The enchanting beauty of the Norfolk countryside in the summer, the wheatfields golden and the sugar-beet glistening after rain. Norfolk is wide and breezy and glorious, and we’ve been walking along the ancient pilgrim route to Walsingham.
“We” is a large group of mostly young people, led by the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, who have been running this John Paul II Walk for the New Evangelisation for the past eight summers. I joined it last year, and loved it, and along with some other oldies I have been treated with the greatest kindness and courtesy, and have hugely enjoyed the whole pilgrimage.
Walsingham’s story goes back to Saxon times. Shortly before the Norman conquest, the lady of the manor had a vision in which she was told to build a little house, an exact replica of the holy house at Nazareth. Now the interesting question is: who was this lady of the manor? History has given her the name “Richeldis” but that is not a normal Christian name. One school of thought argues that it is a name that has emerged and simply means “A rich and favoured lady”. The Manor at Walsingham seems to have been owned by the Royal family – that is, the family of Harold, our last Saxon king, defeated in battle by William of Normandy in 1066. Was Richeldis his mother, or some other relation? It seems possible.
In any event, the Holy House at Walsingham – “England’s Nazareth” became a great place of pilgrimage throughout the ensuing centuries, especially in the long years when it was not possible to travel to the Holy Land because it was in Moslem hands. Thousands and thousands of people flocked to this shrine in Norfolk, thronging the lanes and filling the inns and taverns, making the whole area prosperous. The constellation in the sky that we call the “Milky way” became known as the “Walsingham Way” because it resembled the crowds along the busy lanes.
Destroyed under Henry VIII, the shrine was re-established in the 20th century, first by an energetic Anglican clergyman, and then by the Catholics. The Catholic shrine is some way out of the village itself – in fact, a mil outside, which gives us modern pilgrims the opportunity to walk the “Holy Mile” into the village itself, just as our spiritual ancestors did.
Our John Paul II Walk began at Bury St Edmunds, a good long way from Walsingham, with Mass in the ancient abbey ruins there. How thrilling it is to have the old fragments of a great abbey echo again to the timeless chants of the Mass. The young voices rang out in the evening air: “Kyrie eleison…” The young priest celebrating the Mass had been ordained just a month earlier. Young pilgrims read the Scriptures and the Bidding Prayers. All knelt on the soft green grass for the Consecration. It was all so beautiful – and then followed a hearty supper, Night Prayer in the local Catholic church, and a night’s sleep in the Catholic school hall. That meant sleeping on the floor, with sleeping-bags and mats. Uncomfortable, and there would be more such nights to follow, as we made our way to Walsingham.
The Chairman of the Town Council had greeted us at Mass, wearing his chain of office and thrilled to be welcoming pilgrims to Bury St Edmunds, where so many pilgrims visited in centuries past. The young John Paul Walkers are opening a new chapter of history.
The main walking part of our pilgrimage began the next day at the village of Barton. Here, after an early Mass, the local Catholic parish hosted a splendid breakfast for us (waffles, berries, yoghurt, beautiful rolls with honey…) and then we set off with our banner. The next night saw us at Swaffham, and from then it was walking and singing, praying and enjoying each other’s company, resting and eating, with daily Mass and the Office of the day, until we reached Walsingham on the Sunday.
The Catholic shrine at Walsingham includes not only an ancient Medieval chapel, but also a big new barn church, and good numbers of pilgrims come throughout the summer. We were given seats at the front, and a warm welcome. Some of us slipped off our boots as we arrived, and it was bliss to wriggle tired sore feet. I couldn’t get my boots back on, and walked up to receive Holy Communion barefoot, which probably looked a bit dramatic.
And then, after a final picnic lunch, the walk down the Holy Mile, praying the Rosary as we had prayed it along the lanes and roads of our 50-mile walk over the previous days. Benediction in the small Catholic church in the centre of Walsingham Village. Then drinks at the village pub, and much talk, and long farewells, and the promise of a reunion in London later this year.
During the Walk, we prayed for the New Evangelisation of our country, for more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, for a great revival of the Christian faith. These young people know that there are great challenges ahead. Britain is a tragic country, with such a rich past and such a poor outlook. God is calling the Christians of Britain to a fresh zeal for evangelisation. As we walked to Walsingham, we trod where generation after generation of the faithful have walked before. A great Christian heritage has been bequeathed to us, filled with stories of saints and heroes, of great things done and glory given to God. In this 21st century, this heritage of faith seems fragile, and is much under attack. May Our Lady of Walsingham intercede for us, and may we not lack courage for the years ahead.