It is very good to be with you here today, all of us gathered as pilgrims in this ancient and beautiful Cathedral, and in this Diocese, which since the restoration of the Shrine by Fr Hope Patten (who of course was greatly influenced as a young man by the churches of Brighton) has had such strong links with Walsingham and faithful support from its priests and people.
If I may also say it is good to be back here in Chichester on a personal level, as it was here in Chichester 27 years ago that I was as an innocent young ordinand in training for the priesthood at The Theological College – we always liked to emphasise that it was The Theological College! – and from where, as students, we had some memorable pilgrimages to the Shrine.
And so I have been very much looking forward to today’s Festival and I have greatly enjoyed as well working with Fr John Eldridge and the excellent team of organisers, together with the clergy and staff here at the Cathedral and I’d like to thank them, and all who have helped in any way, to prepare for this wonderful celebration.
We expected a large crowd, and we have not been disappointed. We hoped for good weather, and what a glorious day it is, thanks be to God.
One of the many decisions we had to make as we planned the Festival was how much ecclesiastical kit needed to be brought down from Walsingham; and not only what needed to be brought, but how to bring it. Well, that was obvious. We would need a van. But who was going to drive it? That too was easy to resolve. It would be me! Oh yes, bring it on – give me the keys – let me be King of the Road – the Shrine’s very own White Van Man!
And so we are using in our worship today a variety of bits and pieces which many of you will instantly recognise as being from the Shrine – banners, the Processional cross – the great Maltese Lanterns, even the Guardians – sorry – the Guardians mantles - all of which fitted perfectly in to my white van, which is now looking slightly out of place parked in front of the Bishop’s Palace!
We gather today on the eve of an important commemoration peculiar to the Shrine – 15th October – which is the Feast of the Translation of the Image of Our Lady of Walsingham. On that day in 1931, and without using anything as unseemly as a white van, the image of Our Lady, which we now venerate in the Holy House, was ceremoniously moved (or to put it politely - translated) from the Parish Church, where revival of the pilgrimage had begun, to the newly built Shrine Church, which contained a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth.
It was by all accounts, and even by Walsingham standards, quite a do!
Fr Hope Patten himself described the scene: Picture that perfect day, he wrote, with scarcely a breath of air stirring, the trees clothed in glorious tints, and in their setting of old Tudor Houses and low, red-roofed ancient cottages, a procession with over a thousand people walking, each bearing his or her lighted taper; many women in blue veils, little children in white casting their flowers; dark-habited religious, nuns and monks; over a hundred priests in cassock and cotta; the mitred Abbot of Pershore and Bishop O’Rorke. Behind streamed the many hundreds of other people, all singing the glories of Mary, and in the midst of this throng, high and lifted up upon the shoulders of four clergy in dalmatics, and under a blue and gold canopy...sat the venerated figure of Our Lady, crowned with the silver Oxford Crown and robed in a mantle of cloth of gold.
All very Church of England!
Fr Ernest Underhill who preached one of several sermons on the day, commented in his homily that: Today we are taking Our Lady of Walsingham to a new sanctuary that is a copy of the Holy Home where was nursed the little Babe who was God Almighty. From henceforth Mary has come back into her own to show forth the incarnate life of her divine Son.
The wonderful photographs that are now in the Shrine’s archive illustrate the witness of those who were there on that day, one photograph in particular capturing the moment when the procession making its way from S. Mary’s up the High Street towards the new Shrine Church, passed the Abbey Gate.
Behind that Abbey Gate and beyond the walls were, and still are, the ruins of Walsingham’s great Augustinian Priory, that powerful reminder of the destruction which came Walsingham’s way at the Reformation, when both religious and political forces collided. Walsingham became a place where in the words of the Lament written by , St Philip Howard of Arundel: Owls do shriek where the sweetest hymns lately were sung; Toads and serpents hold their dens where the pilgrims did throng.
How poignant that moment in the Procession on 15th October 1931 must have been when they passed the ruins. The symbol of destruction and of violence against the true faith and against devotion to Mary set against this moment of restoration when Mary came back to her own and “again ‘neath her Image the tapers shine fair’.
The symbolism of ruin and restoration is one which resonates with Scripture and Tradition.
The Prophet Jeremiah foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, a consequence of sin and of the people of Israel turning away from God. Yet God does not abandon them. The ruined city will be restored and a new covenant established, and the Lord will be their God, and they will be his people.
S. Augustine, in his great work The City of God, describes the earthly city as that which because of its godlessness and attachment to the things of the world is heading for disintegration and destruction together with those who dwell in it. In the City of God, though, nothing will be lost that is of God. It will emerge triumphantly at the end of time, and so long as we are pilgrims we sigh for its beauty.
And then in the famous story of S. Francis of Assisi, as he prayed in the church of S. Damiano, he heard a voice from the crucifix saying: “Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is in ruins”. His immediate response was to physically repair to the walls and the roof, but he eventually came to realise that the Lord’s message to him was about restoring the whole Church of God itself.
