Bishop Lindsay Urwin looks forward as Walsingham celebrates 950 years of vision

According to tradition it was in 1061 that Richeldis received a persistent calling – possibly in dreams, as did so many whose encounters with the Lord are

recounted in Scripture, in which she was asked by the Virgin to build a replica of the house where she herself had heard the first Ave; the place of the charismatic overshadowing when the Word became flesh. It was to become ‘England’s Nazareth’. The fifteenth- century Pynson Ballad tells the story and in lines given to the Blessed Mother herself we discover the new purpose given to this hitherto unremarkable Norfolk village:

Walsingham – in you is built new Nazareth,
Where shall be held in constant memory
The great joy of my salutation,
First of my joys – their foundation and origin,
Root of humankind’s gracious redemption.

The indispensable gift

It is still our purpose to keep alive the memory of that greeting from which, by Mary’s obedience, flowed the indispensable gift. We call it the Incarnation. For her it was a boy alive and kicking. This is the miracle which is, as it were, required believing for those who would call themselves Christian. The claim of the Church to be a divine society, literally in Paul’s teaching, the Body of Christ is dependent for meaning on the Incarnation. The power of the sacraments we celebrate is entirely at the mercy of this truth. They are otherwise little more than an aesthetic sensation, well or badly done, but of no ultimate satisfaction. The possibility of risen life is its fruit.

The memory was almost lost, a ‘constant’ flood of pilgrims reduced to a ‘thin stream who walked the old way’. It is a chilling reminder to us that the catholic faith and way of living, while always remaining true, can be lost to generations. It lays upon us in our own day a precious and urgent burden of proclamation and love and faithfulness.

The anniversary year

This year, with our brothers and sisters in Communion with the See of Peter who love Walsingham, and indeed with our Orthodox and Methodist friends, we celebrate 950 years. It is true that some historians suggest that the likely foundation was in the following century. Whether or not 1061 is the correct date is of no great import, for our chief purpose is not so much to remember when Edward Confessor ruled over our land, but the days of Herod, King of Judaea, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is where Mary took Richeldis, and she takes us too.

It was the genius of Hope Patten to restore the Holy House. A statue was not enough. The House came first and was the goal of the medieval pilgrim in the first instance. Spiritually, it placed him or her in Nazareth, close to the living Virgin and her Son. It earthed them in the place of first joy, a joy not simply because of the birth, but because of the identity of the child, God’s renewing participation in our humanity, and in the discovery of his purpose in coming, ‘mankind’s gracious redemption’.

Special events

Throughout this year we shall celebrate afresh the gift that is Walsingham, not just here in the village throughout the pilgrimage season and at the National Pilgrimage (30 May) but in various cathedrals as we take the image from the Holy House to St Albans (5 March), Exeter (7 May) and

York Minster (17 September). On the previous evenings there will be vigil services in parish churches nearby. Details of all this can be found on the Shrine website , and on the Roman Catholic Shrine website details of their events, some of which are shared. In particular our own Guardians will join in the celebrations in Westminster Cathedral on 26 March at a Mass at 2pm.

As well as inviting you to any of the great gatherings, I want to encourage every parish that has reason to give thanks for this place to mark well the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham this year, 24 September. What a marvellous thought that in perhaps over 1,000 Christian communities in these islands, the name of Walsingham and all it means will be honoured and celebrated; perhaps a low mass with a few in one, a crowded High Mass in another, a youth mass somewhere else, but all united in love of Our Lady.

Looking ahead

Later in the anniversary year, during October I shall be travelling to Australia for a preaching and teaching tour, with visits to several dioceses from Adelaide in the south to Queensland in the north-east. It will be a joy to take the message and love of Our Lady of Walsingham to the land where I first encountered her. The previous month we shall welcome the leaders of the European National Shrines of Our Lady as they come here for their annual conference this year. Lourdes, Fatima, Zaragoza, Knock, Czestochowa and many more will all be represented. Mary under her many titles at one of her most ancient Shrines!

It should be a blessed year. May Our Lady of Walsingham pray for us all!