Robert Ladds explains the importance of preaching Our Lady
In his later writings, Saint John Henry Newman gives us some profound thoughts for prayer and meditation, most particularly on Our Blessed Lady. Such deep and inspirational thoughts come from his singular theological gifts, but more importantly from his own experience of a long, loving and personal relationship with Our Lady Mary.
These meditations, composed towards the end of his long life, have roots that can be traced back to sermons preached those many years before in the Oxford University Church. From the beginning to the end, he reminds us of ‘The Honour due to Mary’—that Mary is an example for us all. His meditations show he is true to his motto, ‘Heart Speaks Unto Heart.’ And he shares with us the understanding that the Christian life is a call to holiness. A holiness like Mary’s, a holiness that is to experience a profound desire of the heart to find an intimate communion with the heart of God.
And Newman’s gift to us, set out day by day, is no more apparent than in his Meditations for the Month of May. For the 4 May, Mary is the ‘Virgo Praedicanda’—the Virgin who is to be Proclaimed, the Virgin to be Heralded and, as he says, literally, the Virgin to be Preached.
And it is just these things, proclaiming Our Lady; heralding Our Lady and preaching Our Lady, that is at the very heart, the very purpose, of this Dowry Pilgrimage. Dowry is centred on giving: on the giving of a particular gift which is representative of a greater and wider giving. Dowry is a specific gift that brings with it a promise. A dowry is something fulfilled when it is reciprocated, each giving to other.
This island has a long history of special relationship with Our Blessed Lady. In 1051, we hear England referred to as ‘The Dowry of Mary.’ A nation’s symbolic gift of devotion. In 1061, the Blessed Virgin gave England a reciprocal gift and dowry: nothing less than making Walsingham England’s Nazareth; the Holy House itself, silently yet powerfully, proclaiming the Annunciation of the Son of God. A particular gift, one full of the promise fulfilled in the Incarnation and birth of Jesus.
We see this particular relationship and exchange of dowry gifts affirmed and celebrated in the glory of ‘The Wilton Diptych’ where King Richard II offer his kingdom and declares ‘This is your Dowry, O holy Virgin.’ For almost 500 years, Mary, the Virgo Praedicanda, was proclaimed in England, heralded and preached. As a result, our land received a particular blessing and heritage. The Walsingham Way, a star-spangled pilgrimage. Newman’s meditation asks us to consider why Our Lady is the Virgin to be Preached: ‘What is the highest, the rarest, the choicest prerogative of Mary?’ he asks. The answer he gives: it is that she is the only human being without sin.
At the time when Our Lord was teaching us how to pray the Lord’s prayer, a woman in the crowd called out ‘Blessed is the womb that conceived you!’ To which Jesus responded: ‘More blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.’ In Mary, the words of the woman in the crowd and those of the Lord are both fulfilled. The words of the woman echo the prophetic words of St Elizabeth. The reply of Jesus rises higher: Mary alone is filled with grace in order that she might be the Mother of God. And, the more so, even above her maternity, that she knows perfect sanctification. The Annunciation heralds these three amazing truths.
England’s Nazareth was to be overshadowed, all but lost, for more than 350 years, yet, by God’s grace, England somehow remained Mary’s Dowry. Then the Slipper Chapel is returned to worship and prayer, the Holy Father Leo XIII rescripts the Kings Lynn Holy House, pilgrims come, an image of Our Lady is set up in Walsingham Parish Church and later the Holy House and Anglican Shrine is built and the National Shrine is established.
As a result, blessings and graces were received and we, of our generation, see the results and count these blessings. Our Lady of Walsingham has even travelled variously: to Wembley Stadium with Pope St John Paul II, and to Lourdes for the Jubilee of the Apparitions.
Significant at the Wembley visit was that the image from the Slipper Chapel was carried by the director of the National Shrine together with the Administrator of the Anglican Shrine. Significant at the Lourdes visit was that the procession was led jointly by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Our Lady is seen by Saint John Henry Newman as Virgo Praedicanda—the Virgin to be Preached—for yet another reason beyond her maternity and her perfect sanctification. The purpose of preaching is that what is unknown shall become known. In the gospels, the Holy Apostles are said to ‘preach Christ’ to those who do not know him. Preach Christ to the world, that he might become known.
Preaching is a gradual work: one lesson then another. The word is spread. It is most important to know that preaching is by more than words. We preach by action, example, by the witness of lives of holiness and generosity. It was thus from the beginning and throughout history: the Church has preached Mary. First, as the Virgin of Virgins, then as Mother of God, then of her Glorious Assumption, as advocate of sinners and then that she is the Immaculate Conception. Preaching—witnessing to—the ‘Virgin to be Preached’ makes known, more and more, the Dowry of Mary: the Annunciation of the Lord; the unique moment of our redemption.
Preaching Mary is to the glory of that child upon the throne of her knee, because it makes known the very salvation of the world, the wonder of God’s love for each human soul. And here, in our own time, and at this present moment, we have the privilege of preaching Mary, that this Dowry of the Annunciation might be again more greatly and widely known, seen again in this our generation. Richeldis and those who succeeded her, each in their own way and generation, preached Mary; endowed her, gifted, established, built and resourced, her shrines and churches, hospices and facilities we rejoice in today.
It is now our calling, our opportunity, our duty under God and in honour of our Blessed Lady of Walsingham, to provide for the future. To work and pray, to give and build, to establish and endow her even to England itself. As Mary has endowed us so wonderfully, so we endow her with love in action.
We do well to note that the Ecumenical Covenant, signed by Monsignor John Armitage and Fr Kevin Smith, bears the heading ‘The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.’ The singular word, ‘shrine.’ Our Lady chose Walsingham to have her Holy House, to make known that England might be her dowry, might be the place and well from which might flow the knowledge of the Annunciation. The place of her one shrine.
Whether it be known through the Slipper Chapel, the Shrine Church, the Walsingham Chapels and shrines and images set up in countless churches across the land and the world, there is but one true shrine. And that shrine is Mary herself: Immaculate Virgin, Mother of God, Advocate of sinners, Virgin of the Assumption and Queen of Heaven.
Here, now, this Dowry Pilgrimage is focussed on preaching Our Lady. Each one of us has a part to play in this work of making Mary known: that her Dowry of the Annunciation might be more and more to the glory of God and a blessing to all
This homily was preached by Bishop Robert Ladds at the Dowry Pilgrimage Ecumenical Evensong organised by the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, at Our Lady of the Assumption, Warwick Street.