One of our members alerted me to this marvelous interview with the new rector of the England’s national Marian shrine at Walsingham at The Catholic Herald. I am excited about this because I’m aware of efforts to made better known Canada’s national Marian shrine at Cap-de-la-Madeleine in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, where I will be going for a pilgrimage Aug. 22, on the Feast of the Queenship of Mary.
But Mgr Armitage’s mission is not just about bricks and mortar: he wants the message of Walsingham to be better understood. “There’s a significance to the spiritual health of this country that is linked to this place,” he says. After all, he adds, this was where the Mother of God chose to appear, to “share the joy that her Son became her Saviour”.
Pre-Reformation England was known for its devotion to Our Lady. That’s why it had the ancient title of the Dowry of Mary – that is, a country set aside for Mary. Mgr Armitage suggests that this tradition, while not quite forgotten, is not “to the forefront” of English Catholicism today. Much focus is on the martyrs, but they grew out of this great tradition, he says. “You read the [medieval] writings and you see exactly where they came from.” Mgr Armitage speaks reverently about this older English spirituality. Much was destroyed, he says, but the writings survived. He loves St Aelred of Rievaulx, St Bede, St Anselm, the Cloud of Unknowing. He talks about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century Arthurian romance. Sir Gawain “took his strength when in trouble from the five joys Our Lady had in her Son”. The term the “joys of Our Lady” is a very English way of understanding the Mother of God, he says. Hence the message of Walsingham: to share the joy. “That’s the beauty of nationalities and cultures,” he says. “Every country has something to say – its own spin on the ball.” He wants England to recognise this heritage, “to draw from it”.
Walsingham utterly embodies this tradition, he says. Once it was destroyed in 1538, it was gone – it has no recusant history. When a Catholic convert, Charlotte Boyd, bought the Slipper Chapel in 1896, no local devotion to Our Lady existed.
Things have certainly changed in the 122 years since. As well as receiving huge numbers of pilgrims, it hosts major events such as Youth 2000. It’s a magnet for religious orders: in June the Greyfriars, or Conventual Franciscans, returned to the shrine for the first time since the Reformation. Just recently, 12 large Catholic families have moved into the area. EWTN, the US Catholic television network, has set up a British headquarters there.