left his native country and led the life of a pilgrim. He trampled under foot the riches of this world; he loved, he clung to poverty. And you know the glory he acquired among men. But preferable far is that which he possesses for all eternity among the angels.” And the illustrious friend of Charlemagne, speaking to his contemporaries of facts of which he had been an eye-witness, told of the iron fetters on the wrists and ankles of devout pilgrims which burst asunder when they came to do penance for their sins at the venerated tomb.

Two centuries afterward the voice of Theofrid, Saint Willibrord’s successor and later biographer, echoes the powerful voice of Alcuin and tells of the ceaseless devotion which brings crowds to Echternach every year. He, too, bears witness to the saint’s miracles—so numerous, he says, that a yoke of oxen could not drag the chariot that would hold the votive offerings of wax and metal. And among these wonders, as in Alcuin’s day, were to be seen broken chains and instruments of torture worn by slaves, which were shattered into splinters. No miracle is oftener recorded of our saints than this one. I confess I never read the record in the quaint and simple narrative of our ancient hagiographers without emotion. Wherever they went the breakers of idols were also breakers of fetters; that word which called men to the knowledge of the true God called them also to the enjoyment of true liberty. Christus nos liberavit. Therefore the church has been honored by the opposition of all the tyrants who have wished to subjugate nations. They have felt that liberty could be easily destroyed, if they could destroy her who is the fertile mother and the fearless guardian of freedom. But nothing can avail against the church nor against the liberty which is her offspring, which her voice called into life, which she has bathed in the blood of her idol-breakers.

It was Saint Willibrord’s destiny to see crowned heads bow among the crowds that pressed around his altars, and the imperial purple of Germany trailing in the dust before his coarse robes of haircloth. In the imposing procession of generations marching towards the saint’s tomb it is difficult to distinguish the royal forms mingling with the crowd of pilgrims, so petty seem to him who gazes from the altar the earthly grandeur which sets them apart from other Christians.

Many a time in earlier days the Carlovingians had come to pray and humble themselves in the sanctuary at Echternach. They came with hands filled with gifts, and, by one of those strange vicissitudes which the finger of Providence points out, it was one of their number who, blind, outcast, and bereft, came later to eat the bread of Saint Willibrord and seek refuge in the shades of his monastery. History hardly mentions the wretched Carloman, rebel son of Charles the Bald, whose eyes were put out by his father’s orders, and who received in charity from his uncle Louis the Abbey of Echternach ad subsidium vitæ. The families who succeeded the Carlovingians in Germany never forgot the saint or the duty of paying him homage. In the year 1000 the list of imperial pilgrimages was opened by Otto III, the young and brilliant prince who planned so many great expeditions, and whom death had already marked with his mysterious seal. Lothaire of Saxony, and Conrad of Hohenstaufen, came in their turn to pray before the saint’s relics, the one in 1131, the other in 1145. Then, in 1512, Maximilian joined in the procession, and in memory of his visit gave to the town the bell which bears his name and still rings on feast days. Thus, except the sacrilegious house of Franconia, all the dynasties of the German Empire seem to have been represented at Echternach, and to have paid court to this prince of peace, greater and more respected than they.

Echternach was always the capital of Saint Willibrord’s peaceful realm. There was his tomb; there rose convent and basilica, perpetual heralds of his great deeds. The convent was a city in itself, and the basilica is a most precious relic of eleventh-century architecture—a veritable pearl which alone would make the reputation of a town. I will not be drawn into further details, for fear of leaving my subject. It suffices to remember that this wonderful monument, a victim of revolutionary vandalism, had been sold as national property, and was falling into decay, when the piety and patriotism of the people of Echternach snatched it from certain destruction. They formed, under the name of Willibrordus Verein, a society whose aim was to recover the basilica and restore it to worship. This society, founded in 1862 by a few citizens in a little town of four thousand souls, now numbers its members by hundreds. It has already devoted more than one hundred thousand francs to the basilica, and will soon crown its work by bringing back the shrine of the saint, now preserved in the parish church. All reverence to the intelligent Christian people who guard their honor so faithfully and understand so well the interests of their own glory! Inspired by the three-fold love of religion, country, and art, the Willibrordus Verein is one of the finest institutions that I know. It does honor to the whole of Luxembourg, and will leave a lasting memory. Of how many associations of our day can as much be said?

The entire town of Echternach has retained that stamp of antiquity so eagerly sought by artists, and so much despised by our petty, material generation. Surrounded by the fantastic hills that form the valley, whose strange summits look like crumbling castles; still enclosed by three-quarters of its ancient fortifications, with here and there a ruined tower, it strikes the beholder with a surprise which only increases as he penetrates to the interior of the town. Passing through crooked and narrow streets, where each house has an architecture of its own which is often very impressive, he reaches the public square, where stands the antique town-hall, known by the more ancient name of Dingsthal, an interesting building which rests on Gothic arcades. The parish church is equally worthy of attention for its old Romanic architecture and its beautiful position upon the summit of an eminence overlooking the town.

