ONLY 12 more years to the year 2000! 12 years in which to prepare for the great jubilee of the Incarnation of the Lord. Pope John Paul II has called on each of us to make these years a time of deep prayer and personal renewal of the Church's life throughout the world, so that in these days as in the beginning the whole Church will be of one mind and heart, giving clear and courageous witness to the presence of the Word Made Flesh Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.
The National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham is specially fitted to respond to this call of the Holy Father and to be for the Church in England what Mary was for the Church in the beginning a centre of prayer and a focus of unity.
In our preparation for this great anniversary of the Incarnation, who better to be our inspiration and support than Mary, the Mother of the Lord, who prepared for that first birth with such prayerful devotion and such joy in the Holy Spirit. That is why the Pope has proclaimed this a Marian Year, to remind the Church of the presence of the mother at the heart of the family of God, supporting it in faith and prayer.
She is present now as she was at the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the first disciples and sent them out to eNangelise the whole world. Two thousand years later, the world has heard the Gospel but, for the most part, has forgotten it again. And in forgetting it is in danger of losing touch with the life of the spirit, losing its soul. Then all the marvellous gains and rich developments of the last two millennia would come to nothing.
For "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?" (Mk.8:36) The Church in our times must rediscover and enhance the life of the Spirit for all people. The Word of God is what nourishes that life. It is Mary who teaches us how to receive it and how to respond to it, to be "those who hear the word and hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience." (Lk.8: 15) First there must be listening in the still centre of our being: that place of stillness and regeneration, the place of the Holy Spirit. The peace and tranquility of Walsingham, the slow pace of life in the Norfolk countryside, reminds the pilgrim of how much we need to change the pace of our lives if we are to become sensitive again to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Together with listening there must also be that Marian pondering of the Word in the heart, turning it over and over until it becomes one with our own thoughts and begins to shape our understanding of daily events.
Then finally there must be a bringing of the word to birth in action. Prayer and pondering must bear fruit.
Walsingham was established, according to tradition, to be a perpetual memorial of the great joy of the Incarnation and rejoices with Mary in the great things God has done for us. A simple way of beginning this prayer is to recite the Angelus each day, morning noon and evening. It can be done without notice on the bus or the tube or in the car. In doing so you will pray in union with Mary and Walsingham and indeed with Christian people throughout the world.
There are, on the surface of it, two shrines in Walsingham. One Catholic and one Anglican. I say "on the surface of it", because at the heart of Walsingham there is only one shrine which has several places of prayer not only Catholic and Anglican, but also Orthodox and Methodist.
Slowly, imperceptibly, but ineluctably they are growing together. And in their growing are drawing others to be reconciled.
It is a sign of hope. Mary at the heart of the early Church was a focus of unity, a guarantee of the presence of Christ. Walsingham continues this Marian work for unity at the heart of the Church of England. It wishes to respond to the call of the Pope and draw as many as possible into his great programme of prayer and work for unity between now and the year 2000.
The writer is Director of the Shrine.