Welcome to Walsingham - England’s Nazareth!

That’s some strapline – quite a claim to live up to. It’s not surprising, then, that over the years there have been those who have begged to differ. Most significantly at the Reformation when this great Abbey was dissolved, the Shrine destroyed and the Medieval Image burnt. But more recently too. Take, for example, the Bishop of Norwich. Not, I hasten to add the present incumbent, but rather his predecessor, Bertrum Pollock - who after spying on the construction of the Shrine Church from an upstairs window of Abbey House; went away muttering: “Deplorable, deplorable!” And, who, on a previous occasion described the restored Image of Our Lady of Walsingham as being: “Far worse than [he] thought.” My favourite criticism levelled at the Shrine, however, has to go to Fr Lane, my old Theological College Principal, who once described the experience of going on pilgrimage here as: “Over-the-top nasty foreign religion within a twee English setting!” Which, if today is anything to go by, clearly remains one of its greatest selling points!

The Shrine Church and Holy House may indeed appear over-the-top to some. They may even, when first experienced, seem a bit overwhelming and somewhat foreign. But this is seldom a lasting impression. What then, I wonder, does Walsingham mean to you? What personal Strap-Line would you attach to the experience of coming here; whether that be over many years or for the first time today?

The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham: the place where I experienced healing and peace… came to terms with my grief… was given strength to carry on discerned my vocation… re-discovered the joy of believing. These and many other blessings, which are received by pilgrims to the Shrine every week; are, at the same time, unique and personal manifestations of God’s unconditional love and mercy towards us. A petition from an ancient Byzantine Lenten Liturgy translates: “Open the Doors of Mercy to me, O Mother of God.” A Prayer which, in the Seventeenth Century, inspired the writing of an Icon of Mary; known as the Doors of Mercy.

At the request of Pope Francis, this Icon was brought from Poland to Rome for the opening of the Holy Door in S. Peter’s Basilica at the inauguration of this Jubilee Year. Thousands of such Holy Doors have been unsealed across the world; including at the Slipper Chapel. Doors which are surely to be seen as symbolic of the opening of the floodgates of Divine Mercy in the life of the Church. But there is another, more permanent, Holy Door here in Walsingham; for what makes Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, is the Holy House and to enter the Holy House is to cross the threshold of Divine Mercy.

When Mary said yes to God at the Annunciation, in her humble home in Nazareth, she became the Mother and Door of Mercy, the way by which Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, came into the world. Mary’s fiat opened the door of Salvation for all humankind. Mary is both the mediator and channel of God’s Mercy and also its object and recipient. As she was the first to acknowledge in her song the Magnificat; declaring: ‘God has looked [with mercy] upon his lowly handmaid. Holy is his name!”

To come on pilgrimage to the Holy House of England’s Nazareth is to accept an invitation from God to experience anew His mercy and grace in our lives. At the Annunciation Mary handed over her whole existence, body and soul, in order to make room for God. We experience something of this in the business of coming on pilgrimage; when we leave behind our daily chores and everyday preoccupations – in order make greater space for God in our lives; that we might experience His forgiveness, healing and peace and be strengthened in our Christian discipleship.

Nazareth was the place where Christ was conceived, spent his childhood and most of his adult life - where he discovered, on the ground, what it is like to be fully human. This, then, is our charism as a Shrine, part of our rich inheritance as a place of pilgrimage. And as such it is a manifestation and sign of God’s Mercy and one which we cannot, may not keep to ourselves.

As Mary conceived Christ in her womb and bore him to the world so we, who come on pilgrimage to England’s Nazareth, are called to experience a renewed sense of the presence of Christ in the Church and in our lives in order that we too might bear witness to him. For just as we see that in the womb of Mary and in the home of the Holy Family in Nazareth that Christ dwells in every person and is the head of every Christian household - so we also discover that everywhere has the potential to become Holy Ground and a Holy Land. Walsingham in Norfolk as Nazareth in Galilee.

And how does this come about but through us, the pilgrim people of God, who the Church encourages to seek Jesus, the Divine Mercy, in holy places such as Walsingham that we might gain a heightened sense of Christ’s presence at all times and in all places and most especially in the places we come on pilgrimage from in the first place - the villages, towns and cities we call home.

In today’s Gospel at Mass we heard how Mary, a pregnant young woman, left the comfort and security of her home in Nazareth to go into the hill country of Judah in order that she might share the Good News of the Incarnation with her cousin Elizabeth. But she does far more than that; as in her song, the Magnificat she witnesses to the Universal Mercy of God: “His mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him… Mary declares. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly… The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.”

Thus in her Magnificat, Mary speaks to anyone and everyone who has ever been denied their human rights and human dignity: the poor, the oppressed and the exploited; those who suffer the evils of terrorism and war, political prisoners, economic migrants and refugees.

In this Year of Mercy, we are called to take all this to heart and to act upon it. We are, in the words of Pope Francis, “To open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognise that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May their cry become our own and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme.”

Such mercy demands more than social justice, it goes above and beyond providing clean water, food, shelter, clothing and medical care; which alongside freedom from the threat of violence and oppression are basic human rights. Everyone deserves justice – and the call to mercy asks yet more from us. In the Magnificat, Mary proclaims that the mercy of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone, without exception. At the Annunication, in her home in Nazareth, and at the foot of the Cross; Mary experienced, with a Mother’s love, the awesome extent and the terrible cost of God’s Mercy towards humanity. Divine Mercy transcends justice - it is a grace and a gift; which you and I are called to be channels of.

Which is why, this year, the Church has given us all a personal strapline; we are, each of us, to be Merciful Like the Father – in order that we might be true disciples of Jesus Christ.

Who:      Turn the other cheek and Go the extra mile.
Who:      Love our enemies and our neighbours as ourselves.

And here, in England’s Nazareth Mary, the Mother of Mercy, shows us how. Mary did not keep quiet about the Divine Mercy shown her and neither should we keep to ourselves the graces and blessings we receive in this Holy Place. Our witness, if it is to be genuine and Christ-like, has to be expressed in thought, word and deed. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to be Merciful like the Father to show heart-felt compassion: in the costly giving of time, attention and love.

Mary put herself out and went out of her way to visit her cousin Elizabeth and we must do like-wise. For such acts of service are a reflection of God’s own nature and a response to the mercy he has shown us. In the words of the Liturgy of the Last Visit, Mary shows us the way to: ‘Do at home what God has taught us to do here!’ For she is full of grace and to be full of grace is to be full of mercy. A mercy, which incidentally, Fr Hope Patten extended even to Bishop Pollock: who despite their many run-ins, later reflected that: “The revival [of the Shrine] owes much to the Bishop of Norwich for his patience and Christian tolerance.  May he have his reward.”Yet another wonderful example of how God, in his mercy and love, writes straight with our crooked lines.

And in a sense Dr. Pollock and Fr Lane were right, Walsingham is a truly dreadful place (trust me, I’m the Vicar, I should know)! For as Jacob said of Peniel, following his wrestling match with an angel: How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” A quotation or strapline which Fr Hope Patten had painted over his fireplace in the Administrator’s Cottage, where it remains to this day. And if this is truly the House of God and Gate of Heaven – then it is also a Seat of Mercy – a place where mercy is to be found, and made manifest to the world.

And so we pray…

Mary, Mother of Mercy,

Our Lady of Walsingham.

Open the Doors of Mercy to us,  

O Mother of God.



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