26th May 2020
Dear people of St. Anselm’s,
I am delighted to have this opportunity to write to you at Fr Matthew’s invitation, and to send you greetings from the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
At this time of the year the Shrine would usually be a very busy place with groups of pilgrims, visitors and tourists enjoying the spiritual and physical beauty of this holy place. The Shrine Shop would be filled with people wanting to purchase a souvenir, a book, a statue, a rosary or perhaps even some Norfolk Lavender Talc! Norton’s Café in the Shrine Grounds would be buzzing with those enjoying a coffee and a Nelson’s Slice (one of our speciality cakes), or perhaps a bottle of our recently launched Pilgrim Pale Ale. Most importantly, the Shrine Church would be open for all to enter for prayer and worship, to light a candle or to be sprinkled with water from the Well, following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims down the ages.
However, due to the coronavirus pandemic the gates and doors of the Shrine have been firmly and very sadly closed. The stillness and silence both in the Shrine and in the village has been strange and at times eerie. This was particularly so yesterday (Monday 25th May) which would have been the day of the annual National Pilgrimage. The cancellation of the National was a huge disappointment to the thousands who love to attend. For once the weather was absolutely perfect which somehow made the fact that it wasn’t happening all the more difficult to comprehend.
Everyone in the country has been affected in some way by Covid-19 and the restrictions accompanying it, many in very serious and tragic ways.
The situation has been the focus of prayer for millions of Christians who, though unable to worship in their churches, have been faithfully offering their prayers at home.
Here at the Shrine too, the work of prayer has continued. A Mass has been offered daily and every evening at 6pm Shrine Prayers has taken place in the Holy House. This has been particularly significant as Shrine Prayers have been offered daily without interruption since they were introduced by Fr Hope Patten , the restorer of the Shrine, in 1922. Throughout every war, every crisis, every major political and historical moment in our nation, this chain of prayer has remained unbroken. An additional blessing in recent months has been the ability for us to live-stream Shrine Prayers. This has enabled pilgrims all over the world to see on the screens of their devices the much-venerated Image of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Holy House and to join in the prayers with myself or Fr Andreas, the Shrine Priest, leading them.
History was made yesterday as the National Pilgrimage Mass was also live-streamed from the Shrine Church. The latest viewing figures suggest that over 10,000 pilgrims joined in the celebration.
None of these benefits, though, can ever substitute being physically present in England’s Nazareth. The closure of churches and places of pilgrimages has been a bereavement experience for millions of Christians, an experience shared by those of other faiths around the world. It has touched on the very real need we have for places that are set apart for worship and prayer, for holy ground, for sacred space. Our church buildings are visible signs of our faith and of our belief in the mystery of the incarnation. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Shrines and places of holiness powerfully remind us of the purpose of life and the destination of our earthly pilgrimage. Our churches remind us and our communities of the presence of God who dwells among us, and who has let his glory be seen in the face of Jesus Christ, born of Mary.
The Latin motto of the Shrine is “Domus Dei. Porta Coeli” which translated means House of God, Gate of Heaven. It is a motto which expresses in very few words how places like Walsingham touch the hearts of so many. They are words which can also apply to our own more local places of pilgrimages, not least our parish churches, houses of God set apart in our communities for his glory and praise and to inspire us to serve him more faithfully in our daily lives.
It is interesting to learn from Fr Matthew that Walsingham has a special place in the memory of St Anselm’s. I’m told you have a number of statues of Our Lady of Walsingham and many stories of great pilgrimages in the past. You also have in Fr Matthew a priest who is himself a regular pilgrim and so I very much look forward to welcoming St Anselm’s to Walsingham on many more pilgrimages in the future.
It is a unique and special place, a real gift to us all, and you can be sure of a warm welcome from all who have the great privilege of working at the Shrine.
May God bless you in your witness to the Gospel, in your lives of faith and prayer, and may Our Lady of Walsingham pray for you.
Fr Kevin Smith