As an American college student, I was afflicted with a very serious and incurable disease: Anglophilia. I had been reading CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and TS Eliot. So when I turned up at Oxford in 1979 and realised my college was just up the road from The Eagle and Child, I was like a child in Disneyland. This was England at last! This was Oxford! Here were the haunts of my heroes!
So began my 29-year sojourn in what I came to call “the damp lands”. During that time I became an Anglican priest, a chaplain at Cambridge, a country vicar on the Isle of Wight and, finally, a Catholic. Then in 2005 the door opened for me to return with my family to my native United States and be ordained as a Catholic priest.
My 10 years as a Catholic layman in England was somewhat of an exile in the wilderness. It was therefore with mixed emotions that I accepted biographer Joseph Pearce’s invitation to be priest chaplain on a pilgrimage focusing on English martyrs and literary figures.
Up to the last minute I was regretting my decision. I had too much to do. I had my parish and my family to consider. Did I really want to go through the travel, the jet lag and delays only to spend a week on a coach bouncing around the congested roads of England with a bunch of enthusiastically ignorant Americans?
“Can you believe it, Sidney? They have baked beans for breakfast!”
“Is it called ‘cream tea’ because they put cream in their tea?”
“Why do they call them Beefeaters? I thought the steaks in England were generally pretty bad.”
But I had signed up, so I was in, and by the beginning of June we found ourselves at Heathrow, jet-lagged but ready to roll.
My regrets were banished immediately. My fellow pilgrims turned out to be the most good-hearted, pleasantly pious and well-informed group of enthusiasts. They had read our books and were also fans of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and Belloc. I was with a busload of similarly afflicted Anglophiles. From Heathrow we headed for the Tower of London, where we were shown the monument on Tower Hill where St Thomas More and St John Fisher were beheaded, before we embarked on a detailed tour of the Tower from a Catholic viewpoint. I was moved to pray before the sad graffiti in the Salt Tower carved by Catholic prisoners, including the name of St Henry Walpole.
We took in St Etheldreda’s, the Oratory, Westminster Abbey and the Cathedral, and I had the privilege of celebrating Mass at Tyburn Convent for our group.
A pilgrimage is always full of unexpected graces, and one of the most astounding took place on the Sunday of our visit. It was the feast of Corpus Christi, and on our way to Walsingham we stopped to visit Oxburgh Hall. Joseph and I found ourselves seated in the famous priest hole, and after reciting the Paternoster and singing the Salve Regina we climbed out, only to be informed that if we were Catholics there was “some sort of special procession about to start”.
So off we scurried with our American pilgrims to find that a crowd had already gathered for a Corpus Christi celebration.
Afterwards, I asked an elderly gent if it was possible for us to celebrate our Sunday Mass in the chapel.
“Who should I ask about that?”
“Oh, are you the caretaker?”
“No, I own it. I’m Sir Henry Bedingfeld.”
Ah. Open large American mouth. Insert foot.
Sir Henry couldn’t have been a more gracious host. He provided us with vestments and sacred vessels, and our Mass in that location, where one family kept the faith (and still does) through the terrible persecutions, was deeply moving.
Walsingham was, as ever, enchanting and Stratford, Oxford and Sussex soon followed, all of which swarmed with memories and monuments to the great Catholics of England. The power of these places and people are not wasted, and it seems a shame that the English do not celebrate their treasures more.
As evidence of their power, on the last night of the tour a remarkable conversation took place. Our tour guide, Susan, was a delightful Englishwoman with no religion. The bus driver – an easygoing and pleasant professional – was equally ignorant. After dinner one of our enthusiastic pilgrims asked the driver: “Eric, when are you going to become a Catholic?”
To everyone’s surprise he answered: “I’ve lived in England all my life. Me and Susan said we never knew places like Walsingham existed. I’ve never encountered religion like this. When we were there she picked up a booklet on how to pray the rosary and I got a book that tells how to become a Catholic.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a parish priest in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit dwightlongenecker.com
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (21/8/15).
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