Given on the occasion of the installation of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 2016.
‘Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’.
These words open the deeply loved prayer which many generations of pilgrims have prayed as they walked to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham over the centuries since 1061. They have brought their prayers and needs to their Mother and our Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the holy shrine of Walsingham. One can imagine the countless weary and scarred feet which have knelt in humble prayer before the statue, glad of a safe arrival and able to offer their petitions. I am reminded of the pilgrim’s feet depicted in Caravaggio’s painting of the ‘Madonna of Loreto’ or the ‘Pilgrim’s Madonna’ to be found in Sant’Agostino in Rome and which many of you will know.
The opening words of the ‘Hail Mary’ also express the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. From the very beginning of time, God in the abundance of his blessing, graced Mary, the humble servant, so that she would be worthy to be the Mother of God. She is preserved from the stain of original sin to be the Vessel of Honour and Ark of the Covenant. She is honoured, using imagery from the Song of Songs, as the ‘lily among thorns’ (SS. 2.2), the ‘enclosed garden’ the serpent could never enter, and the ‘sealed fountain’ (SS. 4.12) that can never be defiled. She responds in perfect freedom to the invitation of the angel Gabriel. In her ‘fiat’, ‘be it done to me according to thy will’, she offers herself totally to the Lord reminding us of the way in which she was first offered at her presentation in the temple as a child by her parents, Ss Joachim and Anne. This deep mystery of the abundance of God’s grace is recognised by the poor and sick servant girl, St Bernadette of Lourdes, who has the eyes of faith to see the depth of this mystery. She hears the words of ‘the beautiful lady’ telling her that she is the Immaculate Conception. Only by kneeling down and bending low in humility can we too allow God to deepen our faith to profess this mystery.
Full of grace, Mary is the New Eve who is able to untangle the knots of sin woven by the first Eve when she asserted her will in the Garden of Eden. In the first reading, we hear the Protoevangelium and the first announcement of the Messiah and Redeemer, of a battle between the serpent and the Woman, and of the final victory of a descendant of hers.
As Adam and Eve fall from grace and their actions break relationship and harmony with all creation, they begin to weave a web of lies, deceit and blame and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. As they leave, God does not abandon his people and his gift of creation but promises that in the fullness of time he will save them through his mercy. He promises that the offspring of the Virgin will ultimately crush the head of the serpent, and defeat sin and death.
In a mysterious way God heralds the coming victory over evil and man’s restoration from his fall. As Christ will be the New Adam, Mary will be the New Eve who will be worthy, through God’s grace, to be the Mother of God. As St Paul writes, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20). St Irenaeus expresses this belief in the following words, ‘And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.22.4). This image of Our Lady untangling the knots of sin is depicted in a painting to which Pope Francis is deeply attached. Little cherubs help Our Blessed Lady to unbind bands of cloth symbolising the web of lies which sin creates.
God in his mercy creates a new people, God’s holy people, the Church. We pray ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus’. The Felix culpa, the happy fault, of which we sing in the Easter Exultet is our hope.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
With deep hope, we pray in the words of the Alma Redemptoris Mater, ‘Oh, by that joy which Gabriel brought
to thee, thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.’
As we process to the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs we bring our prayers and needs like countless pilgrims before us to the new shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the cathedral. We honour the memory of Cardinal Griffin who commissioned the statue for the Marian Year of 1954 and placed the image in a position of honour where it will draw pilgrims to this great cathedral church.
In a profound way, we link the great history of the martyrs with Our Lady, the Queen of Martyrs, whose intercession must have been faithfully invoked from prison cells, during the scourging and torture of the saints and whilst dragged along the streets of London to Tyburn. It is a great blessing that this statue now takes its place of honour in this chapel and we thank the many artists, benefactors and those who have inspired the project.
The pedestal on which the statue is placed is based on the exact measurements of the pre-Reformation altar from Holy Trinity Church, Chipping Norton, which was earlier in St Mary’s Church in Heythrop, Oxfordshire. It is further linked with the history of the martyrs as soil from the Martyr’s Field, the Slipper Chapel, the Priory Grounds in Walsingham and from Our Lady of Czestochowa’s Shrine in Poland is embedded into it. This link recognises the generosity of the Polish artists who have gifted us with the new pedestal. It also unites us with the Polish witnesses to their Catholic faith.
The soil from these shrines reminds us of the earth from which we are formed and into which God breathes life. Daily we struggle to respond in love towards others and go beyond our fragile nature, created as good but stained by the effects of original sin. Our Blessed Lady, the Immaculate Conception, shines out as a model of holiness as we ponder the mystery of how God protected her from the stain of this sin and offers us his grace and mercy.
The feast gives us hope that God’s grace perfects our human nature so that we become holy. The prayers of Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, assist us and strengthen our footsteps on this call and pilgrimage to holiness through death to eternal life. On this feast, we continue the prayer of the ‘Hail Mary’: ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.’