The homily at Mass today on the Solemnity of Our Lady of Walsingham:
On this day in 1061, the Virgin Mary appeared to a widow, Richeldis de Faverches, in a tiny village in Norfolk and showed Richeldis a vision of the Holy House of Nazereth, instructing her to build a replica. If Mary commands- a faithful Catholic obeys! So Richeldis set to work. But nothing went right for her. Note that fact. Doing God’s will was tough and there was much resistance. We too easily romanticise faith, make church a comfortable place in our imagination where Miss Marple eats shortbread with terribly “nice” vicars. But true faith brings struggle and rejection first- the taking up the cross- the beauty, growth and renewal. For the devil and this world always conspire against God and God always wins. So Richeldis suffered in her task. And it was on a troubled night, when she could not sleep, that Richeldis heard singing and went to her garden. There- two hundred yards away from her construction site – the house had been completed. Walsingham was born by act of grace and miracle.
After Richeldis’ death, her son, Geoffrey handed ownership to a religious order. Walsingham become the foremost shrine in Europe. “England’s Nazareth.” Which flourished for the next 500 years. It is the twelfth century. The roads were more crowded than those leading to Canterbury. By the 1500s Henry VIII was a regular visitor proudly walking barefoot twice the usual distance of penitents. But those footsteps bore little fruit for the devil was at work in Henry. Think about that too. His going faithfully to mass and professing to be Christian mattered little in the end. Being Catholic is no big deal unless you truly give Christ your heart and soul.
At the reformation the Holy House was razed to the ground. The priory fell into ruin its sacred objects and relics defiled by puritan outrage. The canon of Walsingham, Nicholas Myleham, was hung, drawn and quartered – his separated parts sent to Yarmouth, Lynn, Norwich and Walsingham itself that he might not be granted a proper burial. Now all of this horror is, thank God, in the distant past. We Catholics must move on from it. But it cannot be forgotten because what happened is important to the story of Catholic faith in England, and always will be. Much was lost for Catholicism as the reformation turned into a full blown Civil war. And a shadow fell over the Catholic faith of this land which did not even begin to lift until the 19th Century. When boosted by immigration from Ireland, the Second Spring was born.
It was at the end of that 19th Century that, Charlotte Boyd, an Anglican, discovered a disused barn which had been the Chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria, aka the “Slipper Chapel,” She purchased it and began restoring and then, moved by the Spirit, was later received into the Catholic Church. She transferred ownership to monks at Downside. The chapel becoming one of only a handful to return to Catholic ownership. In 1934 Walsingham became again the National Shrine of England. The end. Well not quite… because we haven’t asked why?
Why did Mary appear in Walsingham? Why the ancient prophesy saying OLW would be at the heart of ending protestant divide? Why were Anglicans, the very people who tore down the shrine, at the heart of putting it back again?
Because as Miss Boyd was converting her barn for Jesus, it was the Anglo-Catholics- that is a group of Anglicans, inspired by Newman, who were exploring their Catholic heritage and history- who were busy too. In the 1920s an eccentric vicar, Alfred Hope Patten, erected a shrine-church with a new replica of the Holy House. It’s still there. Newman had, by then, converted to Rome – leading where his movement would one day be called to follow. And he is so important in the story of Walsingham because without Newman there would be no Anglo-Catholicism and no restoration of the ancient English Marian Shrine.
It is as if God always had an plan to call England back to her original faith through Our Lady of Walsingham. So first he sent Mary in 1061 to ensure a place was built that beat with a truly Catholic heart. Second he inspired prophesy concerning OLW’s role in England’s return to the Catholic faith. Third he waited through the dark days for Catholics until the Second Spring. Fourth; once unity was achievable he softened protestant hearts- inspiring Newman and his cohort to create Anglo-Catholicism. Fifth he called Newman to become Catholic- to lead where his movement might follow. Sixth- as Anglicanism finally abandoned any credible Catholic claim forever, via a series of innovations in Synod, he called the Ordinariate- of Our Lady of Walsingham- into being. Space created within the Catholic church where Anglican- that is English- spirituality can find a new home. Where true ecumenism could flourish.
It is when one sees OLW in the midst of every one of these steps –that one senses the long term significance of the Ordinariate as a new model of ecumenism. And we needed a new model of ecumenism because the old ARCIC model was/is well intentioned but flawed. Friendships were made, fantastic, via things like Churches Together, but no amount of sandwich suppers has actually brought people back together at one altar under one faith. Scratch the surface and there was no work of actual unity- only gestures and much talk.
So a different step was needed. One that moves beyond friendship into visible unity via a shared proclamation of truth. That that new step is the Ordinariate of OLW, which manifested here in this place but a few years ago. Here an expression of renewed unity is today found; where cradle Catholics and former Anglicans worship together. Where Catholicism is taught via a restoration of an English Spirituality which informs our beautification and restoration project. And our patroness is none other than Our Lady of Walsingham who, through the Ordinariate, I believe, is now working on step 7…the conversion of England to the Catholic faith. It may take two or three generations, the Ordinariate is but a few years old and we have been charged only with planting the seed. But given that our story began in 1061- that should not concern us. Please continue to support the Ordinariate and to shower devotion on OLW.