Last Sunday, our Bishop, Alan Hopes, announced that the Pope had agreed to make the National Shrine at Walsingham a ‘minor basilica’:
“The Holy See’s recognition of the importance of the church in Walsingham is a recognition of the growth and witness of the shrine over these many years since its re-establishment after its destruction during the period of the Reformation, for its constant witness to the importance of marriage and family life and its pastoral care of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who make their journey to the shrine every year.”
The new Rector, Mgr John Armitage, is a force of nature, who is determined to make the Shrine an even better place of pilgrimage. For those, such as myself, who have been going there for 40 years, all of this is the answer to our prayers. I will happily put up with more difficulties parking and more people about the place if it means that the joys of that very special place can be shared more widely. In the Middle Ages it was the most popular pilgrimage place in the country, and only just behind Compostella in terms of European-wide pilgrimage. Those of you who have read Jessica’s moving description of her own pilgrimage there can get some notion of what it meant to one pilgrim, but I never knew anyone come away from it untouched.
There is now a TV channel which allows those of you who can’t get there to join in at times of the day, and to catch up on demand.
All of this is part of a plan to raise enough money to fully-equip the new Basilica for its age-old task of providing a spiritual retreat – something needed more than ever in our stressed-out world. Here, in microcosm , is an example of how the Church manages to be ever-old and yet renew itself.
A century and a half ago, the new Basilica was a cowshed, and it took the vision, enthusiasm and money of a Catholic convert to buy back the old Slipper chapel and turn it into a consecrated place again. It may be doubted that even Charlotte Boyd could have foreseen where her initiative would lead. Initially the local hierarchy wanted the national shrine to be elsewhere in East Anglia, but in the end it was decided by people voting with their feet. They went to Walsingham. That was where their long-forgotten forefathers had gone. The so-called reformers may have destroyed the Shrine, the statue of Our Lady and desecrated the sacred space, and as time passed, it seems almost as though Walsingham had been forgotten. But if the Lord is with us, who can stand against us?
Both Anglicans and Roman Catholics rediscovered Walsingham in the early twentieth century, and for both churches, it became, again, what it had always been. Now, Pope Francis has taken the next step in this journey, and with the support of Bishop Alan, Walsingham moves forward to be even more itself than before.
To those who get themselves into a bit of a mess imagining that anyone ‘worships’ Our Lady, I offer these words of Newman’s to meditate upon:
… if we take a survey at least of Europe, we shall find that it is not those religious communions which are characterized by devotion towards the Blessed Virgin that have ceased to adore her Eternal Son, but those very bodies … which have renounced devotion to her. The regard for His glory, which was professed in that keen jealousy of her exaltation, has not been supported by the event. They who were accused of worshipping a creature in His stead, still worship Him; their accusers, who hoped to worship Him so purely … have ceased to worship Him altogether.
Devotion to Christ has remained strongest for longest where Christians also pay honour to the Blessed Virgin; where they do not, the faith has ebbed.
If you want to know more about the aims of the development appeal, or to support it, you can find out more here. ‘Ever ancient, ever new’ – Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.