This article, written by David Chapman, first appeared in the June 2016 edition of the Westminster Record.
When I was 18, I had never heard of Walsingham. Brought up in Devon and attending Anglican ‘dull’ churches, neither high nor low and barely lukewarm, I could not afford to go home from college at weekends and readily accepted the invitation of a fellow student to help fill his coach going to Norfolk. And so I first came to Walsingham.
The Anglican shrine was a culture shock and I can still recall the cold of Norfolk in February, but I felt instantly ‘at home’. I had no doubt that the glory of Anglo-Catholic worship and the fullness of Catholic teaching was what I had, without knowing it, been seeking.
I should warn anyone who has never visited Walsingham that it is seriously addictive! Not one year has passed since that first visit in 1962 when I have failed to return. However, the Anglican Church was changing and, in 1994, I decided to seek reception into full communion with the Catholic Church, a decision I have never regretted.
Relations between Catholics and Anglicans in Walsingham, as elsewhere, have improved in recent years, but over 20 years ago it was with some trepidation that I returned to Walsingham, this time as a Catholic. I need not have worried. The spirituality of the place exerted itself just as powerfully. As the Rector, Fr John Armitage, says, ‘There is one shrine. It is Walsingham itself. It has a Catholic presence and an Anglican presence, an Orthodox presence and even a Methodist presence. Our Lady of Walsingham is at its heart.’ The place deserves its title of the ‘Holy Land of Walsingham’.
So, what is it that draws me back, as it has drawn pilgrims for nearly a thousand years? Principally, I have found answer to prayer; in times of difficulty, I have to make a pilgrimage, and, through Mary’s intercession with her Son, my prayers have always been answered. Someone once said that Walsingham was one of the places where the boundary between heaven and earth was at its thinnest, so perhaps this is not surprising.
Then there is the wonderful tranquility of the place: not the same as peacefulness. Pilgrimage has always been a time of companionship and fun as well as intense prayer: look at Chaucer’s pilgrims. Whether you go with a group or just on your own, you will always find like-minded people having a love for Our Lady as a common theme.
I am surprised that people who have been to Lourdes, Fatima, Aylesford, even Guadalupe, have never been to England’s National Shrine of Our Lady, to which pilgrims had been going for centuries before the others! There are many exciting developments going on at Walsingham now. There has never been a better time to go. However, be warned: you are unlikely to make only one visit!
The Diocese of Westminster will make a Year of Mercy pilgrimage to Walsingham on 9 July. For more information, please contact your parish priest.