What especially tends to give to Echternach its peculiar character is the habits of its population, so in harmony with the tranquil, cheerful country and its mediæval monuments. Here more than elsewhere Catholic faith has impregnated the life of the people. All their actions reflect its powerful simplicity, its generous hardihood, its customs of ten or fifteen centuries back. The poetry of the past, that exquisite influence of ancient times which we inhale with delight, is here an incense ever ascending from this happy valley. In this respect nothing can equal the dancing procession of Echternach, which takes place always on Whit-Tuesday, in honor of Saint Willibrord, and attracts those who come especially to invoke his aid for nervous diseases. This procession has taken place for more than five hundred years. It can be traced back to the fourteenth century, and may be perhaps of even earlier origin. The dance has been explained in various ways: sometimes as expressing the joy of a Christian people coming to venerate the relics of their patron saint; sometimes as a symbolical representation of nervous attacks, epilepsy, and other maladies of the kind, from which the country was delivered by Saint Willibrord’s intercession in the fourteenth century.

It is this ceremony, whose original and picturesque character is quite unique in the Christian world, which I am about to describe to the reader.


When Whit-Sunday comes an amazing animation rouses the little town from its habitual tranquillity, and the excitement only increases on the Monday. Hotels and private houses are thronged with guests; many travellers, unable to get lodgings, camp out in the neighboring villages or go back to die Kirch, to return by railway the next day. The streets are thronged with dusty tourists: gentlemen of leisure regarding everything with a patronizing smile, peasants in rustic garb, rich strangers arriving in spruce equipages, and respectable jaunting-cars with three rows of seats, conveying the opulent farmers of the neighborhood. Booths are planted everywhere, blocking up the streets and setting their backs against every available corner. Mountebanks and charlatans, who come to levy their tithe on public piety, stun with their piercing outcries the busy folk running about to look for lodgings. Religion preludes the imposing solemnities of the following morning. The faithful flock to religious offices and sermons. All day long they are at prayer before the sarcophagus where lies the body of the saint. There you will see the most fervent; and by their attitudes, the expression of their faces, and the ardor of their gaze, it is plain that they have some great favor to implore and hope not to go away unsatisfied. Prostrate before the altar, these rude laborers from the Eyfel and the Ardennes, with their great horny hands and tanned faces, opening their whole hearts to God and absorbed in prayer, are beautiful to look upon. They seem to symbolize the destiny of mankind, born to labor, to suffer, and to pray. It is pleasant to ponder and pray in the stillness of that little Romanic church, beside the greatest man of the country.

It was an humble church with vaulted roof,
The church we entered in,
Where for eight hundred years the sons of men
Had wept and prayed ‘gainst sin.

There, on the hill sacred for so many ages, under the shade of the lindens that screen the courtyard of this modest edifice, in the presence of the wide and peaceful landscape, the heart feels at ease, the mind is in repose. It is like a haven of rest or like some enchanted country. The hideous, infernal tumult of the church’s enemies dies away in this Catholic oasis. Man and nature are in harmony; the serenity that reigns in this lovely country sinks into the most stormy heart. Here Dante would have found the peace he sought under the vaulted roof of the monastery at Monte Corvo.

Evening fell; the chants for Benediction rang through the church as I entered. Thousands of voices, accompanied by the grave and solemn tones of the organ, were singing the beautiful litany of Saint Willibrord, which is like the national air of Echternach, and has a peculiar sweetness in a language that admits of saying thou to God and to the saints:

Saint Willibrord, shining star of our country,
Saint Willibrord, ornament of the Roman Church,
Saint Willibrord, breaker of idols, Pray for us.

I cannot describe the effect of this chant, rising on so many voices in accents of plaintive supplication, penetrating the heart with its expression of love and trust. These people love Saint Willibrord and treat him with a sweet familiarity. “Who and what was he that men should come every year to kneel before his relics and pay him honors so exceptional? What had he more than others, and by what was he distinguished? By beauty, genius, science, riches?” Such was the idea of the sermon which followed Benediction, and was heard by that whole multitude in breathless attention, some standing, others kneeling on the flags—for all the chairs had been taken away. The sacred orator developed his theme with remarkable skill, and, after proving that Saint Willibrord had shone by none of these gifts, he concluded that he had reached this exceptional glory on earth and in heaven because he had understood and applied better than others the divine command, “Love God above all things, and thy neighbor as thyself.”

O grandeur of Christianity! O eternity of the church! A thousand years ago Alcuin said the same in his panegyric; the modern preacher’s noble words were like the lingering echo of the same Christian voice sounding through ages—of that voice which ever repeats itself, and yet is always fresh, for it is the voice of truth. Thus, at the two extremities of this decade of centuries, the friend of Charlemagne and the young priest of Luxembourg were the two ends of a chain whose every link is an extinct generation, and which brings down to our own day the unchangeable, immortal tradition. One thousand years hence other pilgrims will come to contemplate these great lessons of time and pray before the sacred tomb, treading beneath their feet the ruins of our civilization and modern society.

