Each year, in May, the Society of Mary and the Meryemana group of Ipswich organize an ecumenical Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Maria delle Grazie at Nettuno, situated on the Mediterranean Coast south of Rome. The Pilgrimage coincides with the annual celebrations of Our Lady of Grace, which have taken place for centuries during the first week of May.

Pilgrims are the guests of the Prior of the Sanctuary and Basilica where the Image resides, the Confraternity of Maria delle Grazie and the Association of Stella Maris.

While the celebrations at Nettuno have long taken place, the link with Ipswich is more recent and somewhat

intriguing. As well as her official title of Our Lady of Grace, the early medieval Image has also been known as the English Lady. The legend tells of Mary’s arrival on a boat driven into the Bay of Nettuno by a storm during the sixteenth century. But itwas onlyduring restoration at the Vatican Museum that it was found that the Image is, in fact, that of Our Lady of Ipswich which had been taken to Chelsea to be burned when the Shrine was destroyed at the Reformation. Somehow the image was spirited away before the bonfire and ‘the rest is history’. This discovery

has resulted in the now well-established link between the Church of St Mary at the Elms, Ipswich, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace, Nettuno.

A Shrine of Our Lady of Grace has been restored in the Church of St Mary at the Elms, with a replica of the Image. A smaller image has also been erected at the site of the original Shrine; now a shopping precinct. Return Pilgrims from Nettuno to Ipswich arrive annually during the weekend of the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham.

Robert Ladds ND

Robert Beaken challenges us to find ways to witness to the place of Mary and thus encourage a better-balanced understanding of Christianity

There was once a famous Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown declared, ‘Don’t tell me the facts; I’ve already made up my mind.’ You might like to bear that

in mind as this sermon progresses. It may come as a surprise to some of you to discover that I was a very pious young man. I fear I may have gone off somewhat over the years.

Aged seventeen, I struck up a friendship with a wise old nun whom I met in St Paul’s Cathedral, Sister Joyce. I corresponded with her for years, and indeed as a priest I later ministered to her on her death bed, when she was 100.

Sister Joyce helped me enormously in my Christian journey, patiently replying to my many questions about Christianity in a firm Edwardian hand. In one letter, I asked her about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her reply, which I have never forgotten, Sister Joyce wrote, ‘Mary is not easy to get to know.’ Now, that sentence can be interpreted in two possible ways. Sister Joyce meant, ‘Mary is not easy to get to know, but persevere in trying, because it is worth it.’

Some people, however, would say, ‘Mary is not easy to get to know,’ and simply give up, or not bother trying. A great many of our fellow Anglicans and members of the Free Churches would take this latter view. They are good people, but they have created a version, and indeed a vision, of Christianity from which Mary is largely absent.

Under Sister Joyce’s guidance, and doubtless supported by her prayers, I found myself aged eighteen going for the first time to Walsingham, to the Shrine of Our Lady. Some years later I visited Jerusalem and the Holy Land. I found that sites associated with Mary, such as the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, are also to do with her Son. The veneration of Mary, I discovered, leads to a deeper

understanding of what I shall call the ‘Christ-event,’ and to a more rounded, well-balanced and adjusted understanding of Christianity.

It is no coincidence to discover that, for the most part, the sidelining of Mary began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and is associated with north European schisms, which occurred for many reasons, not all of them wholesome.

Our task, it strikes me, is to find ways – gentle ways, as is befitting Mary – to witness to the place of Mary in Christianity. I could wish that our fellow members of the Church of England and all the Free Churchmen who don’t consciously have much of a place for Mary in their theology and prayers, might make the same journey of discovery as me, and see how veneration of Christ’s mother makes such a difference to our relationship with Christ himself.

And who knows, in dealing with one bad bit of Christian history, we might find ourselves liberated to deal with one or two other painful bits. Churches coming to appreciate Mary, and to enjoy thereby a richer understanding of Christianity, may find it easier to get over other ancient differences and to seek the Church unity that is the will of Christ, who prayed that we all might be one.

Sister Joyce was quite right all those years ago. Mary is not easy to get to know; but it is worth persevering. In the end, without detracting from Christ as some fear, you discover that you have developed a great and affectionate fondness for Mary.

Charlie Brown’s policy – ‘Don’t tell me the facts; I’ve already made up my mind’ – is never really very satisfactory.

This sermon was originally preached in Nettuno
on the Society of Mary Pilgrimage
to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace ND