All of these examples speak of what is fallen and what lies in ruins being restored and repaired. Destruction and ruin do not have the last word. Neither does sin and death. If Christianity is about anything, it is about that which is broken being healed, that which is lost being found, that which is fallen being redeemed, that which is dead being raised to life. It is about a sure hope, hope which is grounded in Jesus Christ, who described himself as the Temple which would be destroyed, but which in three days would be built again. Christian hope finds it origin and its meaning in Christ and in his death and resurrection, his triumph over sin and death which nothing can destroy, (and which restores all that is in ruins).
This joyful message of hope and healing is woven into the experience of every pilgrimage to Walsingham.
It may even begin as soon as the parish priest or the parish pilgrimage organiser puts out the list in church for the next pilgrimage to the Shrine. From the moment pilgrims put their name on the list they look forward to their week or weekend at the Shrine. They tell their families and friends about it: “I’m going to Walsingham” and they begin to save up and talk about it with those they know who are going too. And as the pilgrimage approaches it is committed to prayer, and this prayer prepares the ground for what lies ahead, and is an important aspect of looking forward, and of getting ready, to set off on the Walsingham Way.
Then the day itself comes and the pilgrim leaves their home and their parish and their everyday lives. That is itself a moment of faith and of hope, as they set out on a journey to a different place, to a place which is sacred and set-apart, taking with them their intentions, and whatever is on their hearts and minds, taking them to England’s Nazareth, to a place which lifts our eyes beyond what can be our limited and narrow horizons, to Walsingham, a beautiful part of the world, but more importantly a place where pilgrims find the beauty of holiness, and through its offering of worship and prayer shows us the horizon of heaven and gives us a glimpse of the realities we so often fail to see.
And then to the Shrine itself, as the pilgrimage experience unfolds, as the pilgrim walks the Stations of the Cross, as they offer prayers and intercessions in the Holy House, as they sing the praises of Mary in procession, as they open themselves to receive the Lord’s healing and gift of reconciliation, and above all as they join with their fellow pilgrims in the celebration of the Eucharist, the pilgrim encounters not only a wonderful expression of what life in the Church is all about, itself a sign of hope, but they encounter Christ. They encounter him who is the source of all hope and of all goodness, the child of Mary who came to restore all that was lost: the repairer who is near to us, who restores all that is in ruins through the power of his Cross, the horizon on which our eyes must always be fixed.
Perhaps this is why, when at the end of the pilgrimage, when the time comes for the pilgrim to leave, and it comes to the Last Visit to the Holy House, there are often tears. There is for many a sense of sadness, and that they want to stay for ever. “Here would we ever dwell” as the Last Visit hymn goes. Through the experience of pilgrimage, their eyes have been lifted and set on that horizon which is beyond this world and beyond whatever burdens or pain or responsibilities they face in their daily lives. Many experience on pilgrimage something of a foretaste of that which lies ahead, to what we look forward to in hope, when all tears will be wiped away, and there will be no more sadness or pain, when all will be restored and made new in Christ Jesus.
Our Lady of Walsingham points us to that reality and to that hope. In the words of a hymn we often sing at the Shrine, she is that
Holy light on earth’s horizon
Star of hope to fallen men,
Light amid a world of shadows
Dawn of God’s redemptive plan.
By her prayers and example, Mary comes to the aid of every pilgrim. She does not teach us how to run away from life’s difficulties and pain. She does, though teach us how to have hope in the midst of them, to have faith in God who restores all things in Christ, to trust in God’s loving purposes, and to persevere in the journey and on our pilgrimage towards our true homeland, towards the joy and light and glory of heaven.
There is, it has to be said, a lot going on around us at the moment which might tempt us to lose hope.
What a gift, then, God has given us in Mary and in her Shrine at Walsingham. When uncertainty and instability affect almost every level of society and sometimes our own lives, we can look to Mary and see in her such powerful trust and wisdom, a loving Mother whose gaze was constantly fixed on God, on Him in whom there is no shadow of change. And in the Shrine we have a hallowed place of healing and restoration, a powerhouse of prayer and devotion which in so many ways helps us to keep our eyes firmly set on the horizon of God’s kingdom, described by S. Augustine as that blessed city, that place in which in God’s eternity lies its strength, in His truth its light, in his goodness its joy.
Today we give thanks for Walsingham, for the blessings and graces we have received and I’m sure will continue to receive in England’s Nazareth.
The last word must, I think, go to Alfred Hope Patten, Priest and Restorer of the Shrine.
In the preface of the first ever Pilgrim Manual he wrote:
In these days of materialism, unbelief and indifference to Christianity, the value of such a Shrine cannot be overestimated. Walsingham boldly witnesses to the truth of the Incarnation, to the indispensible part Our Lord’s Mother plays in God’s plan for our salvation, to the reality of the life beyond the grave.
May countless more people become pilgrims to England’s Nazareth, and catch there the joy the Holy Family knew in the Holy House.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Walsingham, intercede for us. Amen.