After Benediction I went to walk on the heights above the town. The night was clear and the moon hung calmly serene in the heavens. Every time I pass through Echternach I climb these hills; the place is full of calm and refreshment, and I always feel happy there. Looking down upon the town, with its spires and ancient roofs mirrored in the peaceful river, I listened to the last sounds dying away in the streets; for the town went to rest as early that night as on any other. Heaven and earth seemed so quiet, so infinitely peaceful! If at that hour propitious to dreams you would evoke in spirit the memory of the past, it would rise like a gigantic phantom. One glance cast into the domains of fancy would show the wild valley heaped with Druidic stones, crowned with altars and Roman monuments, and traversed by the swift, silvery flood of the Sûre, which seems to pierce like a dart the mysterious depths of the ancient Ardennes. On the summit of the height appears a wonderful man, who breaks the Gallic and Roman idols, and with their fragments builds Christian oratories; he levels the forest and cultivates the valley; builds dwellings around the church, calls men, and they come at his bidding; and this new Orpheus, with no lyre but his voice, leads in his train Barbarism, conquered, charmed, converted.

The next day I breakfasted between five and six o’clock in one of the many pretty pleasure-gardens of the town. The evening before had been very warm; the day dawned under the same auspices, but perfectly clear. The people of Echternach declare that it cannot rain on the day of their procession, or, at least, that the rain must stop before they enter the church. On all sides resounded clear and full the voices of pilgrims coming in procession from villages near by and chanting the litany of Saint Willibrord. These aerial tones, coming to us in the freshness of dawn through blossoming trees, opened the day very pleasantly. I went out. Through every street there poured a stream of country people, preceded by crosses and banners. Whole parishes came with their pastors; they had left home at daybreak and walked several leagues, with prayers and chants rousing the wondering birds, unused to hear human voices praise the Creator in advance of them. The nearest villages came in procession; others, who could not send a solemn train, furnished a large number of pilgrims, who marched in isolated groups. Without counting the pilgrims of the Luxembourg, Belgium, France, and Russia are represented every year. The number of devout Christians whom each anniversary brings to the sacred tomb varies from 12,000 to 15,000, leaving out those who come without having made a vow, some from religious feeling, others from mere curiosity. About 20,000 strangers in all crowd into the narrow precincts of the little town every Whitsuntide. For whole hours you see the flood of humanity ascend and descend the steps of the parish church; for all the pilgrims on their arrival go first to kneel at the saint’s shrine. About eight o’clock the multitudes pass over to the other bank of the Sûre, where the procession is to begin. The Sûre forms the boundary between the territory of Luxembourg and Prussia. Just there the procession falls into line of march. At the foot of the hills, beside a little stone cross, they erect a temporary pulpit, from which a priest addresses the people before the ceremony begins. Thousands had collected to await the coming of the clergy. Some walked about, others sat along the edge of the road or leaned against the parapet of the bridge. The crowd, scattered in picturesque confusion and disorder, buzzed like a hive of bees. The throng increased; along every road came hosts of pilgrims ploughing their way. From afar came vague, indistinct sounds of singing, and along the valley, through the narrow road traced between the Sûre and the hills, there advanced a long column. Banners floated in the sunshine and gleamed through the trees; the procession undulated and unrolled its length as it followed the windings of the river. The voices, as they drew nearer, became distinct, and soon the head of the procession appeared. They were pilgrims from Prüm, in the Eyfel, more than twelve leagues from Echternach, coming to make their annual devotions to Saint Willibrord. These good people had set out on Sunday evening; they had walked part of that night and of the next day, praying and chanting. On Monday evening they had disbanded, scattering about through fields and in barns a few leagues from Echternach, and had resumed their march early in the morning. Tanned, heated, dusty, clad in coarse raiment, they came on in good order, forming an almost interminable train. It seemed as if the whole village had come. Their accoutrements were rustic, fantastic even; the men carried crosswise over their backs an umbrella fastened by a string which passed over their breasts, crossing the strap of a large leathern valise hanging on the other side. The women had baskets on their arms. These valises and baskets held the provisions for that journey of four or five days. It is remarkable that this pilgrimage of the people of Prüm is voluntary and a popular movement; the clergy take no part in its organization, and seldom join it, the parishioners making it their own affair. On this occasion, indeed, a priest was with them, but the order of march and the devotions were directed by a certain number of men placed at intervals in the procession. They carried, as the insignia of office, a red staff surmounted by a little copper cross. The priest, who closed the procession, walked between two young men clad in quaint and antique garb, with hats turned up and trimmed with flowers. One carried the cross, the other a large votive candle adorned with emblems, the annual gift of their village to the patron of Echternach. The procession advanced in perfect order. Indifferent to curious looks, turning their eyes neither to the right nor to the left towards the human hedge that lined their path, they passed on, saying their rosary aloud and repeating after each Ave this familiar salutation, full of simplicity and grace: “Saint Willibrord, we are coming to thy tomb!” I loved to see and hear them. Their fervor in prayer and contempt of fatigue, their rustic dress and primitive manners, their indifference to all but their one object, made these peasants a people set apart, and their pilgrimage a type of the pilgrimage of human life as it ought to be made. I watched the pious train until it entirely disappeared on the other side of the bridge; for, before returning to the Prussian bank to take part in the sacred dance, the people of Prüm were going to kiss the shrine and pray before the relics of the saint.

