National Pilgrimage in Walsingham on Sunday. Here he talks to Jonathan Petre about what Our Lady means to him
The Assumption: a vital artery
Is this the first time you have attended in any capacity the National Pilgrimage in Walsingham?
Yes. Although I have been to Walsingham many times, the first time was 35 years ago, in fact I have always come on my own or with the student Cross Pilgrimage, or when I was at Cambridge. 1 used to walk from Cambridge when I was chaplain there. I had never been to the National Pilgrimage before, and I enjoyed it very much.
Was leading a pilgrimage of this sort a special pleasure?
It was. First of all one saw people from all over England, and it is extraordinary how many of them one has met before. There was a great feeling of the strength and unity of the Church. One sees a lot of very ordinary people like oneself, who all come to Walsingham and get something out of it. And it's rather impressive to be able to speak to all of them.
What does Walsingham mean to you, personally?
It means a lot, because in a way devotion to Our Lady did not come easily to me, and it's only in a place like Walsingham that one realises how Mary is inevitably linked to the Gospel of Christ, because she is the first one to believe and she brought Christ into the world. And really every Christian has to do that: believe and bring Christ into the world.
Devotion to Our Lady did not come easily to you. Could you expand on that?
In my callow youth when I was at Cambridge I used to think that perhaps there were a lot of added Catholic devotions and beliefs to Our Lady which were a mistake, and I thought that the Assumption of Our Lady to Heaven wasn't necessarily part of the Catholic faith. I left Cambridge in 1950, and blow me if Pius XIII didn't define it as a doctrine of the Faith! so then I had to believe in it. It was by deepening Mary's relation to Christ that something like the Assumption fits in and you realise that of course it is part of the Gospel. Mary is the one who to a unique extent shares the Resurrection of Christ, unique up until now at least, because everybody will share it. I didn't see how the bits of the puzzle fitted in. I thought it was an easy way out to say you don't have to believe in the Assumption. I realised that having to believe in the Assumption leads you deeper into the mystery of the Gospel.
Do you think it was regrettable or disappointing that the Pope was unable to include a visit to Walsingham?
In a strange way it sort of "unmade" history, because in 1538 the statue (of Our Lady) was taken to London to be burnt, and in 1982 the statue had to be taken to London because the Pope's Mass was there. And as the Pope said, Walsingham came to Wembley.