I’ve been at our national Catholic Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham since mid-September, so within the period of the pandemic but not, at that time, in lockdown. That came later! The winter months are generally quiet here, but more so with lockdown after Christmas. Thankfully, this time around we weren’t completely closed, so we were and are able to permit limited numbers at Mass. As the days get longer, the weather improves, and the Covid legislation is more permissive, more people are visiting Our Lady’s shrine.
Clearly, a shrine attracts pilgrims, but what we’ve all learned here is that their presence, if not physical, can be virtual. We are blessed with being able to livestream our Masses and devotions, so we have all – clergy, religious, staff and volunteers – been kept busy at a time when many have wondered about their present, not to mention their futures. A glance at the livestream statistics shows that, on one day, nearly 4,000 people logged on from 33 different countries.
It’s still early days for me, so I never cease to be surprised and delighted at the variety and diversity of pilgrims who travel to Walsingham. In a normal year, there would be two very large Tamil pilgrimages, a Filipino pilgrimage on Palm Sunday, many diocesan pilgrimages, Youth 2000 and a New Dawn Charismatic Pilgrimage. Many Irish travellers come as pilgrims too. Our Lady, rightly, has a large fan base, and many come to give thanks for favours received or to ask for the Blessed Mother’s prayers for healing – for themselves, or someone dear to them. Not long ago, I was asked by a young couple to bless their baby, born blind, who was to have an operation the following week; a mother had lost a son by suicide and wondered what she might have done differently. The faith of many is deep and exemplary. Some people come, no doubt, out of curiosity, perhaps driving past the shrine on a journey or holiday; hopefully, they will feel blessed by their visit to this holy place and leave as pilgrims.
Preaching the gospel is an important part of the priests’ duties here, as it is, of course, for any priest. At Mass, the dynamic of a homily changes when it’s addressed not to a small weekday congregation, or medium or large Sunday gathering, seated in front of you, some or many of whom are known to you, but to a few thousand spread throughout the world, plus a gathering of pilgrims in front of you, some of whom may never have been to Walsingham before, and others who are regulars.
People continue to support us financially – a very important consideration – by cheque, telephone and via the internet. A shrine is always in need of support and we have been blessed by some generous donors and by volunteers who offer their help in so many ways.
We are blessed by ample accommodation in the village. Because of lockdown, none of it is open as I write, but we’re looking forward to welcoming guests soon. Talking of hospitality, I was sitting at my kitchen table last Sunday, enjoying a late lunch, when a gentleman walked into my front yard and approached my door. I got up, food in mouth, to open the door. When I did so, he asked, “Are you open?” Not quite knowing to what he was referring, I asked him to be more specific. He replied, “Bed and breakfast.” I apologised and told him it was a private residence, in a friendly manner, of course.
We have no idea how soon the large pilgrimages will be able to return, or whether, indeed, post-lockdown, everything will be different. Perhaps this year, due to uncertainties about flying abroad, more people may decide to take a staycation and visit Norfolk. If so, Walsingham is well worth the journey. Although we can’t see what the future holds, we can, like Our Lady, know who holds the future, and we can trust God to show us the way forward.
The Rt Rev Mgr Canon Philip Moger is Rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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