At last, about nine o’clock, a numerous band of clergy appeared, and the ceremony opened with the accustomed sermon. Fancy the scene: the lovely morning and beautiful country, the vast host of listeners intent on the words of the priest. For a frame there were the high hills on one side, on the other the silvery course of the Sûre, and below the spires of the town.

Not less wonderful was it to hear on Prussian ground a Catholic voice calling upon thousands of the faithful to pray for the Holy Father and the persecuted church. And while the priest was speaking there came from all the heights belated pilgrims hastening to the ceremony. They were seen afar off, coming down the steep paths bordered with flowering hedges; and the bells rang out full peals, and the word of God was scattered among the multitude with the song of birds.

When the sermon was ended, the clergy, in white surplices, formed in line of march and opened the procession. Behind them came the musicians, and afterwards the immense throng of those who were to join in the dance. At first there was much crowding. Leaning against the parapet of the bridge, I had to ply my elbows lustily to prevent the multitude from suffocating me, and farther on, when the train began to defile through the narrow street which leads to the Sûre, the pressure was quite frightful. There were not ushers enough to preserve order. A few firemen and policemen had to be everywhere at once, and were swallowed up in the billows of the confused crowd. The cause of the disorder was the impatience of some people, who, instead of waiting until the street should be cleared for the beginning of the dance, went forward to post themselves higher up in the procession. This choked the way in some places, and there was terrible pushing. Women screamed; several were nearly suffocated. I saw some men, who, as they awaited their turn with philosophic patience, set their backs against walls and rowed with their arms against the human flood to save themselves from wreck. A hospitality, as unexpected as it was welcome, rescued me from the tumult to become a peaceful spectator in a neighboring house instead of an actor in the scene. “It is sweet,” says Lucretius, “when the sea is swollen and tossed by rough winds, to look from the shore upon the distress of others, not finding pleasure in their troubles, but in our own exemption from them.” I felt, in selfish enjoyment, the spirit of these lines, gazing at my ease from an upper window upon the undulation of several thousand heads floating apparently upon a liquid expanse. Actually, a needle thrown from above would not have reached the ground.

Order was soon restored. The police got angry and used their fists unsparingly to force back into their places the intruders, who continued to leave the ranks and insinuate themselves in among the front rows of the procession. All this went on while the head of the cortége disappeared at the turn of the street, dancing to the traditional air played by the musicians. It was a quaint tune, rather quick in measure and old-fashioned. It was hard to say whether it expressed joyful excitement or the emotions of grief; for music, with its wonderful suppleness, may sometimes speak to us of our joys and sorrows, according to the mood in which we listen. And now this melody, centuries old, set in motion a dancing multitude. The sight was strange, striking, indescribable. To an unaccustomed spectator the first moment is of stupefied amazement. His fancy enters a new world; the movement of all these heads bending and rocking in a rhythmic measure produces a fantastic effect that no words can convey. I do not know whether I can tell exactly what I saw, or if my sketch will give even a faint idea of a scene which defies analysis and description.

Think of a stream of twelve thousand persons in a street where only eight can walk abreast; fancy all these people, in rows of four, six, or eight, advancing, held together by handkerchiefs or staves to keep order in the ranks and measure in the dance; fancy them, I say, executing a dance which consists of three steps forward and two back, and which moves the whole multitude from end to end with one unceasing action of ebb and flow. The interminable train stretched over about fifteen hundred metres from the bridge of the Sûre to the parish church. It took not less than four hours to accomplish that quarter of a league by dancing, and under the direct rays of the sun, without a moment’s rest. It is easy to imagine that order and regularity were sometimes disturbed, but what was lost in symmetry was gained in picturesque originality of detail. There were almost as many different styles of dancing as there were various groups, everybody managing his own affairs. The groups just behind the musicians succeeded best, being kept in step by the music; and in general the people of Echternach danced more harmoniously and correctly than the others. As the bands were few and stationed quite far apart, the pilgrims who could not hear them hopped about in utter confusion, while the rest had a certain harmony of movement. These eccentricities of choreographic movement were worth seeing; here they glided with light step, elegantly and smoothly; there they jumped about with heavy tread and immense exertion. Watching carefully those who seemed to have best preserved the tradition, I thought that the most pure and “classic” rhythm consisted in five steps of a dance, quite slow and without turning, three forward and two back, made by gliding rather than bounding. The whole character was grave, solemn, and suited to a religious dance. A band from Echternach opened the march and played the tune for the first pilgrims. The others danced to the strains of a few isolated instruments. Each cortége had its own musicians, and, as each parish danced separately, they had their local players. It is needless to say that variety reigned among the instruments—drums, violins, flutes, clarionets, and hautboys—all hard at work and producing combinations hardly grateful to musical ears. But the good fellows did not pretend to be artists. They worked for conscience’ sake; they piped and they blew, they beat and they scraped, with all the accumulated force of lungs, fists, and bows. Saint Willibrord is not fastidious; he takes the will for the deed, and if there be here and there some cockney scandalized by this cacophony, so much the worse for him. Ill though they play the melody, it is a good work to make the attempt, and the worthy pilgrims accommodate themselves to circumstances. Formerly no fiddler was allowed to play in village fairs, if he had not paid for the privilege at the procession of Echternach that same year. This custom, with many others, is obsolete, but many musicians remain faithful to tradition.

