One of the good news stories in the Church at the moment is the significant developments taking place at Walsingham. The plans and what has already been achieved are impressive. However one important focus that has always been missing from the Catholic Shrine and pilgrimage experience is the Holy House. Pilgrimage to Walsingham was never about the image of Our Lady. The ancient focus was always the replica of Jesus’ childhood home. Walsingham without a Holy House is like Lourdes without the Grotto.
In 1061 Richeldis de Faverches had a vision of Our Lady in which she was led in spirit to Nazareth. Our Lady showed her the house where the Annunciation occurred, and asked her to build a replica in Walsingham to serve as a perpetual memorial of the Annunciation. The image of Our Lady developed much later and so from the earliest days the primary focus had been this humble home. It was to this little wooden chapel that generations of pilgrims made their way.
The first major Catholic development at Walsingham after the reformation was the opening of the Pontifical Shrine at Kings Lynn in 1897. Here a Lady Chapel was constructed to the original dimensions of the Holy House in Loretto and so the first attempt to establish a shrine had the Holy House as a the main focus. Since the likeness of the original Walsingham statue was not known at the time, the Pope directed that a new statue be copied from the picture of Our Lady venerated in the Roman Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
When the Anglicans first established their shrine in 1931 (this is the year that the image was transferred from the Parish Church) it was the Holy House and its covering chapel that was built first. The remaining pilgrimage church was not completed for another seven years. The Revd Hope Patten understood the importance of the Holy House and the significance of its message.
I love visiting Walsingham and the Slipper Chapel is a place of real peace and holiness. However, for me, the shrine will always be incomplete without a Holy House to visit and say Mass in. It is of course possible to visit the Holy House in the Anglican Shrine and rebuilding a Catholic Holy House may seem to be unnecessarily competitive in this ecumenical age. However, Catholics cannot say Mass in the Anglican Shrine and so any visit is reduced in significance and never really feels like home.
By having the image as the focus of our pilgrimage we lose something of the centrality of the annunciation to the message of Walsingham. The holy house speaks of humility and hospitality. As pilgrims we are welcomed to the earthly home of our heavenly mother. Visiting a replica of this house allows us to immerse ourselves in the mystery of the Word made flesh. The statue is important as are the other aspects of pilgrimage at Walsingham but I still long for the day when I can once more enter that humble dwelling where Mary said yes to God. Pope Leo XIII claimed that “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England”. The Holy House is surely part of establishing this hope.