Walsingham is a place that is very dear to my heart. It has always been a place that has enchanted me and captured my imagination.
Feeling at home with Our Lady
My first encounter with Walsingham was as an Anglican pilgrim. I have made countless visits as an individual and as part of organised groups over the years. The Anglican shrine had become an important place to me. For many Anglo-Catholics the shrine is more than just a centre of devotion, it is also a tribal home. Anglo Catholics who felt marginalised within the growing liberalism of Anglicanism felt that Walsingham was a safe environment. It is a place where friendships have been formed and faith deepened.
It was always the intention of the founder, Fr Hope Patten, that the shrine should not look or feel Anglican and from my memory this certainly was the case. The Anglican shrine provided a fairytale vision of what the C of E would look like if the Anglo-Catholic experiment had succeeded. It was nothing like anything else in the Church of England and I thought that was wonderful.
In terms of facilities and the physical plant, the Anglicans of Walsingham have set the gold standard. Every visit always revealed a new development, which enhanced the environment and added to the experience. The Shrine Church, which is an assault on the senses, is still a place that evokes many emotions, with flickering candles, dark corners, glittering statues and the constant hint of incense in the air.
So when I became a Catholic I was worried about what might happen to my relationship with Walsingham. How would I feel when no longer ‘part of things’ at the Anglican shrine? What would it be like celebrating Mass in the slipper chapel and staying at Elmham house?
A national shrine?
To begin with it was difficult. The problem was the Catholic shrine felt a bit parochial and dull. The split site and some of the jaded facilities also made for a different experience. This was no reflection on the clergy and staff of the shrine as they did their best with the resources that they had.
Things changed after my ordination as I was able to say Mass at the shrine and take a more active role in the pilgrimages. However Walsingham still did not feel like a national shrine.
I have noticed that number of pilgrims has increased over the last few years. An important feature is the amount of people from different nationalities who now make their way to Walsingham. Last year I was fascinated to watch pilgrims from Kerala and their devotions. There does seem to more of a devotional air about the place.
One difference between the Anglican and Catholic shrines is that, for Catholics, Walsingham is only one amongst many world class shrines. Many pilgrims prefer to go to places such as Lourdes, Knock and Fatima. Walsingham does, for the moment, seem like a poor relation. For Anglicans, Walsingham is all that they have and therefore it has more significance to them.
A shrine to be proud of
When the plans for Walsingham were first revealed, there were a number of people who were concerned that what they cherished at the Catholic shrine would be lost. Many appreciated the more understated and simple atmosphere. Looking at the plans, I don’t think that this aspect will be lost, as they reveal a development which will only enhance the experience of pilgrims. The intention is to create more space for contemplation and quiet (such as a chapel specifically for Adoration). While there will inevitably be disruption during the works, the end result will be worth waiting for.
The addition of facilities for day pilgrims and renewal of the residential accommodation are essential if the future viability of the shrine is to be secured. If the shrine is to be a vehicle for evangelisation, it needs to have facilities that can welcome people and stand up to modern expectations. Many non-Catholics visit Walsingham and it is increasingly is becoming a place of encounter and dialogue. This mission can only be fully lived out is the staff at the shrine have the right tools.
I now very much feel that I belong at the Catholic shrine and the plans and work already undertaken have given me hope. I look forward to seeing how things develop and pray that once again our national shrine can be a place of renown in our nation and take its rightful place in the conversion of England.