A sunny meadow on a warm August evening, the wide Norfolk sky overhead, a gentle breeze from the sea, the sound of a great choir of voices singing in the vast tent nearby. Children tumbling about as they play with a football, groups of adults chatting.
A tinkling bell rings out across the evening air. Voices cease, and the children, without being given an instruction to do so, drop to their knees. The adults follow suit as a small procession makes its way across the meadow: a child ringing a bell, an altar server with a tall cross, and a priest, his head lowered in prayer, bearing the Blessed Sacrament.
This is a great Catholic gathering, some 2,000-3,000 strong, and Father is taking the Blessed Sacrament to someone in the next field. As he walks across the grass, the scene has hints of that famous painting of a couple praying the Angelus out in the fields.
This is Walsingham, England, 2016, and in 40 years’ time—when the children tumbling around on the meadow are in middle-age—the shrine here will mark its 1,000th anniversary, a thousand years of history.
When the lady of the manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary here in 1061, it was a time of great uncertainty: the rise of militant Islam in the Middle East, political confusion at home. Five years after the vision, England’s future would be determined by the great battle fought at Hastings, where the Saxon King Harold fell to the army of William of Normandy. By then, devotion to Mary at Walsingham was already established. Richeldis seems to have had some family link to Harold—she was a relation of his wife—and the manor of this village was held by the Saxon royal family. Walsingham was thus to prove a link between the old England and the new.
And so it has continued. I was at Walsingham to take part in the New Dawn festival, organized by the Prince of Peace Community, central to the Charismatic Renewal Movement in Britain. I have never been particularly involved with Charismatic Renewal—and much of its music is too loud and not to my taste—but there is no mistaking the sense of devotion and prayer that they bring each year to Walsingham.
There are talks and workshops—I was leading one on the life and message of St. John Paul, and another on devotion to Our Lady—there is a youth camp with its own activities, there is a massive 2,000-strong Rosary procession down the Holy Mile into the village for Mass on the velvety lawns of the ancient ruined priory. And above all there is prayer—before the Blessed Sacrament, with great reverence and devotion at Mass, and in groups, and in the old medieval Slipper Chapel which is at the core of this ancient shrine.
While the general mood is joyful, and there is something of a holiday atmosphere as so many young families gather and games of football develop and so on—this year’s gathering had an underlying note of seriousness. Many families spoke of propaganda given to their children at school amounting to what Pope Francis has rightly called a “gender ideology.” Others spoke of the hurt and awkwardness at work when being urged to adopt official acceptance of a lesbian or homosexual lifestyle, and unpleasantness when they quietly refused to do so. Discussions ranged over options about home education, support for courageous Catholic head teachers and clergy, ways of coping with family situations. Above all, there was concern about the protection of true religious freedom.
Evening sessions of “Prayer and Praise” tended to include loud, pounding beat-songs, and I am not convinced that this form of music will be the one that lasts in the charismatic movement: among the younger people more meditative music prevailed during the evenings of Eucharistic adoration. At Mass in the priory there was a sense of timelessness—any medieval pilgrim would have felt at home as we walked through the great arch at the end of our long procession and genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament. Then our feet—it is traditional to walk barefoot down the Holy Mile—relished the damp coolness of the lawn beneath the shady trees. The liturgy was dignified, the scene beautiful.
Most families at New Dawn bring tents and camp in a meadow adjacent to the shrine at Walsingham; others like me stay at the Pilgrim Bureau in the village or various bed-and-breakfast places. One of the best memories I will carry away from the summer of 2016 will be of early morning walks from the village to the shrine, under the wide Norfolk skies, with the scarlet poppies on the edge of the fields of wheat, and birds singing.
New Dawn isn’t the only summer pilgrimage to Walsingham, or even the largest. Hundreds and hundreds of people come, some on day trips, some camping, some walking along old pilgrim routes and covering 20 miles a day on foot. The Catholic Grandparents Association organizes a weekend of events and games. Youth 2000 gathers for a week-long, World Youth Day-style festival of prayer and talks and inspiration. The National Association of Catholic Families arrives with tents and caravans. And there are the vast pilgrimages of ethnic groups, Tamils, Poles, Africans…
The story of Walsingham was broken off in the 16th century when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and destroyed the shrines, abbeys, and monasteries of England. It was revived again in the 20th century, and flourishes now in the 21st. There are both Catholic and Anglican shrines at Walsingham. When the 1,000th anniversary arrives in 2061, I won’t be around. But here’s a prediction: the faith will be alive at Walsingham.