Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Look Down in Mercy on England, Thy Dowry

The first time I heard about England's strong Catholic history, I was shocked; long-believing that Catholicism never "took" in England, I found out that the British Isles had at one point been so Catholic that it was once dubbed "Mary's Dowry" because Brits had such a devotion to Mary. Upon learning more, I also found out that one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in medieval Europe was to the Marian Shrine at Walsingham.

In 1061, the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to Richeldis de Faverches, a Catholic English noblewoman living in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, England, and she asked her to build a replica of the Holy House in Nazareth for pilgrimage. She said, "Here people must celebrate the Annunciation, the root of the gratuitous redemption of humanity. Here they will recall the great joy that I had when I was greeted by the Archangel Gabriel, who said to me that for my humility I would be Mother of God. Here the pilgrims will find solace for their needs. All those who will invoke me with faith will not leave empty-handed." Richeldis had the replica built on her property and the shrine in Walsingham became the third-most visited pilgrimage site of Europe, behind Rome, Italy and Compostella, Spain.

Starting from King Richard I the Lionhearted (1157-1199), all the proceeding kings of England had prayed at the Shrine; King Edward I visited 11 times. In 1340, a building dubbed "The Slipper Chapel" was built a mile away from the Shrine so that pilgrims could leave their shoes there and walk the remaining mile barefoot.

In 1533 Henry VIII, in his desire to be divorced and remarried despite the fact he was in a valid marriage, decided to rip England away from Communion with Rome, putting himself as head of the English church and plunging the nation into the turmoil of the Reformation. In 1538, bishops of the Church of England began condemning all images and devotions - especially those of Mary, including Walsingham - saying that, "She hath been the Devil’s instrument, I fear, to bring many to eternal fire." Henry VIII approved of the Shrine's destruction, whereby it was stripped of anything of value and razed to the ground. The image of Our Lady was brought to London with any other Catholic statues and images and publicly burned. William Fulke said, "Though they were as ancient and goodly is to the great honour of God that they should be despised, defaced, burned, and stomped into powder."

The Catholic religion was suppressed, with over 300 martyrs recognized by the Catholic Church as victims of the Crown versus the Church (although there were many more).

But, the Holy Spirit has a way of drawing all people to Himself. In 1896, Catholic-convert Charlotte Pearson Boyd - wanting to restore pilgrimages to Walsingham - bought the property where the Slipper Chapel was located, the chapel itself having been turned into a stable at this point in history. She had a statue carved according to the original seal that was at Walsingham and had it placed in the Slipper Chapel. In 1897, Pope Leo XIII authorized pilgrimages to the Slipper Chapel, however as a result of having to hide their faith for a few centuries, most English Catholics did not feel comfortable with the idea of public pilgrimages. In 1934, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales established the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, conducting a pilgrimage of over 10,000 faithful. On August 15 of that year, Catholic Mass was offered at the Walsingham site for the first time in roughly 400 years.

Meanwhile, the Church of England started to rediscover a devotion to Mary, establishing their own Shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham. Copying Ms. Boyd, Anglican Fr Alfred Hope Patten had a statue carved according to the original and placed it in an area church, St. Mary's, and offered public devotion there. Eventually, Anglican pilgrims also flooded to their Shrine and it officially became the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

And there's more! The Orthodox, having a devotion to Mary and recognizing the authenticity and value of Walsingham, were invited to help the Anglicans in the construction of the Anglican Shrine, obtaining some land for their own Orthodox chapel on-site, now called the Church of the Holy Transfiguration, Great Walsingham.

In a huge moment of generosity, Pope Benedict XVI established the Anglican Ordinariate in 2009 for Anglicans/Episcopalians (past and present) who wish to convert to Catholicism, but who also wish to retain the beautiful traditions and worship-style of the Anglican faith. Three Personal Ordinariates have been established so far: one in England and Wales, one in the United States, and one in Australia. The name for the Ordinariate of England and Wales? The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The principal church for the US Ordinariate - our "cathedral", basically - is Our Lady of Walsingham Church and Shrine in Houston, Texas. Annual pilgrimages to Walsingham (in Norfolk AND in Texas) still continue to this day.

Although the "reformers" tried to obliterate England's memory of her Catholic past, they were unsuccessful and, just as always, Our Lady comes to us in order to bring us ever closer to her Divine Son, Jesus Christ. May Our Lady of Walsingham pray for us, that we may become closer to her so that she may show us the best way to live the will of her Son. On September 24th, the feast day of Our Lady of Walsingham, we pray:

O Lord God, in the mystery of the incarnation Mary conceived thy Son in her heart before she conceived him in her womb: grant that, as we, thy pilgrim people, rejoice in her patronage, we also may welcome him into our hearts, and so, like her, be made a holy house fit for his eternal dwelling; we ask this through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.