An uncertain time in England, and no one knows what the next government will be like – there are lots of rumours. Islam on the rise in the Middle East. A general air of uncertainty hanging over the future.
Sounds familiar? England in the 11th century, shortly before the Norman Conquest. The year is 1061 and the lady of the manor of Walsingham, in Norfolk, about six miles from the coast, has a vision. Mary appears to her and tells her to build a house, a very specific house, an exact replica of the little house at Nazareth where the Incarnation took place, where the angel appeared and hailed Mary as “full of grace” and Mary’s response allowed the Saviour to come and dwell among us.
For many years, pilgrims from across Europe had gone to the Holy Land and visited Nazareth and prayed there. Now, this was becoming impossible as the rise of Islam meant that it was no longer safe to travel there. Mary was inviting the lady of the manor at Walsingham to provide a solution. This would be “England’s Nazareth”, and people would flock there on pilgrimage.
And over the next centuries, they did so in vast numbers.
Walsingham was one of the great centres of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages – and the crowds that made their way there were so huge along the Norfolk lanes that they seemed as many as the stars in the Milky Way, and that constellation became known in England as the “Walsingham Way”.
A great shrine was established, with the replica Holy House as its core. A great Priory was built, and, further along the lane, a great Franciscan monastery. And Walsingham, from the start, had royal connections – the lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverche, seems to have been related to the Saxon royal family, and many English kings would come to the shrine. The last to do so was the Tudor monarch Henry VIII…and the rest of the story will be familiar. Angry because he had no son, he divorced his wife Queen Catherine, and tried to get an annulment of his marriage. He failed – the marriage was certainly valid – and he went through a form of marriage with his pregnant mistress, Anne Boleyn. Angry at the Church for refusing the annulment, he turned on the great shrines and religious houses: monks were forced out, statues and sacred images burned, buildings left to the mercy of the elements, land given to Henry’s cronies.
For three centuries, Walsingham was no longer a place of pilgrimage, and its past became something of a folk memory. But then, in the 20th century, it was revived – by a Church of England clergyman, the Rev Hope Patten, in the years following the First World War, and by Catholics who created a shrine at the old Slipper Chapel about a mile away from the village itself. The Slipper Chapel – the name comes from “slyp” meaning a lane or alleyway – was a wayside chapel on the route to the main shrine, and had escaped destruction and been used as a cowshed and as a barn for storing grain by successive farmers.
The revived shrines – Anglican and Catholic – now attract great numbers of pilgrims every year, and this August I was among them. We caught the tail end of Hurricane Bertha and part of the way through the lanes and along by the fields was done in torrential rain. But there was good humour throughout, and each night we slept in a church hall or a school, on the floor, after a good supper and an evening of signing and games and Night Prayer together.
This was the 9th John Paul II Walking Pilgrimage – but the first SAINT John Paul Walking Pilgrimage, and I was invited to give a talk about our great Papal saint as we walked along. Organisers of this annual walking pilgrimage are the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, based in Hampshire, and they are a wonderful team. We prayed the Rosary, sang, and of course had daily Mass – starting with an evening Mass in the ruined abbey at Bury St Edmunds, the place where Magna Carta was drawn up.
There is plenty to pray about as we walk along: the tragedy of the events in Iraq, the plight of refugees…and, in our own country, the attack on marriage and the restrictions on our freedom to affirm Christian beliefs in public…and of course the needs of our families and friends, and of the sick, and prisoners, and the lonely and neglected…
The pilgrimage – just one of many that go to the shrine every year – was named in honour of the great John Paul as part of a response to his call for a New Evangelisation. It was good to see several seminarians among us – young men studying for the priesthood. In the evenings, soaking tired feet (we walked approximately 20 miles a day), there was talk and laughter and a mood of great good cheer. How many other pilgrims, down the centuries, have walked the lanes as we did? And there will be many more in the future.
The St John Paul pilgrims arrived for Sunday Mass at the shrine soaked but cheerful. We joined a good-sized congregation in the modern Church of Our Lady of Reconciliation that now stands as part of the shrine, near the Slipper Chapel. After Mass, in a brief respite from the rain, we ate our picnic lunch…and then set off down the Holy Mile for Benediction in the Church of the Annunciation in the village.
Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, is about six miles from the sea. Norfolk is a beautiful county, and boasts some of the most magnificent Medieval churches in England. It is nearly a thousand years since Richeldis de Faverche had her vision . The young people on the John Paul II Walking pilgrimage will be around when the anniversary is marked in 2061. An awesome thought.