The walk took us down muddy tracks and alongside great fields of sugar-beet and golden, waving wheat. We were heading for an ancient shrine, and we walked the ancient ways—routes mapped out centuries ago and still easily traced thanks to generations of enthusiasts who have gone before us.
We were just some of the pilgrims heading towards Walsingham this past summer, but we were perhaps a notable group, not so much in size but in enthusiasm, and with a specific message of evangelisation.
The John Paul II Walk will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2015, so this is a good time to look back and take stock—and to look forward. This year we celebrated the canonisation of St. John Paul II, and we rather enjoyed adding the glorious word “SAINT” to our literature promoting the Walk. Our main organisers are a group of young Dominican sisters—the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, based in the New Forest, in the diocese of Portsmouth. They are active in evangelisation, running all sorts of events for young people, working with schools, Confirmation groups, and the like. They initiated the John Paul Walk specifically to take up his challenge and follow his request to take the Gospel out into the highways and byways of the world, to walk with Christ, to accompany people on their journey through life.
The John Paul Walk begins with an open-air Mass at Bury St. Edmunds—the ancient abbey where, long ago, the abbots of England’s great religious houses met to draw up what was to become Magna Carta, with its ringing opening phrase “That the Church in England shall be free”. The Abbey is in ruins now, of course—Henry VIII and all that—but it is a glorious setting for Mass, and our young priest Fr. Henry Whisenant celebrated it beautifully. Then, after an overnight stay sleeping on the floors of the local Catholic school and parish hall, we were ferried to the village of Barton, from where, walking 20 miles a day, we would make Walsingham by Sunday.
Walsingham is an extraordinary place on the eastern edge of England, about six miles from the North Sea. Here, at a time when Islam was threatening the peace of Europe, when the future of Britain seemed uncertain, and when a sense of fear and confusion was gripping people across the country, a woman had a vision. The vision was of Mary, and the message was in a way a simple one: people cannot go to Nazareth now, because the land there is in Islamic hands and wars are raging. So you must build a Nazareth here in England. And so “England’s Nazareth” came into being, a house, named as the Holy House, and said to be on exactly the same lines and with the same dimensions as that house in the Holy Land where our Saviour came to dwell amongst us, an unborn baby, under the beating heart of his mother.
That was in 1061. And if you think that the circumstances I have just described—Islam rising, uncertainty in Britain, etc.—have a curiously modern ring ring…well…yes, they do. Any modern pilgrim to Walsingham will feel this affinity.
But Mary guarded the land of England where the faithful had built a new Nazareth following her request, and down the centuries many thousands of people came to Walsingham on pilgrimage, and the Christian faith flourished. The worries of the 11th century gave way to new realities. And after years of pilgrimage , another time of anguish: Henry VIII, the destruction of all the shrines and monasteries, the break with Rome, and all that flowed from those events. Then at the start of the 20th century another chapter opens: the story of Walsingham’s revival. Today, there is a Catholic shrine and also an Anglican one.
And now the 21st century—new things again. Benedict XVI’s opening of a fresh way for Anglicans to reunite with Rome: the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, through which Anglicans can “cross the Tiber” bringing with them their own Anglican traditions, customs, and heritage. And it is working: in addition to taking part in the John Paul Walk this summer of 2014, I had another reason for coming to Walsingham: a weekend of prayer with the Ladies Ordinariate Group—cheerily known as LOGS–– staying at the Anglican shrine, attending Mass at the Catholic shrine. It was in the Anglican shrine chapel that we made our commitment to establish LOGS as a formal group, asking Mary’s intercession for all our work in the years ahead.
And so I walked to Walsingham with the John Paul pilgrimage. We have a microphone, and along the route we have talks and common prayer. I was invited to speak about St John Paul the Great—a surreal experience, speaking of this hero of today’s Church as we walked the ancient pilgrim paths of England. War, danger, heroism, scholarship, priesthood, a father to an oppressed flock in dangerous times, then election as successor to St Peter, an assassin’s bullet foiled by Marian protection, an atheist regime crushed by prayer and witness, and the launch of great missionary enterprises: World Youth Days, pilgrimage voyages across the globe, and more. And us, walking along the lanes and fields to Walsingham. The saint’s word to the young people of the new millennium: “Christ calls you, the Church needs you, and the Pope believes in you, and expects great things of you!” And when I repeated those words, the line of young pilgrims broke into loud cheers and applause.
Next summer, 2015, the John Paul pilgrims will walk the route with special enthusiasm, carrying a plaque that marks the group’s 10th anniversary, to be be blessed and installed in the national Catholic shrine. And the year after that, 2016, sees World Youth Day in John Paul’s beloved Krakow and—this is strange for me to ponder—some of the young of 2016 will live to see 2061 and the 1000th anniversary of Walsingham, England’s Nazareth.
We are living in troubled times” some one said to me recently, deep in gloom about the rise of hard-line Islamic terror, uncertainty about Britain’s future, the rapid speed of social and cultural change. Walking to Walsingham in the year of John Paul’s canonisation, with young people, put all that in perspective.
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