Those responsible for some of the Catholic Church’s most famous and well-visited shrines in Europe are to gather in England this week for a historic meeting.
Shrine Directors from Germany, Slovenia, Romania, England, Poland, France, Ireland and Portugal and other countries, will spend 27 – 30 September in conference in Norfolk discussing why it is that Shrines seem more popular than ever in the present age.
The theme of the gathering is “Evangelisation and gestures of popular piety” and is being hosted at one of England’s oldest shrines to Mary, the Mother of God, in Walsingham. This year the Shrine is celebrating its 950th anniversary and has had one of its busiest pilgrimage seasons ever, having received approximately 100 000 pilgrims. The number of pilgrims to Walsingham has risen the past three years running.
Fr Alan Williams is Walsingham’s Shrine Director and said: “We are aware that many people visit Catholic shrines who are either not Christian or rarely attend church. They have an interest in spirituality and are willing to travel as part of that search. Our task, as Shrine Directors, is to make that experience as fulfilling and rewarding as we can and that’s what we’ll be discussing this week, as well as sharing news and information.”
An important part of life at Walsingham is the complementarity of the Anglican and Catholic Shrines in the village. To that end, Bishop Lindsay Urwin, Administrator of the Anglican Shrine, will be joining the conference and the delegates will pray Evensong at the Anglican Cathedral in Norwich.
The Chairperson of the gathering is Bishop Jacques Perrier, Bishop of Lourdes, France, which receives millions of pilgrims each year. Archbishop Kevin McDonald will also be attending part of the conference to represent the Bishops of England and Wales.
Fr Williams added: “England hosts this gathering once every twenty years and to receive our distinguished guests, at what’s described as England’s Nazareth, is a fitting way to end our 950th anniversary year.”
In 1061 the Lady Richeldis obeyed Mary, the Mother of God, who requested that a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth be constructed in Walsingham. This was the house in which the Annunciation of the Lord took place when Mary was invited to be the Mother of the Son of God.
The Pynson Ballad, is the earliest complete source for the story of the founding of the Shrine.
For hundreds of years after its foundation Walsingham was an unparalleled success. Royal patronage and ever-growing popularity meant that at the eve of the Reformation it had a unique place in the hearts and lives of English Catholics.
In 1538 the Shrine was suppressed, the statue burnt and thrown into the River Thames and all seemed lost. After centuries of ruin Catholics returned in 1897 in formal pilgrimage to the Slipper Chapel which was to become England’s National Shrine in 1934. Increasing numbers of Anglicans also made their way to Walsingham and an Anglican Shrine was initially established in Saint Mary’s Parish Church before the move to a newly reconstructed holy house in 1931.
Nowadays the Roman Catholic and Anglican Shrines work closely together and most pilgrims and visitors make their way to both shrines during the course of their visit to Walsingham.
Visitors come from a variety of faith backgrounds. There is also an Orthodox Chapel and beautiful Methodist Chapel – the oldest still in use in Norfolk – in the village.