This year, while the procession was crossing the town, there came marching through a cross-street a brilliant band of music preceded by a banner; it was a philharmonic society from Remich on the Moselle, and was received with acclamation. It joined the procession, and its fine execution came as a welcome reinforcement to the poor musicians, who were nearly exhausted.

I could not take my eyes off the wonderful scene, sometimes taking in the whole picture at a glance, sometimes pausing to examine details in all their picturesque variety. Most attractive of all was the sight of the children of Echternach, dancing at the head of the procession just behind the village band; they put such life into the affair, and felt it such a festive occasion. It was refreshing to watch the rosy-cheeked, laughing rogues, usually in their shirt-sleeves, bounding merrily “for Saint Willibrord.” Then came the grown folk of Echternach, then the various parishes, each, as I said, forming a distinct group with its own musicians. The sexes were separated. Formerly the pilgrims from Prüm and Waxweiler, who came from the most distant points, had the right of opening the procession, while the inhabitants of Echternach, through courtesy, took the last place. Now there is no fixed order; the parishes take their places at hap-hazard, and many people leave the ranks to join the front rows at the risk of throwing the whole procession into confusion. I saw the good people of Prüm, with their monumental green and blue umbrellas capable of sheltering whole households. Now they were unstrung from their proprietors’ backs, and, bound two and two, served as a balustrade to be grasped by three or four persons to keep them even in the ranks and regulate their step. Here and there, amid the rhythmic movement of these thousands of heads, I descried some unhappy being afflicted with Saint Vitus’ dance, shown by wild, spasmodic springs, violent excitement, and the pitiful rocking of all the limbs. They were usually women, young girls stricken with this terrible disorder. I noticed one in particular whom every one looked at with earnest sympathy. She leaped in a wild, feverish way, supported under the arms by her mother, whom I knew by the look of anxiety and sadness imprinted on her face. The kind people of the town stood ready at their doors with refreshing beverages for these poor creatures; but they hardly stopped to drink before continuing their dance under the whip of the sun, as the great Alighieri says, whose words came to my mind more than once at sight of these miseries. So drawn along by this weird dance, the pilgrims appeared and vanished, as wave follows wave, and the monotonous melody carried on ten thousand people to the sound of its fantastic cadences. Add one or two thousand pilgrims who, not joining in the dance, followed the procession, saying their beads or reciting the litany, and you have in all twelve thousand Christians of both sexes and of every age and rank, who, through four whole hours, formed Saint Willibrord’s triumphal procession and visited his sacred tomb.

All the energy of the vigorous Luxembourg sinews is required to bring to a successful close this long and fatiguing pilgrimage, whose difficulties increase as they near their end; for I forgot to say that the procession danced up the sixty-two steps which lead to the parish church. Not every one can go to Corinth, says the proverb. The same is true of Echternach, though in a different sense, thank God! But it would be a mistake to think that the famous ceremony demands anything excessive or superhuman. The calm, grave character of the dance, and the numerous pauses which are made necessary by the blocking of the way, suffice to husband the pilgrim’s strength. Their vow, though hard and laborious, is not impossible or dangerous. The proof of this is that many children in the procession dance the whole length of the way twice over. No sooner do they reach the church at the head of the procession than they scamper back to join the rear and begin the exercise over again. Pilgrims who, on arriving at Echternach, do not feel equal to executing their vow, and yet wish to contribute to the brilliancy of the festival, give a few sous to one of these children, and the indefatigable little fellows acquit themselves of their task with imperturbable seriousness and charming grace. But prodigious people are again the people of Pürm. They arrive at the town, to use a familiar expression, with twelve leagues in their heels; and at once they set to work and dance four long hours. Then, when their devotions are ended, they take barely time to eat their modest fare out doors or at an inn table, and go home singing and praying to the high table-lands and extinct volcanoes of their wild country.

