What is the Plan for Walsingham?
Walsingham is a most interesting place. Certainly it is one of the oldest Marian shrines in Europe; people have been coming here in pilgrimage since 1061 when Mary appeared in a vision to Richeldis de Faverches, a devout English noblewoman. Before the Reformation, Walsingham was one of the three foremost pilgrimage sites in the world, known as "England's Nazareth", along with Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostella. However, In 1538, the Reformation caused the Priory property to be handed over to the King’s Commissioners and incredibly, this extraordinary and ancient building was torn down. The famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London and burnt.
After the destruction of the Shrine, Walsingham ceased to be a place of pilgrimage. Devotion was necessarily in secret until after Catholic Emancipation (1829) when public expressions of faith were finally allowed once again.
It wasn't until Charlotte Pearson Boyd purchased the 14th century Slipper Chapel in 1896 and restored it for Catholic use that Walsingham became anything more than a pious memory of the England that was before Henry's brutal betrayal of the faith. This was the last of the wayside chapels built for pilgrims en-route to Walsingham, where traditionally pilgrims, even royal ones, would remove their shoes and walk the final mile humbly in their bare feet.
In 1897 by rescript of Pope Leo XIII, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham was restored with the building of a Holy House as the Lady Chapel of the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, King’s Lynn. The Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, brought the first public pilgrimage to Walsingham on 20th August 1897. Visits to the Slipper Chapel became more frequent, and as the years passed devotion and the number of pilgrimages increased. The Pontiff had famously pronounced in 1893 "When England returns to Walsingham, our Lady will return to England", in reference to the fact that England had been known throughout the Catholic world as "Our Lady's Dowry" before the Reformation.
It wasn't until 1921 that the Anglican Fr Hope Patten was appointed as Vicar of Walsingham in 1921. He ignited Anglican interest in the pre-Reformation pilgrimage and came up with the idea to base a new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham on the image depicted on the seal of the medieval Priory.
Throughout the 1920's, the number of pilgrims increased from a trickle to a flood. Eventually a Pilgrim Hospice was opened (a hospice is technically the name of a place of hospitality for pilgrims) and in 1931, a new Holy House encased in a small pilgrimage church was dedicated, and the statue translated there with great solemnity. In 1938 that church was enlarged to form the Anglican Shrine, more or less as it is today. Fr Patten combined the posts of Vicar and Priest Administrator of the Shrine until his death in 1958 and fought for the Catholic Faith in Walsingham without compromise.
Despite my own family's great devotion to Our Lady and our having visited numerous Marian Shrines, it wasn't until last year that I visited for the first time, invited by our Ordinariate Priest, Fr. Jeff (you can read the whole story in two parts here and here). As I wrote then, this site brought me great pain. The pain of the Reformation, of the stripping of the altars, of the desecration of holy sites, of the suppression of the faith of England which was the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter. This pain lives on today in the strange tri-partite religiosity of the Shrine of Walsingham, united in prayer, and yet divided by some historic event that none of the current players were a party to. The Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Anglicans, all dwell here in peace and in homage to the Mother of God, and yet they remain strangely divided by this act of violence which rent our country apart. That struck me as extraordinary. The repercussions of that act of violence echo down through the centuries and we have still not been able to heal it to this day.
Now a new era has begun at Walsingham as Brentwood's former Vicar General, the widely respected Mgr John Armitage, takes up his new post as Rector of the Catholic Shrine. In a detailed interview conducted by the Ordinariate's Communications Officer, Catherine Utley, Mgr John talks about his vision for the future of this extremely important centre for Christian devotion. The full interview can be read here.
I was fascinated to note that in her opening question, Catherine noted exactly the same thing about the Shrine as I did:
Catherine: "Speaking as a cradle Catholic, it seems to me that Walsingham is not embedded in the consciousness of most English Catholics in the way that other Marian shrines, such as Lourdes, are. Do you think that’s an accurate observation and, if so, what accounts for it?"Mgr John centres his answer in historical reality:
Mgr John: "If you look at the history of the Church in this country there are three very distinct periods – the pre-Reformation period, and then the penal times and then the rebuilding of the Church again. The strong influence on us at the moment is a result of the fact that we are currently living in that third period of our history, the rebuilding of the Church since the 1850s. Inevitably, the pre-dominant expression of the Church influences us and that has been that we have been part of a persecuted Church and then a Church that re-established itself. Those two periods were very strong in people’s minds, Therefore the whole time of the recusants and the martyrs are very much part of our strong history. However, equally, part of the strong history of the Catholic Church in this country is the Church pre-Reformation, and Walsingham sits at the centre of that history and I think what’s happened over the years is that that period of our Catholic story has not been as strong in the conscience of Catholics in England as the other two periods, of recusancy and re-building have been."
