Bishop Peter Smith remembers Walsingham's past and explains the shrine's continuing relevance
iF WE HAD been alive WO years ago, on 20 August. 1897, and if we had opened a copy of the King's Lynn Advertiser we would have read this news item:
At Lynn, on Thursday, there was a Roman Catholic Pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in the church, here, upon the occasion of the restoration of the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Blessed Virgin. As part of the church at Lynn, there has been erected a replica of the shrine formerly existing at Walsingham... In the Middle Ages the shrine at Walsingham was the most famous one in Christendom, pilgrimages being made to it from far and near, and its fame may be gathered from the fact that among the worshippers were the Plantagenet Kings of England. including King Henry VIII (by whose orders sonic time afterwards the statue was burnt at Chelsea)."
Or. the next day, we might have read in the Lynn News a slightly different account which included these details:
"Under the special sanction and blessing of the Pope. His Holiness Leo X111, the shrine has been restored by Fr Wrigglesworth. of Lynn, in the new Roman Catholic church in London Road, Walsingham, being in Fr Wrigglesworth's parish... As Henry VIII utterly destroyed the image, leaving not a vestige remaining, a new image has been specially designated by the Pope on the application of Fr Wrigglesworth... High Mass over, a procession, including the school children in white (with blue sashes), wended its way to the railway station, going through parts of the walks, which were entered from London Road. The processionists then returned to the church by the same route, with the exception that a detour was made so as to include in the route the Chapel of Our Lady on the Mount."
So began, 100 years ago. the refounding and renewal of the medieval shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The day after the celebrations in King's Lynn. Fr Wrigglesworth and Fr Fletcher, the Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, led the first Guild pilgrimage to Walsingham on 20 August, 1897 — the very first since the Reformation and the suppression of the Shrine at Walsingham in August 1538. Those Guild pilgrimages continued each year for the
next 35 years, until. on 15 August, 1934, the then Bishop of Northampton, Bishop Laurence Youens, reopened the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham by celebrating Mass there for the first time since the Reformation. This was to prepare for the first National Pilgrimage to WaIsingharn, led by Cardinal Francis Bourne on 19 August, 1934, and the formal translation of the Shrine from King's Lynn back to Walsingham itself.
However, in 1921 a new era in Walsingharn's history had already begun. when Alfred Hope Patten became the new vicar of St Mary's Anglican church in Wakingham. In the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England, Alfred Hope Patten was a man of great energy and enthusiasm who very much wanted to restore an ancient shrine of Our Lady in England. And so he did, first of all in St Mary's and then, following the purchase of land nearby, by building a replica of the original "holy house" in a special shrine church independent of the parish. which was begun in 1931 and has developed extraordinarily over the intervening years.
HOW ASTONISHED the clergy and people of that time would have been to know how wonderfully and fruitfully ecumenical relationships have developed and flourished in the second half of this century under the prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit! That is something for which we should all thank God for today.
But as we know, the origins of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham lie much further back in history. Founded in the eleventh century as a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth, it was dedicated to the mystery of the Annunciation and over the years began to attract an ever-increasing number of pilgrims both from home and abroad. With its growth in prominence, the Bishop of Norwich entrusted the care of the shrine to the Augustinian canons in 1153, who built a monastery there with a new priory church that was magnificently rebuilt in 1401. For nearly 500 years Walsingham attracted great numbers of ordinary pilgrims, as well as at least nine kings of England from Richard I to Henry VIII, and eminent scholars such as Erasmus, until its dissolution in 1538.