One should be in the church when the procession pours in by traditional custom through the left aisle, to pass round the altar in the choir and go out through the right aisle. The dance does not cease an instant as they pass through the sanctuary; the orchestra goes on playing the quaint, archaic melody, the dancers make the old Romano-vaulted roof ring with the clang of their measured steps. The pilgrims do not think their vow fulfilled until, after making the tour of the church, they find themselves in the courtyard before an old wooden cross, where they break ranks. Nothing can be more fantastic than this irruption of dancing and music in the house of God. The spectacle in the church is beyond description; you feel as if you were dreaming, and your spirit floated in the domain of the impossible. What do the people mean? Have they come to pillage and destroy? Is this tumultuous throng the prey of a sudden delirium, of a dancing mania? Or, if it be worship, does it not revive the solemn orgies of ancient Greece, where certain deities of Oriental origin were honored by the leaps, the cries, and the races of their idolaters? No; to the first instant of amazement there succeeds a more correct and complete judgment. Beneath the external agitation, beneath the noise and movement, you see the religious calm which fills these souls, and the solemnity pervading the expression of their inner feelings. It is this contrast which gives to the singular ceremony its character of deep originality. No doubt we have lost the sense of mysterious symbolism in the sacred dance; we no longer see its true motive or significance; we only know or divine that the devout thought which first inspired it animates it at the present day.

Among various ideas suggested by this astonishing experience, there was one that I could not get rid of, and which returned to me on the festival and its eve again and again. While multitudes knelt before the altar, kissed the shrine, touched it with objects of devotion, and filled the church with their prayers, you would have said that the great man must be there, present among the faithful, speaking to them and listening to them. What glory equals that of the saints? What other son of Adam enjoys such honors? Those whom the Catholic Church has crowned with eternal palms do not reign only in heaven; the human glory which they despised is given to them abundantly, and these little ones, who passed through life obscure and despised, see themselves suddenly surrounded with an amazing glory with which Cæsar, Homer, Archimedes, and Plato do not shine. The world rings with their name, and the least and most ignorant of human beings know, love, and revere them. They are not only illustrious, they receive solemn veneration, they share in a certain way the honors of God himself. Their names are uttered with bended knee, nations flock to their tombs, and they are gloriously enthroned in Christian hearts. Beside such a destiny is it worth while to try to immortalize one’s name and to flutter, as the poet says, upon the lips of men? What is the greatest name on earth, unless it be encircled with the aureole of sanctity? Ignored by the crowd, uttered coldly by most of those who know it, respected by a few, but invoked by no one with clasped hands and heart uplifted to him who bore it. The name of the least saint prostrates in the dust all human generations through the long succession of ages, and resounds like a word of life on all lips. The church alone is the dispenser of glory, and even among secular names the noblest and most lasting are those of Catholic associations.


The reader asks, no doubt, what is the final impression produced by the spectacle of the dancing procession, and how we should estimate this strange ceremony? I will try to answer the double question clearly. In the first place, one must see the procession with one’s own eyes to judge it fairly. The public must beware of newspaper reports, which are numerous and usually wholly incorrect, not to use a more uncivil term. There is no name which certain papers have not applied to the subject; for correspondents of a farcical turn amuse themselves every year at the expense of a credulous public. We may say, en passant, that no class of beings can be more contemptible than reporters hunting for a sensation—travelling bagmen of the press who are allured by scandal as the vulture is by a carcase. It is easy to fancy what the ceremony at Echternach must have become under their pen. The very name of dancing procession makes them scent a topic, and, devoid of all religious feeling, they describe first and judge afterwards a spectacle they are incapable of understanding. Their descriptions are so unfaithful that you doubt whether the good people ever saw the procession, or whether they did not write the account before going to the ceremony. They give caricatures of a mass of humanity entangled in frightful confusion and bounding with all their strength to the sound of a gigantic hubbub. The ranks get mingled; the dancers crush each other and spring about, regardless of the toes of their neighbors, who scream for mercy. With rubicund faces streaming with perspiration, and with eyes starting from the sockets, these wretched fanatics would die rather than pause. On all sides numbers give up in despair and drop breathless among their barbarous companions. Sometimes they are drawn out of the crowd by compassionate persons and restored to life, but no one in the procession stops for anything, and the pitiless Catholic bamboula goes on and on, sowing devastation at every step. I spare the reader further details and give only the canvas of an embroidery more or less varied according to the imaginative powers of the correspondent. In short, despite the diversity of some details easy to add, this fancy sketch has appeared in nearly all the anti-religious papers in Belgium, and will end in being stereotyped. It is needless to say that it is false throughout. Among ten thousand persons who were dancing I did not see one give out. Also, contrary to another assertion, the number of epileptics and other invalids in the procession is very small. I saw in all five or six persons evidently afflicted with nervous diseases.

