I have recently had the privilege of making a pilgrimage to Walsingham. This is nothing remarkable as I have made at least an annual pilgrimage for the last twenty years and the place has become very much an anchorhold in my life. I went to Walsingham for the first time in the mid-1990s as a member of the Church of England and I was captivated by devotion to Our Lady under this title.
In those days the Catholic parish church was a little dull temporary building, with a frontage designed by Enid Chadwick, which had remained in use beyond its intended lifespan days. The Catholic National Shrine at Houghton St Giles was a place that seemed set in the middle of nowhere. However in the years since I became a Catholic I have grown to appreciate the still beauty of the Slipper Chapel and its surroundings as well as the new Church of the Annunciation in Friday Market. If I was being mischievous I would also say that the Catholic image of Our Lady of Walsingham looks far less miserable than the Anglican one.
Whilst visiting this year I met some other pilgrims who were unfavourably comparing Walsingham to other well-known European Shrines that they had visited. It is true Walsingham is no Lourdes or Fatima but for me that is part of the appeal of the place. It seems right that the English National Shrine is understated, reflecting the character of the English themselves.
The story of Our Lady’s Shrine and the meaning of its message demand a much tenderer charism than Walsingham’s more flamboyant European cousins. Above all Walsingham is a memorial to the Annunciation. The whole place speaks softly of Our Lady’s ‘Yes’ to God. Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel was abundantly full of humility, generosity and peace. The quieter pace and rhythm of our National Shrine really can take us to the heart of this life changing and life-giving moment.
The location of Walsingham is also understated. It is not set amidst mountain grandeur but nestles within the pleasant rolling meadows of the Stiffkey Valley, echoing the gentleness of the shrine’s own spirituality and Our Lady. The whole place seems to be set apart for peaceful encounter.
This is not to say that a pilgrimage to Walsingham is not charged also with the joy of Our Lady. Several pilgrimages attract many thousands of the faithful. The Tamils, New Dawn and Youth 2000 all bring a contrasting dynamic which enlivens the place. Even during a fairly normal week there is a gentle buzz around the shrine and the village. Understated need not mean penitential.
Many groups are now being drawn to Walsingham and exciting things are happening with respect to the plans for development. During my last visit I was able to say Mass for some of the sisters of The Community of Our Lady of Walsingham at the Dowry House, which is their new home. Here in the heart of Walsingham the sisters are developing a quiet ministry of hospitality by running a retreat house and a chapel for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. What they are planning fits beautifully with the unique spirituality of the whole place and will no doubt compliment it beautifully.
So when people compare Walsingham to other places they are really missing the point. Ancient pilgrims to England’s Nazareth came to visit the replica of Jesus’ childhood home. The focus was not the grand Abbey Church but the simple wooden house within. The Church needs places of renewal like Lourdes and Fatima which speak proudly of devotion to Our Lady and our national shrine stands with them bringing a different and equally important message about an encounter with Our Lady and Jesus. I look forward to seeing how Walsingham will grow but also hope that the gentleness of Walsingham can be preserved amidst all the wonderful things that are unfolding.