What, then, constitutes the uniqueness of Walsingham, and what is its significance as a Marian Shrine? Walsingham is unique in so far as it is about a place, rather than a picture or statue. As Monsignor Anthony Stark, the present Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, reminds us in his note on the historical background to the shrine: "Although there are a number of Marian shrines which predate Walsingham, these are usually centred around a statue or a picture with a reputation for miracles. However, because of Our Lady's specific request, Walsingham was unique in that it was the Holy Place itself that was the object of devotion (as at Loreto two centuries later) and may be regarded as the first international Shrine in the Catholic Church — a veritable "medieval Lourdes". 'Indeed, it ranked as one of the four great shrines of the Middle Ages, with Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostella
and uniquely in honour of the Holy Mother of God. With the closure of the Holy Land to most Christian pilgrims, "England's Nazareth" acquired a special significance.
What is the significance of Walsingham as a place of pilgrimage? What message does Walsingham convey to us as we come to the close of the second Millennium and approach the beginning of the third?
First of all it, keeps alive and fresh in our minds and hearts the memory of all those Christians, with whom we are united as members of the communion of saints. who have come in pilgrimage over the centuries in a spirit of faith. prayer and thanksgiving to God who is our Father. And it keeps alive in our own day the memory of those truths of faith which we share with them still the faith expressed so succinctly in the ancient creeds. It is a perpetual reminder to the members of each generation of pilgrims that this faith is not merely their own possession, but that they are the inheritors of a tradition of faith that has been handed down to them through the centuries. from the time of the Apostles and the infant Church. It is a reminder, too, that each generation has a sacred duty to hand on that tradition of faith to future generations in obedience to the command of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
EVIALLY SIGNIFICANT, I believe, is that Walsingham is dedicated to the Annunciation. Of that event we read in the first chapter of St Luke's Gospel: "...the angel said to her. 'Mary do not be afraid, you have won God's favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end— (Lk 1:30-33).
It was through the Annunciation, and through Mary's "yes", that the way was opened for the fulfilment of the Mystery of the Incarnation, the origin and ground of Mary's joy. and indeed of our joy today. With the Annunciation at Nazareth. the final stages of salvation history began to unfold. And it was with the house in Nazareth, with all that it signified, that Walsingham was identified, so the symbolism of the house at Nazareth is important.
The replica of that house, built at Walsingham, was a place for Christians to come and to stand symbolically, so to speak, where Mary had stood; to say "yes" to God to whatever he might ask; to come, like Mary. to "listen" and ponder the Word of God and so to become, in the deepest sense. a hearer of the Word and a bearer of the Holy Spirit.
Mary brought "Life" into the world; the "Light" who wants only to lead us into the fullness of truth — about God. about the purpose of human life, about what it means to be truly human. This Gospel, this Good News, is for us the ultimate source of our joy and celebration, for the meaning of life is found in giving and receiving unconditional love. It is the Good News "of a living God who is close to us. who calls us to profound communion with himself and awakes in us the certain hope of eternal life... It is the representation of human life as a life of relationship, a gift of God, the fruit and sign of his love. It is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ"(E.V.,8 I ).
The significance of Walsingham, for me, is that it is a place in which we are reminded that it was at Nazareth that Mary opened her heart fully to the Holy Spirit and so opened the way for the Incarnation. It was there that she welcomed and rejoiced in the gift of that life which was given to her to nourish and nurture for the sake of the whole human race. It is a place to which we can come and in which we can renew our own personal "yes" to the gift of life and love which God gives to each and every one of us totally unconditionally. It is a place where we can come to be refreshed, renewed and strengthened through prayer and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the Sacrament
of Reconciliation. and so nourished, renewed and refreshed, we can return to our day-to-day lives and live out that commandment of love. of compassion and of hope, whatever our circumstances and whatever the difficulties we may face. Like Mary. we can be confident that he will accompany us at every step on our journey and we will be guided and guarded at every stage by his providential care.
The message of Walsingham. then, is a message of hope. of reassurance and of confidence: "Do not be afraid... for nothing is impossible to God."
This article has been abbreviated from a sermon which was preached at the shrine and published in Walsingham: A Centenary Celebration (Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, 31 Southdown Roark Wimbledon, London SW20 9Q.1).