AaFTER 50 years memory is hazy about some things nd clear about others. But old photographs and my Pilgrim's Pocket Manual spark many recollections of the 1948 pilgrimage to Walsingham. High on the list are exhaustion and blisters. For me it was a physically tougher, more unremitting 14 days than anything I'd done in the army.
Many Catholics have never heard of the 1948 event, or confuse it with `Student Cross', since both were pilgrimages on foot to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingharn, a devotional focus once as important as Santiago de Compostela.
The bare bones of the '48 pilgrimage are that 14 groups of men, one for each station of the cross, assembled on Friday 2 July, set off on the Saturday and reached Walsingham on July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Each group bore a heavy wooden cross, which was carried in turn by teams of three. Army-style, we marched in threes and the team relieved from the cross went to the rear rank. The timing was dictated by several decades of the rosary, but I forget the detail.
On July 16, 1948, Cardinal Griffin concluded a national period of prayer in the old Priory grounds with its single remaining dramatic arch. Seven crosses each side reproduced a medieval nave.
Beginning on Thursday 16 July this year, those 14 journeys will be commemorated. Groups came from Middlesbrough in the north, East Grinstead in south Sussex; Wrexham, west of Liverpool and, most easterly, ancient Canterbury. In 1948, the shortest route was 198 miles from Oxford, the longest from Middlesbrough 236 miles. Every `station' was numbered, so that each had its own devotional theme. My station III, from East Grinstead did 210 miles; our meditation was `Jesus falls the first time'.
Living relatively close, I applied to Westminster, but it was over-subscribed. Used to being 'posted', Our Lady and St Peter's, East Grinstead, was not that far, nor unwelcome. Some friends lived near and I had often been to Mass at that church. But there turned out to be a heavy downside to an unpopular start point, which contributed to the rigor faced by our group; I simply don't know if the experience was repeated elsewhere.
Each group was to be 30strong, including two chaplains. The official anniversary list for station II gives 28 names, but we started with 18, rarely had many more than 20 and from my album of a rest-break in a Norfolk churchyard captioned 'Final Day', I can only count 12 without the photographer. Even more conclusively, a posed photograph around our cross in Epping Forest shows 17 plus photographer. Certainly there were men who joined for a
few days at a time and very welcome they were. The significance of group size is simple: the smaller the group, the more frequent your turn for the cross. As well as the cross, individuals carried their own gear, essential food and supplies, depending on where we might be sleeping and whether food might be available. I recall that we were often fed in larger places when we stopped. There was a strong rumour that one group was so anxious to get there intact that it had hired a truck to take forward all gear except the cross. Bad form!
Probably oak, as each cross was meant to last, it was indeed heavy, even for three fit men. Some days we did well over 20 miles. The route was purposely indirect, to cover as much countryside as possible and to arrive at Catholic focal points at convenient times. The daily routine is now hazy, except that care of feet loomed large. I think Mass was at variable times, depending on where we were to be. But of some things I am certain, because I found myself cantor for the group. Invariably entering a Catholic Church, we sang the Latin Credo. We were big on the litany of the saints and sang compline every evening. Many of us were used to rough billets and hard Boors, but one night in Essex was unique. Instead of a barn or a hall, we were billeted in houses; had a real dinner, a real bath and a bed.
Hymns had been chosen for appropriate piety and good marching rhythm. My heavily annotated Pilgrim's Pocket Manual has my pre-planned vocal range indications and a tuning fork to hand for a marching hymn, specially composed, to sing to the tune of The British Grenadiers. But that, if a flaw, was the only one in an exceptional logistical and prayerfully conceived operation. SC (Charles) Osbourne was the mastermind and the pilgrimage emulated those to Vezelay in 1946 and '47, whose purpose was to heal Europe's enmities.
S0 WHY did we feel the need to walk for two
weeks, winding around the English countryside, laden with gear and cross and setting it up wherever we stopped? Probably a majority were ex-servicemen like me, demobilised less than a year. The Russian threat loomed large; it seemed that hardly out of uniform, we might soon be back in. There was plenty of prayer and penance needed and individual ways to be sought and prayed about. There were only two priests in Station III, the Redemptorist chaplains, but in the official list four priests are noted. Names of the group are in my photo captions and I hope we all found our vocations. Clearly two found theirs in the sacred ministry.
ALSINGHAM '48 was certainly part of my search, and shortly after I went to Quart Abbey for my first retreat to consider what to do. There I met my life-long friend, Joe Warillow, OSB, who died recently. By a quirk of circumstance this July, I shall go from Quart to Walsingham, but this time my arrival will be leisurely. In '48, Osborne's planning was formidable and each group had to arrive at the Slipper Chapel at a precise time for their station Mass and then make way for the next. We drew the short straw again and arrived as scheduled at a monastic 4.30am. Westminster had it cushy at 6.45am and Birkenhead and Glossop a gentlemanly start at 9 o'clock. The young Fr Warlock was there. Much later in Liverpool, a mite ruefully, he acknowledged that he had no blisters as he was in the Cardinal's car, but recalled brothers' bare feet (and bandages) on the Holy Mile, which in reality is nearly two. He grinned, however, pointing at one snap and to the back of his head close to the processional cross.
Fifty years ago, the piety, prayer and penance were in formal, stylised mould. Today, we rightly interpret pilgrimage as our life's effort and this is better. Will the anniversary event simply be the reunion of a bunch of oldies, who did their best at the time? What might be their equivalent for modern times? I suggest care for others at home and abroad, but so many young idealists are no longer believers, often with reason.
The institutional Church has a lot to answer for, and to see Pope John's Council implemented in justice and truth would be worth another (geriatric) pilgrimage.