60 years ago, a procession led by the statue of Our Lady of Willesden took place from Willesden to Wembley Stadium where 94,000 Catholics from the dioceses of Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood gathered. At the end of a pageant which told the story of Christianity from the arrival of St Augustine in the sixth century to the present day, the statue was crowned and then processed back to Willesden in a great act of witness.
On 4 October, Bishop John Sherrington was the principal celebrant of a Mass to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the event and to rededicate the sanctuary of the newly-refurbished Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. Of this special occasion, Bishop John said: ‘It is good to be here to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Cardinal Griffin’s crowning of the statue and the rededication of the shrine after works have been carried out to restore its beauty.’
Bishop John also recalled the many pilgrims who came to the Shrine through the centuries, including St Thomas More, St Jose Maria Escriva and Blessed Alvaro de Portillo, all of whom came out of love for Our Lady.
At the end of Mass, Fr Stephen Willis paid tribute to all who had contributed to the rebuilding of the Shrine and the Church for this day of celebration.
Three choirs performed together to provide music for the liturgy on the day, including the parish’s own adult choir and newly-formed children’s choir. They were joined by the schola from Allen Hall.
The text of Bishop John Sherrington's homily:
Shortly we will gather before the shrine of Our Lady and rededicate the sanctuary of the shrine chapel. The shrine of Our lady of Willesden has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries with history of the holy well dating back to the Anglo-Saxon kings and the seventh century well before foundation of the monastery in 939 in the manors of Willesden. A church dedicated to Our Lady of Willesden dates to about 1170 and pilgrims came to venerate the ‘The Balck Madonna of Our Lady’ to whom we have reference in 1249. The shrine flourished in the Middle Ages with countless people walking here to ask the help and assistance of Our lady at the shrine. St. Thomas More often walked out of London to come and pray. After the desecration of the Reformation, the Catholics kept a hidden profile but continued secretly in the parish. The parish was re-established in 1885 and in 1931 the church was built not only as a parochial church but also as a National Shrine to Our Lady. It is good to be here to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Cardinal Griffin’s crowning of the statue of the Our Lady of Willesden and the rededication of the shrine after works have been carried out to restore the beauty of the shrine. More recent saints who came on pilgrimage were St. Josemaria Escrivá who came because of his love of Our Lady and the inspiration of St. Thomas More as well as Blessed Álvaro de Portillo who accompanied him and was beatified by Pope Francis last week.
We gather here as pilgrims at the shrine to Our Blessed Lady bearing our needs and our prayers. We come to the Mother of God who is a refuge for sinners and hears our prayers. We pray in the words of the Hail Holy Queen, “ To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.”
Following the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Our Blessed Lady that she had been chosen by God to be His Mother and the news that Elizabeth was also expecting a child, Mary rushed to visit her and help her in her need. What a wonderful greeting and embrace as these two women meet and embrace in their joy and thanksgiving to God! This child, John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy because he knows he is in the presence of his Lord.
Just as Mary rushed to visit her cousin Elizabeth, so she rushes to us whenever we turn to her in our need. As the Mother of the Church, she protects us and casts her cloak over her children to keep them safe and protect them from evil and temptation. Mary shrouds her children with her cloak of protection and keeps them safe from strong winds and dangers.
Our Lady stood at the foot of the Cross and keenly felt the suffering of her Son on the Cross, just like any mother. She understands the pain of mothers when they love their children and fear for them. She is the compassionate one who is close to us in our sufferings or when we stand with others in their suffering. We can kneel before her and ask her intercession with confidence since we know that she hears our prayers.
Mary always points us to her Son Jesus Christ. As we gaze upon the statue of the shrine, she points us to Him. In Him we find our hope and joy. Christ, crucified on the Cross, frees us from our sins and offers the promise of the resurrection and new life. Our Blessed Lady is referred to as the Queen of Peace and today we especially pray for peace in our world.
Today the Church also celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. His great devotion to Our Lady Blessed Lady is revealed in his prayer in the Portiuncula outside Assisi, the church dedicated to Our Lady and the Angels, from where he founded the Franciscans. Here St. Francis was at home in the company of his Mother. "In his Second Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano describes the love of St. Francis for the Mother of Jesus as "inexpressible," for "it was she who made the Lord of majesty our brother." Our brother who accompanies us in love on our journey of life. I conclude with a prayer of St. Francis to Our Blessed Lady:
Hail, O Lady,
Mary, holy Mother of God:
you are the Virgin made Church
and the one chosen by the
most holy Father in heaven
whom He consecrated
with His most holy beloved Son
and with the Holy Spirit the Paraclete,
in whom there was and is
the fullness of grace and every good
Hail His Palace!
Hail His Tabernacle!
Hail His Home!
Hail His Robe!
Hail His Servant!
Hail His Mother!
And (hail) all you holy virtues which through the grace and light of the Holy Spirit are poured into the hearts of the faithful so that from their faithless state you may make them faithful to God.
May we be made faithful to God through the intercession and prayer of Our Lady of Willesden.
Bishop John Sherrington
Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
4th October 2014