National Assembly Mass 2011

Bishop Martyn Jarrett preaches on the Feast of the Translation of the image of Our Lady of Walsingham

‘But how can this come about since I am a virgin?’ (Luke 1.34)

This very day, exactly eighty years ago, a great procession of some three thousand people wound

its way from the parish church at Walsingham, along the High Street, to the newly erected Holy House. It is recorded that Bishop O’Rorke wore his tallest mitre, larger, some even say, than those now worn by Bishop Robert Ladds!

The image of Our Lady of Walsingham was being translated from the home she had enjoyed against a pillar in the Lady Chapel of the parish church to her new abode, the Holy House that so many of us know and love today.

Even for Fr Hope Patten such a major step forward might not have been anticipated when first he came to Walsingham, convinced, as he was, that God was calling him to restore Our Lady’s shrine. But, for the then Bishop of Norwich, Bishop Pollock, the event was not only a surprise; it was an unwelcome one. Bishop Pollock had told Fr Hope Patten that the shrine must be removed from the parish church and was delighted when Fr Hope Patten had agreed.

Cooperation with grace

It was only later that the bishop could catch on as to what was really happening. It is reported that on one occasion Bishop Pollock visited the Abbey House and, having, from its windows, focused binoculars on the building gradually being erected at the foot of Knight Street, walked away muttering ‘deplorable, deplorable’. It seems that, sometimes, God does a new thing in this world, delightfully surprising some while others are unsure, to say the least, and can only run for cover.

That surprise and puzzlement of God doing a new thing in this world was even more strongly felt in the original Holy House, Our Lady’s home at Nazareth. Gabriel speaks his word and we are told that Our Lady’s immediate response is not one of assent but of puzzlement: ‘But how can this come about since I am a virgin?’

Our Lady had free will. Just like anyone else, Blessed Mary had to make choices. Her complete cooperation with God’s grace throughout the whole of her life ensured that she always retained the perfect innocence of her Immaculate Conception. But, we need to remember, even complete cooperation with God’s grace does not mean immediate arrival at a full understanding of what it is that God is about or of what he specifically demands of us at any one time. That great saint, St Teresa of the Child Jesus, who was to die at a woefully young age and in great pain from a terrible cancer, tells how found great encouragement from Blessed Mary’s occasional questioning and lack of understanding.

St Teresa knew that Our Lady had experienced nights of faith, times when it was not clear where everything was leading and yet still she was open to perfect cooperation with God’s grace. St Teresa tells us that Our Lady’s trust, even when she did not understand, brought considerable consolation to her, in those regular periods of desolation that she, St Teresa, endured throughout her final illness.

Open to God’s will

It seems that Our Blessed Lady moves, to coin a phrase, ‘forward in faith’. Our Lady might misunderstand. She might wonder how something is possible. She might worry as she loses her young lad during the family pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Our Lady might even think, as the Gospels more than hint, that Jesus has perhaps become somewhat deranged during his early ministry and so want to take him home to her care. Yet still Blessed Mary is open to God’s will. Blessed Mary is open to God’s will even when it means standing at the foot of the cross in the horror of Good Friday. The fruit of that faithfulness, of course, was to be Our Lady’s experience of her Son’s resurrection. Those disciples of Jesus who did not share Blessed Mary’s total faithfulness must have been even more bemused than was Bishop Pollock when he saw the working out of Fr Hope Patten’s steadfast belief that he was the one called by God to restore the Holy House to Walsingham.

Today, you and I sit in a puzzling and even seemingly dark place within

our Christian discipleship. As the decisive vote on admitting women to the episcopate comes nearer and nearer it seems as if nothing is going to give. So much of the evidence points to our fellow members of the Church of England being all too eager to rat on promises previously made to us rather than give us what they and we truly know to be essential for our authentic practice of the Faith as we have received it, practise it and want to share it with others.

A puzzling place

We are all too like that character in The Royle Family, a vegetarian, who, on finding herself a guest at a meal where meat is being served, is then treated as an invalid. It is eventually suggested that perhaps the meat could be fed to her in small pieces!

Brothers and sisters, I doubt that most of you share my particular dietary preferences. We do all know, though, the necessity of an authentic Catholic diet and we are all but despairing as the rest of the Church seems to think that if only they can feed us their watered down substitute we will soon learn to enjoy it. They just do not seem to understand. It is not that we do not want to be faithful servants of God. It is rather that, like Our Blessed Lady, we just cannot see how such a thing can come about.

The Holy Spirit

The answer for Blessed Mary comes, of course, with the great promise of the angel: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you.’ The great Cardinal Suenens wrote of Our Lady as being the recipient of the charismatic experience par excellence.

It is God who is working out his vocation for us and who is constantly giving us his life-giving Spirit so that you and I can both bring forth his new life and also discern the signs of its presence. There is little evidence that that was an easy vocation for Our Lady, sinless as she was. We hardly need reminding that it is not an easy vocation for us who are her children. You and I feel called by God, even now, to recall our Church to its Catholic heritage. And, let it be said, there are many among our Roman Catholic friends who realize the value of that task if ever the ecumenical movement is to be about reconciling churches and not just about individual conversions. We do not know where that journey is going to take us.

We can be reasonably certain that, as for Our Blessed Lady, it will one day bring us to the foot of the cross. It might be, indeed, that some among us feel somewhere near that place at this very moment. The cross, though, is the very place of the Lord’s victory. There is resurrection.

Only God knows

Perhaps our church will come to its senses and make proper provision for us even at this late stage. Perhaps The Society will be recognized as the gateway to such provision. Perhaps, who knows, some significant concession will be made that enables many to feel they can stay and continue that call to the Church of England to live an authentic catholic life. Perhaps, even, and dare we think it, the outcome will be the one that many of us dread most of all; that no more can be done in conscience within the Church of England, as some of our number have already decided. Literally and profoundly, only God knows. He has called us to this time just as he called Blessed Mary to her role in the Incarnation, just as he called Fr Hope Patten, the fruits of whose vision we celebrate today. God has called us to this day. Some may taunt us for still seeking to hold our ground.

You and I know, though, that God is faithful. He will lead us into his future, proving again and again that he is, in those great words of Gerald Hughes, The God of Surprises.

Words of confidence

Today, of course, is not only the Translation of Our Lady of Walsingham. It is also the memorial of that other St Teresa, St Teresa of Avila, another great saint for whom, in terms of this world, the future could sometimes look very uncertain. Her words of confidence in God, even in uncertain times, have rightly become well known to many of us.

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Let St Teresa, then, have the last word.


Our congratulations to Father Ben Rabjohns who was ordained to the Diaconate on

Friday 30th September. He is pictured here with his parent