After reading this high-toned description, flavored with a few Voltairean jests of the old type, it is natural to pronounce the procession of Echternach an absurdity. The sarcasms of free-thinkers annually assail the venerable ceremony, but without injuring it. In fact, it is irreverent enough in this nineteenth century to increase in importance. Eye-witnesses of the strange spectacle always retain an impressive memory of it. I confess to having been rather prejudiced against the grotesque scenes I expected to see. At the end of a quarter of an hour I was convinced of the powerful religious character of this great public act, and I remarked that all the spectators shared my feeling. Any one must have a singularly empty mind and heart not to be struck by the grandeur of the scene. Those who always take a petty view of things, because they can take no other, may laugh at the discordant music and the clumsy dancing of some of the pilgrims. For myself, when I see the same belief, centuries old, translated by thousands of men into bold, spontaneous action, I cannot restrain my admiration. Before the intrepidity with which these men, trampling under foot all human respect, honor with consecrated rites their patron saint, I feel moved and impressed. Where is there such faith left in Israel? “When I hear the old tune,” said one of the most honorable bourgeois of Echternach to me, “and when I see the first pilgrims arrive, I feel something circulate between my flesh and skin that makes me fairly shiver.” A young student of the town said to me very prettily: “I do not care much for the dancing of the grown people, but the sight of the dancing children carries me back to my own happy childhood, and my eyes fill with tears.”

These feelings are unanimous. You see once in a while in the crowd a travelling clerk on his vacation hazarding a timid and colorless sarcasm which a generous public passes over unnoticed. Beyond dispute, the sight of the procession exercises a moral and religious influence. Like incredulity, faith is contagious; timid spirits feel strengthened in this region where the breath of Catholic life circulates so freely; sick hearts come out renewed from the spectacle of thousands of Christians revealing the true remedy for human woe. The people of Luxembourg, essentially serious and meditative, understand the aim of the ceremony; its quaintness does not prevent them from seeing it as it really is—a great and solemn affirmation of faith, at once an act of penance and a prayer, to be preserved in the original form out of respect to their ancestors and veneration for the saint. Whatever the origin of this ancient custom, it deserves to be preserved not only because it fosters and develops religion in the people, but because it revives before our eyes, in the most picturesque way, the manners of our fathers, whose least traces historians and archæologists are jealous to discover. A Luxembourg writer says well on this subject: “We preserve with scrupulous fidelity old monuments and objects of antique art. Why not do our best to preserve in its original type this remarkable procession, this monument graven in the living hearts of our brethren?”

The intelligent town of Echternach perfectly understands that it is incumbent upon its honor to respond to this wish. It has neglected nothing in the cause, and at various times has had to surmount great obstacles. The administrative prohibitions of Joseph II, the brutalities of the French Revolution, the petty opposition of the Dutch government, have not discouraged them; they have held faithfully to their patriotic tradition, and have no cause to repent it, for they find in this devotion a source of great prosperity. Their unalterable attachment is the more remarkable because even the clergy have often been opposed to the procession. In 1777 the Prince Elector of Treves, Clement Wenceslaus—under the reign of the Febronians, I should add—actually forbade the dance, and thus furnished excuse to Joseph II to forbid it also a little later. To-day quite a number of the clergy look unfavorably on these extraordinary demonstrations of faith. They think religion is compromised by associating it with practices which, without being bad in themselves, may provoke the mockery of the incredulous and alienate them farther from the church. This opinion, based, of course, on a sincere devotion to religious interests, appears to me an unconscious and useless concession to the petty spirit of the age, which is never satisfied with half-measures. Anti-religious fanaticism will not be appeased by our throwing to it as a sop a small portion of Catholic treasure. What it wants is the entire suppression of religion. To yield any point whatever will only serve to whet its appetite and augment its pretensions.

Far from sharing these fears, I think that in these days of struggle it is important to oppose the faith as a whole to unbelief as a whole, and not yield an inch of ground, unless we wish to lose all. From the earliest days of Christianity there have been people who took scandal at faith which goes beyond what is strictly necessary; among Christ’s apostles there were those who blamed Magdalen for anointing the feet of her Master with precious ointment. It is instructive to remember that it was Judas who showed himself most shocked by what he called useless expense. We may be sure that, as a general rule, the enemies of the church detest all her practices and would like to see them every one abolished. Give them the dance of Echternach to-day; to-morrow they will demand the suppression of the procession itself, and soon after they will wish to close the church where the saint’s relics are venerated. We know something of this in Belgium. Because we submitted to the proscription of jubilee processions last year, we have had to resign ourselves this year (1876) to seeing God in the Eucharist confined to the temple; and we shall see worse things still, if we do not guard against them in time. It would, therefore, be mere folly to sacrifice to interested claimants a venerable custom, dear to whole populations and full of poetry and originality. “But why dance?” you ask. “Cannot faith be shown in some other way?” Of course it can. Do not let us kneel down to pray, or stand uncovered before holy images, or make the sign of the cross, or do a hundred other things equally useless, strictly speaking. Yet who would propose to give them up? There is in the heart of man a powerful, mysterious tendency to express the inner feelings of the soul by symbolical actions. Thence come these many ceremonies which have no sense in themselves, and all owe their worth to a hidden significance. The dance of Echternach has no other origin; it is the symbolical representation of the sentiments of joyful confidence which the people feel in the holy patron of their town. In every age joy has been expressed by dancing, and among those who blame the custom of Echternach may there not be some one who has danced for joy at hearing good news? Many examples could be cited since David danced before the Ark of the Alliance down to our own days, so readily do these impetuous emotions of the soul translate themselves into movements of the body.

