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Walsingham: Queen of Shrines of Our Lady

by Fr Alan Robinson

For around the last forty years I’ve been going to Walsingham pretty much every year, and often more than once. Our Blessed Lady and I have been through a great deal together, covering shades of every emotion, and she has always brought me home safe and sound. I’ve always been able to turn to her, and know that as Jesus asked of her, ‘she has been a Mother to me, and I her son.’ For Our Blessed Lady was given to be the Mother of each and every one of us, and as at the Crucifixion of her Son, stands faithfully next to us, leading and encouraging us through life and towards the Kingdom of Heaven.

As an Anglican, I always made a pilgrimage on the Spring Bank Holiday, for what was affectionately called by many, the Grand National: an event which was a mixture of pilgrimage, catching up with friends and party! I would also take the parish for a few days at a time, and often drive up to Walsingham just by myself, when I wanted to ask the prayers of Our Blessed Lady for a particular intention. On 29th September 1994, just a day before I left my Church of England parish, I celebrated the Holy Communion service at midday in the Holy House: I then removed the vestments and walked away, knowing that I’d laid my future life in the Catholic Church, and whatever it might hold, at the feet of Our Blessed Lady. On 30th June 1997, two days after I’d been ordained to the sacred priesthood in the Catholic Church by Cardinal Hume, I went to Walsingham and offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Slipper Chapel, giving thanks, asking for the prayers of Our Blessed Lady of Walsingham, to keep me close to her Son and faithful to the priestly life to which I had been called. And every year I make a visit to what is now the Basilica of our Lady of Walsingham, in thanksgiving for the life God has called me to live, offering the Mass in the Slipper Chapel for those who wish to have their intentions placed at the feet of Our Lady, all the other important people in my life, and asking the prayers of Our Lady for my ministry.

And yet, all that having been said, I’m never surprised when many of the visitors to Corpus Christi here in the heart of Covent Garden, whether from this country or abroad, tell me they have never visited Walsingham or particularly thought of asking Our Blessed Lady’s intercession in that place. When so many Catholics, at much greater expense, travel to Lourdes or Fatima or Guadalupe in Mexico, why is Walsingham so ignored or less well known? I think it’s partly due to where Walsingham is, i.e. right in the depths of the Norfolk countryside. That sounds like a real townie talking! It certainly isn’t the easiest place to get to, especially on public transport! Of course, we can make that part of the attraction of the pilgrimage, as we make the journey, thinking of those who have walked that route, suffering for their faith. Or perhaps the Shrines of Our Lady abroad, with huge numbers of pilgrims, hold more of an attraction for us. A visit to Walsingham is very different; in comparison, it is more reflective, a more meditative experience. It’s more like Our Lady of the Gospel, hidden away, quiet, almost forgotten. But a great advantage is that it is only a few hours away, and without an expensive flight. My experience is that so many English Catholics know very little about the wonderful history of what is in effect, the Queen of the Shrines of Our Lady in Europe.

The Walsingham story began in 1061 when a pious English noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the manor, wanted to do some special work in honour of Our Blessed Lady. In answer to her prayer, 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 of the Feast of the Annunciation. This great feast reminds us of the humility of God, in ‘becoming man for our salvation’, so that through our life of prayer we might become more like God. This Holy House was built and a religious community took charge of the foundation. Although we have very little information from this period, we know that with papal approval the Augustinian Canons built a priory around 1150, and Walsingham became one of the greatest shrines in Medieval Christendom. Sadly, in 1538, the Reformation brought about the closure of the priory, the property to be handed over to the King's commissioners, and the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was burnt. Nothing remains today of the original shrine, but its site is marked on the lawn in the Abbey grounds.
Leaping forward, the shrine todays attracts some 150,000 pilgrims during the pilgrimage season; I hope that you are one of them. If not, why don’t you make a firm resolution to make a pilgrimage to this holy place; you’ll be walking in the footsteps of all those countless Catholic pilgrims who have responded to the call of Our Lady for almost 900 years.

What can you do if you visit? You can plan to arrive at the Basilica and attend the midday Pilgrim Mass, with all those others who have made the same journey as you, i.e. a pilgrimage of faith. You’ll receive a great welcome, and this will begin well your Walsingham stay. You can stay for a few days with other pilgrims in Elmham House, which is relatively inexpensive.

Like the original pilgrims, you can take off your shoes at the Slipper Chapel, and walk the last mile into the village barefoot and, if you can gain entry, end your walk at the site of the original Holy House in the Abbey grounds. This walk of the Holy Mile is a wonderful opportunity to pray the Rosary, and to call to mind all those people and situations you’re bringing to Our Lady and her Beloved Son.

Walsingham is a place where you can forget your normal daily routine. You’ll have plenty of time and space for prayer, saying the Rosary, spiritual reading, beautiful country walks, and a chance to meet up with and make friends with other Catholics over a cup of tea or something a little stronger. And another aspect which I particularly love, is that you’ll be able to catch up with some sleep too.

And it doesn’t have to end when you come home. You can join the Walsingham Association, be remembered in Masses offered at the Shrine, receive a quarterly newsletter, and be united with fellow pilgrims all over the country.

Our Blessed Lady of Walsingham has been such a wonderful influence, strength and companion in my life; and she is waiting for all of us to visit her in her Shrine, so that she might listen to our prayers and intentions, and lead us to her Son.

O blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England thy Dowry and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee. By thee it was that Jesus our Saviour and our hope was given unto the world; and he has given thee to us that we might hope still more. Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the Cross, O sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold they may be united to the supreme Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith fruitful in good works we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee, in our heavenly home. Amen.

Fr Alan Robinson is the Rector of the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, Corpus Christi, in Covent Garden.