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‘The health of the country is linked to this place’: an interview with Walsingham’s rector

Mgr John Armitage (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

Mgr John Armitage is a thoroughly East End priest. He grew up there; he has served its parishes for more than 30 years. So his appointment as rector of Walsingham, deep in the Norfolk countryside, was met with disbelief. Friends couldn’t believe he was leaving London. “Neither could I,” says Armitage ruefully. It was a “great wrench”, he says. He arrived in Walsingham on his 60th birthday. “All my plans for my birthday party were shot to pieces.”

There was good reason for the appointment. Armitage has a track record in building institutions and the bishops wanted someone who could develop England’s national Marian shrine. From 1968 until 2014, it had been run by the Marists. Developing the place had not been a priority. Walsingham receives pilgrimage groups of up to 20,000 in size, but its tearooms seat 30, the church just a few hundred. If it rains, everyone gets soaked, as there is no shelter. An information centre makes do in a Portakabin in the car park.

Since Armitage arrived in February 2015, things have been busy. Infrastructure has been replaced – everything from furniture and beds to security, phone and internet systems – and the governance structure redrawn (previously Walsingham Trust ran the shrine but did not own the property, making fundraising difficult).

So far, none of the work has been noticeable to visitors – but that will change. Last week a planning application was submitted to North Norfolk District Council. If approved, most of what surrounds the 14th century Slipper Chapel will be demolished. The barn-style 1980s church will be replaced by a large, medieval-style building, complete with side chapels. Instead of grassy spaces, there will be a traditional cloister, giving the site an enclosed, monastic feel.

Given the uncertainty of council planning decisions, the new vision isn’t being shouted from the rooftops just yet. After all, some local opposition is expected. At Walsingham, the only evidence of the plan is tucked away in a private office: a tiny, photocopied illustration pinned to a board.

When I meet Mgr Armitage after midday Mass, he asks that I make one thing clear: his intention is not to expand the shrine. “We’ve got all sorts of trouble from people thinking we want to expand,” he says. “We can’t – we’ve got nowhere to go.” Instead, the aim is to improve the site so that it can better handle the quarter of a million pilgrims it receives each year. The new church would seat 1,000, while the cloisters would shelter another 3,000. More accommodation for pilgrims will be built, including rooms for disabled people and self-catering for large families who often can’t afford full board.

But Mgr Armitage’s mission is not just about bricks and mortar: he wants the message of Walsingham to be better understood. “There’s a significance to the spiritual health of this country that is linked to this place,” he says. After all, he adds, this was where the Mother of God chose to appear, to “share the joy that her Son became her Saviour”.

Pre-Reformation England was known for its devotion to Our Lady. That’s why it had the ancient title of the Dowry of Mary – that is, a country set aside for Mary. Mgr Armitage suggests that this tradition, while not quite forgotten, is not “to the forefront” of English Catholicism today. Much focus is on the martyrs, but they grew out of this great tradition, he says. “You read the [medieval] writings and you see exactly where they came from.” Mgr Armitage speaks reverently about this older English spirituality. Much was destroyed, he says, but the writings survived. He loves St Aelred of Rievaulx, St Bede, St Anselm, the Cloud of Unknowing. He talks about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century Arthurian romance. Sir Gawain “took his strength when in trouble from the five joys Our Lady had in her Son”. The term the “joys of Our Lady” is a very English way of understanding the Mother of God, he says. Hence the message of Walsingham: to share the joy. “That’s the beauty of nationalities and cultures,” he says. “Every country has something to say – its own spin on the ball.” He wants England to recognise this heritage, “to draw from it”.

Walsingham utterly embodies this tradition, he says. Once it was destroyed in 1538, it was gone – it has no recusant history. When a Catholic convert, Charlotte Boyd, bought the Slipper Chapel in 1896, no local devotion to Our Lady existed.

Things have certainly changed in the 122 years since. As well as receiving huge numbers of pilgrims, it hosts major events such as Youth 2000. It’s a magnet for religious orders: in June the Greyfriars, or Conventual Franciscans, returned to the shrine for the first time since the Reformation. Just recently, 12 large Catholic families have moved into the area. EWTN, the US Catholic television network, has set up a British headquarters there.

Mgr Armitage says that spiritually he feels at home at Walsingham. But a friend describes his appointment as an exile. He has deep roots in London: for 200 years his family lived within a mile of the Tower of London. His father, a former merchant seaman, owned a pub in Limehouse, while his mother worked in the docks. A contemporary of his recalls him singing East End songs at seminary.

His family were lapsed Catholics – he went to Mass on his own as a young boy, originally because he wanted to play football afterwards. But he was inspired by the priests and the Sisters. “The influence of good people made me realise the goodness of life,” he says. At 18 he entered seminary – “it was either that or the Royal Navy”. (The latter is in the family – his father and grandfather were both buried at sea, and Armitage sailed tall ships himself, he says,“until the gout got the better of me”.) People who know Armitage say he loves being a priest. “He has a big pastoral heart,” says Bishop Emeritus Thomas McMahon of Brentwood, whom he served as vicar general for 13 years. “If anybody was in need or going through a difficult time, he would do anything possible.”

In the East End there is no shortage of people in difficulty. A friend, the Labour peer Maurice Glasman, says that, walking round the neighbourhood with him, “you’d see sin and redemption everywhere”. People in trouble would “turn their good face to him”, Glasman says, while “hard young men would soften” when they saw him. Glasman describes going with Armitage to a high security prison. “The prisoners treated it like a family visit,” he recalls. “They would hold his hand.”

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Ministering at a shrine in the Norfolk countryside might seem like a holiday in comparison. But that’s not how Armitage describes it. If anything, it sounds more stressful. As a parish priest, he says, you are like a family GP, with “long-term relationships that sustain you”. Being a rector of a shrine, on the other hand, is a “bit like being a paramedic”. People have come, perhaps, because a parent has died or a child is seriously ill. You see them for “short, intense” periods. “It’s the sort of work you can’t really do long-term,” he says. To keep a link with “normal pastoral life” he has been celebrating Mass in a maximum security prison, including on Christmas Day. He enjoys it. “I’ve spent a lot of time in prisons,” he says. “You work in the East End of London, you tend to come across a lot of prisoners.”

Still, I think Armitage misses London. The countryside “takes some getting used to”, he says. He has served as rector for three years. In February 2020 his five-year posting ends. A month later, on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, England will be rededicated as the Dowry of Mary. More than any building work, this may be the biggest mark that Armitage leaves. Preparations have been thorough: the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is visiting every Catholic cathedral in England over two years to make the significance of the tradition better known. On the day itself, in cathedrals across the country, England’s bishops will say a prayer rededicating the faith of the people of England to Mary.

I ask Armitage what he hopes to have achieved by the end of his five years. His response is modest. “Nothing of any significance,” he says. Walsingham is 957 years old – he’ll do his bit, he says, but strong organisations “can’t be one person”. “What keeps a place vibrant is new ideas, new life, new people,” he says. “So you can start praying now for my successor.”

Mark Greaves is news editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the August 10 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here