Still, the church, while introducing into her ceremonies a rich and varied symbolism, has never admitted dancing; and this prudent reserve is to be admired because dancing, harmless in itself, is one of those dangerous things which can, according to time and place, produce deplorable abuses. With the same wise moderation she has not absolutely forbidden it; and where the practice has been introduced naturally, and has become a part of popular devotion, she has tolerated it, as at Echternach, and even encouraged it because she saw in it clearly a religious element. Nothing is more wonderful in the church than this perfect wisdom, this superior good sense, with which she regulates great social and political questions and decides the petty details of individual life. Her attitude towards this ancient ceremony is as clear and correct as possible; she mildly favors it in spite of its strange forms, and refuses to blame these unless they become an occasion of scandal. From the moment that the dance should lose its traditional character of austere and respectable devotion, and become a pretext of pleasure and disorder, it would be at once condemned by the church and would fall into discredit. Thank God! that day is not near, and the procession of Echternach will still outlive many a kingdom and empire.

As a matter of course, it will be discussed as long as it lasts, and will always have adversaries and partisans. Prose and poetry will for ever dispute over human society, and will seek to model it after two opposite fashions. We live to-day in a prosaic age. Prose triumphed with the French Revolution and has passed through western Europe with a hammer, destroying, together with works of art, all the flower of Catholic institutions and habits. They will revive, but slowly, and this generation will not see their complete restoration. Now, despoiled of all which lent a charm to existence, society languishes in a desert of monotony. Rhythm, so to speak, has disappeared from our lives with that glorious succession of festivals, customs, memories, and hopes which surrounded us from the cradle to the grave. All that was Catholic poetry; it enlivened the existence of the poor laborer, and made of a peasant, attached to the soil and toiling for his master, a happier man, more contented with himself, than workmen in the cities who get a good salary and enjoy their independence. There is in the human soul a sublime aspiration after beauty and poetry which nothing can destroy, and its wings grow strong as they meet with resistance. Does not the tedium which has devoured the last generation betray a sense of want and an aspiration after Catholic life with its artistic magnificence and poetic influences? Humanity is tending in that direction, and has already met the enemy who would bar the way. Thence comes the loud and terrible struggle which tears the whole earth, and of which we may, without presumption, hope to see the close.

The procession of Echternach, like the mysteries of Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria, is a precious relic of the old popular poetry of Catholicity translated into the habits of life. That is its true and complete meaning. It is neither more nor less; it is not an act of worship nor a vulgar profanation. It stands on that boundary line where the church condescends to popular feeling and makes the hard road through life easier by her help. It is the natural fruit of popular devotion which sprang from a religious feeling and has been preserved with respectful piety. It could not be imitated or transplanted; like generous wine, it would lose the flavor of the soil if it were cultivated on strange land. It is only possible there where all is harmonious with it. One must have a studied hostility towards religious things to fail to see its æsthetic character, even without recognizing the sincerity and the venerable tone of the old custom. Some people fall into ecstasies over Grecian theories and the beautiful religious dances sculptured on the metopes of the Parthenon. Others devote their lives to the study of the chorus in ancient tragedies and its evolutions on the stage. I do not say that the dance of Echternach, as such, is comparable to these choreographic works of art, but why refuse to a Christian practice in use among our fathers the benevolent attention lavished on pagan society? Has it not a double claim to study in the fact that we received it from our Catholic ancestors? For five centuries, at least, it has lived and flourished among the populations of the Ardennes and its surroundings. Every year it draws from their homes thousands of these sedentary peasants; it furrows with the steps of pilgrims the long, white, desert roads of Luxembourg; it draws together in fraternal relations men far removed from each other, by the same prayers and the same emotions; it lifts towards heaven in unalloyed joy their faces bowed pitilessly earthward all the rest of the year. It teaches them to know beyond their own fireside and parish the great Christian family of which they are members, and leaves in their memory for all the rest of the summer and through the long winter evenings ineffaceable impressions of peaceful happiness. That is poetry, it seems to me, and of the best kind; more is the pity for those who cannot feel it. As the name of pèlerinard is not one that frightens or mortifies me, I will assert that the ancient procession of Echternach inspired me with unlimited admiration, that it edified, moved, and consoled me, and appeared to me a most charming episode in the great, mournful epic of human life.

– text taken from the September 1877 edition of Catholic World magazine, author unknown