Walsingham

This summer I’ll be at something called “New Dawn in the Church”. It’s run by a group based in Liverpool, it gathers hundreds of young families together, it has its roots in a charismatic community but draws on the deepest and richest traditions of the Catholic Faith, and is focused on the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to Mary, and renewal through confession and prayer.

Liverpool used to have a very strong Catholic identity. The “Liverpool Irish” crossed the sea from Ireland in vast numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, settling in the city, fostering an entire culture and way of life. Liverpool was a great sea port, from where ships departed for America. It faced wartime bombing with pride and then found a new identity two decades later with the Beatles – its airport is named in honour of John Lennon – and retained its own sense of humour and its accent and style and approach to life.

With the end of the city’s importance for the Atlantic shipping, with flights replacing boats to Ireland, with the Beatles becoming history – did the Catholic life fade, too? Well, certainly whole areas of the city completely changed. And life in the Church was changing at that time too: with the tensions and muddles and confusion of the immediate post-Vatican II years, the specifics and style of 19th and early 20th century style of Catholicism were lost from everyday life. Parishes closed, organisations which once thrived dwindled.

But things go on changing. I was in Liverpool to find out about “New Dawn” and while I was learning about it, the community organising the event was busy – some in the city centre, along with the Archbishop, in a big May Procession honouring Our Lady, with people singing, children scattering flowers, a great statue carried aloft, and all the traditional trimmings. And back at headquarters, following an afternoon learning about “New Dawn” – of which more in a moment – I spent an evening with young people from Austria, Germany, and Zambia around the supper table that routinely welcomes people from all over the world, involved in many different aspects of Church life.

So what is “New Dawn”. It is organised from Liverpool – but it happens in a large field in Norfolk, at Walsingham.

Walsingham is “England’s Nazareth” and before you think that is simply a poetic name, you need to understand that in a sense it’s taken literally.

In 1061, when Islamic forces were threatening the Holy Land, and when England also faced an uncertain future, a lady in a Royal manor in Norfolk had a vision. Lady Richeldis heard Mary telling her to build a replica of the Nazareth holy house – the place where Mary received the message from the Angel Gabriel, the place where the Incarnation happened – at Walsingham.

It was prophetic and important, in a sense crucial. Nazareth was becoming inaccessible because of the fighting in the area. Pilgrims could go to England’s Nazareth. And that is what they did – and still do.

In 1066 the uncertainty over England’s future was settled by the Battle of Hastings – the Saxon king Harold fell to the arrows of the invader William’s army. A new chapter of British history began.

It’s not quite clear who Richeldis was. We seem to have little information about her family, husband, children…. But after the Norman Conquest, a great survey of the whole of England was carried out – the Domesday Book – and so we know about the ownership of the various manors, and about the towns and villages, the mills and churches and more. The manor of Walsingham seems to have been a Royal one, with links to the Saxon royal house. And from the very start of the Walsingham story, there has been this link with the heart of English history, with the royal house, with the great events of the day.

Kings visited Walsingham, along with great numbers of pilgrims from all over Europe. The shrine of the Holy House became richly decorated, and the focus of much devotion.

And then – well, you know the story of what happened in the 16th century when Prince Arthur died, and Henry VII’s Tudor dynastic hopes centred on the second son, who became Henry VIII. The Wars of the Roses were still very much a living memory when young Henry VIII and his Queen Catherine were raising their daughter Mary and hoping – and praying – for a son. And there was no son, and Henry wanted one so badly that he was prepared to abandon Catherine, try to get the marriage declared null, and marry his pregnant mistress Anne Boleyn…

Henry’s break with the Catholic Church over this issue made no difference to his commitment to a passionately traditionalist Catholicism. This was a cruel and deeply troubled man. He persecuted Protestants and firmly announced his commitment to Catholic liturgy and doctrines, attending Mass daily. Then he had monasteries and shrines sacked all across the nation, he imprisoned and tortured the monks of the London Charterhouse, and he had his Chancellor Sir Thomas More and his finest Bishop – John Fisher of Rochester – slaughtered on the scaffold. Finally he he died leaving orders that for Masses to be chanted for his soul and ensuring money for candles to burn to remind people to pray for him…

Walsingham – where he had prayed so hard for a healthy son – was sacked and the shrine destroyed on his orders, and all was derelict for centuries. Its revival in the first part of the 20th history is now all part of the shrine’s powerful history…and now in the 21st a new chapter opens. Mgr John Armitage has been appointed as the new Director of the Catholic shrine, with plans for renewal and expansion, and meanwhile the summer’s events will soon be starting up: Youth 2000 with hundreds of young people camping there, and the big New Dawn in the Church family gathering with some 2,000 people of all ages, and the John Paul II Walking pilgrimage arriving …and more…

Hence my visit to the organisers of the “New Dawn” event, to find out all about it. This has been flourishing for years now, and this summer the children and grandchildren of the first enthusiasts will be flocking to Walsingham, joining in the prayers, the talks, the huge daily Mass, the processions, Rosary, confessions, Benediction…a great “tent city” will be established, cars parked, meals served, microphones and other equipment set up, guests greeted, spaces allocated for sports and talks and singing and workshops and more.

There will be much prayer for the conversion of England. The statement of Pope Leo XIII “When England returns to Walsingham, the Faith will return to England” is much repeated by groups at New Dawn. There will be vigils of prayer. There will be silence before the Blessed Sacrament, and much noisy singing.

At Walsingham this summer, all the pilgrims will be conscious of being part of a great ongoing adventure that is the heart of our country’s faith story – one that demands our response to God’s love. This is a faith for which martyrs died, and which has shaped our culture for centuries – a faith that today is subjected to sneers and attacks, and which we need to cherish, uphold and defend.

When Richeldis had her vision in the last days of Saxon England, the great sea port of Liverpool did not exist, and no one from England had yet set foot on American – let alone Australian – soil. Now, a thousand years later, the Catholic Faith links today’s Catholics at New Dawn and similar events at Walsingham with the era before the Norman Conquest. Something to ponder in the summer of 2015.

Advertisements