The Rt Revd Robert Ladds, of the Society of Mary, reflects on the role of pilgrimage in the Society’s work to achieve its aims
The Society of Mary is one of a number of devotional societies formed within the Church of England as a result of the return to Catholic teaching and practice inspired by the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century. It is the most recent of them to be established in its current form but springs from a union of two societies, the Confraternity of Our Lady, founded in Calcutta in 1880, and the League of Our Lady, which was mainly based in London, dating from 1904.
It has always had a number of friends and associates from the Roman Catholic Church and has officially been an ecumenical society since 1972, for all those who wish to promote the honour due to Mary and in particular ‘to spread devotion to her in reparation for past neglect and misunderstanding, and in the cause of Christian Unity’
As such, it has always promoted pilgrimages to Our Lady’s shrines. As Archbishop Rowan Williams recently said, ‘We live generally in a context where pilgrimage has been and is being rediscovered as a fundamental category of Christian thinking and Christian action. Our search for unity is not only in itself a pilgrimage, a journey with Christ into Christ’s relation with his Abba, it can also be expressed, quite simply, in the practice of pilgrimage, where the sheer fact of walking together becomes a transforming reality.’
This has certainly been true at Lourdes. Throughout the years, of course, a number of individual Anglicans have gone there on pilgrimage, in small groups or attached to well-established Roman Catholic pilgrimages from England. A number of those have travelled there as volunteers to help with the medical, nursing and brancardier services.
The first official Anglican Pilgrimage took place in 1963, organized by Fr Percy Coleman, then Secretary of the Church Union and subsequently Chaplain General of S.O.M. It was led by Bishop Wilfrid Westall, the Bishop of Crediton, and organized by Inter Church Travel. They were met at the airport by the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes and welcomed with a champagne reception. Facilities were provided for their daily masses and the group was officially welcomed at the
International Mass, where the clergy sat in choir. This began a series of annual pilgrimages arranged through the Church Union and taken on by the Society of Mary. Alongside these, smaller parish groups have regularly made the journey, so that thousands have experienced that union in prayer and action which brings us together as children of Mary to receive the strength which she can offer.
‘That they may be one’
There was a particularly significant S.O.M. pilgrimage in 1982, led by Bishop Graham Leonard as Superior General with two other diocesan bishops, with 50 priests and about 200 laity. At the beginning of the International Mass, celebrated by Mgr Henri Donze, he said, ‘In the course of this celebration, we shall renew in our hearts the desire for one complete communion with these brethren, whom, in this hope, we greet: we shall address with them, through the intercession of Our Lady, a fervent supplication to Our Lord so that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Christians will hasten along the road to unity and make the prayer of Jesus our own: ‘That they may be one so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” At a reception at the Palais des Congres in Lourdes that evening, Mgr Donze, Mgr Jean-Paul Vincent (the Bishop of Bayonne) and the Rectors of the Shrines at Lourdes and Betharram agreed to become Vice Presidents of S.O.M. As a memento of this pilgrimage, the Society gave the Shrine an image of Our Lady of Walsingham which is now housed in St Joseph’s Chapel.
Plans for 2008
Our pilgrimage in 2008 for the Jubilee Year renews this commitment and fulfils our desire to celebrate this great anniversary together. We are privileged that our pilgrimage has been chosen to represent one of the twelve ‘Missions’ of the year, that of prayer and work for the Unity of Christians. We have deliberately chosen the dates, 22-26 September, so
that they include the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham on September 24. This is the only feast of Our Lady proper to England but it is also one which so clearly demonstrates that theme. Walsingham, a shrine of Our Lady established in 1061 and a principal place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, sadly destroyed at the Reformation, is perhaps unique in the world because it houses two parallel shrines, Anglican and Roman Catholic.
A number of the Guardians of the Anglican Shrine will be accompanying our pilgrimage, along with the Director of the National (Roman Catholic) Shrine. We shall take with us an image of Our Lady of Walsingham which will be carried in the torchlight procession on the evening of the 23rd, and brought in at the International Mass the following morning. At the moment, seven bishops are coming with us on this pilgrimage.
There will be an Ecumenical Dialogue on ‘Mary, the Source of Unity’, with speakers representing both Roman Catholic and Anglican perspectives, and a Reception that evening. This will enable our bishops, priests and laity to meet with the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, the Bishop of Bayonne and the Rectors of the Shrines at Lourdes and Betharram, and to express our thanks for the amazing hospitality and welcome we have received over the years.
The most powerful experience, as ever in Lourdes, is that of worshipping and doing things together with countless thousands of others who share the same hope and the same faith. This reminds us, most vividly, of the pain and suffering of the divisions which exist within the Church but also renews our confidence that one day the prayer of Christ ‘that all may be one’ might become a reality. We look forward to our pilgrimage and pray that Our Lady of Lourdes may indeed draw all her children together into unity.