Pope Francis has given the Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in England a rare honour.
The shrine – specifically the Slipper Chapel, the Chapel of Reconciliation and the Domain – has been granted minor basilica status.
The announcement was made by Bishop Alan Hopes of East Anglia on the feast of the Holy Family on Sunday.
Walsingham now joins only three other locations in Britain with minor basilica status – Corpus Christi in Manchester, Downside Abbey in Somerset and St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham.
Walsingham is the first site to be given such status since 1941.
According to tradition, the shrine at Walsingham, known as England’s Nazareth, dates back to the 11th century, when the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to the lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverches, who prayed that she might undertake some special work in honour of Our Lady. In response, the Virgin Mary led her in spirit to Nazareth, showed her the house where the Annunciation occurred, and asked her to build a replica in Walsingham to serve as a perpetual memorial.
Bishop Hopes said: “The Holy See’s recognition of the importance of the church in Walsingham is a recognition of the growth and witness of the shrine over these many years since its re-establishment after its destruction during the period of the Reformation, for its constant witness to the importance of marriage and family life and its pastoral care of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who make their journey to the shrine every year.
“It has also come at a very important moment in the life of the shrine as it seeks to develop and refurbish its facilities in the light of the ever growing number of pilgrims, a work being led by Mgr John Armitage, the recently appointed rector of the shrine.
“I am quite sure that this moment will bring many blessings and graces to all pilgrims in the coming years.”
Mgr John Armitage, Rector of the Shrine of Our Lady, said: “This is wonderful news because it represents so much of what has been happening in the shrine for so long. It’s a recognition by the Holy Father of the long history of this shrine.
“It’s recognition of the remarkable devotion, particularly of the people who work here, the volunteers and all the loyal pilgrims who come from so far, for so often and from such great distances.”
The Anglican Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, said: “In a BBC survey nine years ago Walsingham was given the accolade of being England’s most spiritual place. Now the Pope has added to the honour in which Walsingham is held.
“Anglicans as well as Roman Catholics come to Walsingham in big numbers and the relationship between the two shrines is close and supportive. I came first to Walsingham as a pilgrim in 1971, and I hope the new status the Pope has granted Walsingham will encourage many more people to discover the spiritual treasures of England’s Nazareth.”
Basilicas were originally Roman court buildings. The term was then applied to certain large churches with a nave and central aisle, though since the 18th century the architectural style has not been important.
The four major basilicas in Rome outrank all other churches and cathedrals in precedence. These are all papal basilicas (known as patriarchal basilicas until Benedict XVI changed their name in 2006). There are also three minor papal basilicas.
There are more than 1,600 minor basilicas around the world. Many, like Walsingham, are the site of pilgrimages.
A basilica has the right to include the papal symbol of the crossed keys in its banner and seal, and its rector may wear a distinctive mozzetta. A plenary indulgence may be granted to those who pray in a basilica on certain days.