I thought this was an important insight, and I had not considered it this way before, despite never feeling quite fully English in terms of my Catholic faith. One almost feels more Catholic in Ireland or Italy or France, and distinctly foreign here sometimes. Perhaps this was drummed into me at my School (Campion—named after the martyr St. Edmund Campion) where the history of the persecution of Catholics was drummed into us (some of the history of which you can read in this post). Mgr John goes on to explain why Marian Shrines are important, and how devotion to Our Lady does not distract us from Christ, nor does She represent some extra step of communication in our relationship with God, rather she helps us to understand more of Christ:
"...as the new Rector, want to strengthen the knowledge of what it means to have a National Shrine to Our Lady and the significance of it, because the message of Walsingham is very clear. It’s around the Annunciation. Our Lady said ‘come and remember what happened in Nazareth and remember the Annunciation’. The whole event of the Annunciation is: the word became flesh and lived among us and that is not a ‘niche story’ so to speak. People can’t say: ‘I’m not into Walsingham’. That’s not what it’s about. Our Lady is pointing, not to herself, but, as always, to her son and the story at Walsingham is: remember what happened at the Annunciation, which is that the word became flesh and lived among us and her acceptance of that message from God was the key to our salvation. So, the fact that Our Lady took the trouble to appear to Richeldis in this part of our country is such a great honour and all the great titles that flow from that – of Walsingham being ‘England’s Nazareth’, of England becoming ‘Mary’s dowry’ – have their roots in Walsingham. Come to Walsingham!"
Mgr John also reveals his plans for using the message of Walsingham as a means to Evangelise England in the coming year:
"What does it mean to evangelise? Now, in Evangelii Gaudium, the last part of that amazing Apostolic exhortation talks about Mary as the ‘star of evangelisation’ so that there is a particular Marian way to understand how we pass on the faith. There are two significant statues of Our Lady of Walsingham at the Catholic shrine. There is the one in the Slipper Chapel which was crowned in the name of the Holy Father by the Apostolic Delegate during a Marian year – that was 1954 – but there is also the older statue that was there before that. I am hoping to bring that statue around the country to each diocese and areas within each diocese and it would be wonderful if the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham could support that and help in the logistics because if she is the star of evangelisation, then we need to see how she can, for our present day, shine that light on our sometimes inadequate struggles to evangelise. In so many ways Our Lady shines her light on us and I think that, whatever is going to happen in the next year both nationally, but also in the way in which the shrine supports these national initiatives, that the role of the Ordinariate can be of great significance in helping to shine this light on Walsingham."Mgr John also comments on the value of the Ordinariate which enriches our Catholic Tradition in this Country:
"It’s really important to recognise that the Catholic Church is made up of a whole range of different families. I have been a parish priest in the East End of London for 30 years and so many of our different groups who are part of the Church have come from different Catholic traditions and they are Catholic traditions which when I look at them, I think: I don’t know these; I can’t identify with these, being from the Roman Catholic tradition and people think that the only tradition in the Catholic Church is the Roman one, the Latin rite. But there are lots and lots more. You try telling some of the members of the different rites that they are not Catholics and you get a very sharp answer! And so it’s important for us to recognise the breadth of Catholicism. Catholicism means universality and the Ordinariate is part of that remarkable patchwork which is the Catholic Church and brings with it a deep and profound, lived experience of the Christian gospel. And for us, I believe, the Ordinariate gives a particular strength in regard to the Scriptures and the liturgy and the particular life that has been a strength in the Church of England, which came from the Catholic Church anyway.It is an interesting start to the year, isn't it? Lots of exciting developments to look forward to. This particular development excites me as it constitutes a real coming together of the power and prophecy of Walsingham, England's National Shrine to Our Lady. There is also an interesting dynamic when one considers that the previous Rector is now Bishop Alan Williams of Brentwood, and Brentwood's VG is now Rector of Walsingham. Mgr John is a builder, a man with ideas and a history of successful projects behind him. I think he is an excellent choice to unlock the potential of the Shrine and to utilise the incredible power of the place to potentially convert England and provide a source of Christian unity and mission. Please join me in praying for Father John as he embarks on this important mission, and please be ready to support him practically and financially if you can at all.
And so the Ordinariate is not new, but strengths that have always been there and are being celebrated, are just coming back and strengthening the Church as it is in our country today. So I welcome the Ordinariate and look forward to it really finding a home in the place that belongs to its title."