Walsingham once ranked among the great Pilgrimage destinations of Medieval Christendom including the Holy Land, Rome and Santiago de Compostella. Of Christendom, it was the leading Marian Shrine that attracted pilgrims in their thousands.
An extract from Pynson Ballad (1465) describes its significance:“O England, you have every reason to be glad that you are compared to the Promised Land of Zion. This glorious Lady’s grace and favour attest that you can be called everywhere the Holy Land, Our Lady’s Dowry, a name given to you from of old. This title is due to the fact that here is built the house of new Nazareth in honour of our heavenly Queen and her glorious Salutation.”
Our Lady’s request that the Holy House of Nazareth be replicated in Walsingham is an invitation for pilgrims to share in “the great joy of the Annunciation”, the moment Christ was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. In the words of Monsignor John Armitage “the heart of a pilgrimage is to give thanks, and to seek guidance in doing the Will of God in our lives, often in trying and difficult circumstances”. In a special way, Walsingham invites pilgrims to imitate Mary’s acceptance of God’s Will so that Christ may be conceived in our hearts, born into our lives and brought forth into the world.
In 1985 when stood at France’s famous statue of the Cure d’Ars praying for the Church in England, it is no surprise that Myles Dempsey a faithful imitator of Mary’s ‘Yes’, received the words “New Dawn, Walsingham”. Two years later in the fields facing the Shrine, over 800 pilgrims gathered for ‘New Dawn’ a Catholic Family Pilgrimage Conference. Pilgrimage originates from the Old French pelrimage meaning ‘distant journey’, whilst Conference originates from the Latin conferre meaning to ‘bring together’. As a bringing together of pilgrims to the small, rural (and for most) distant village of Walsingham, New Dawn seeks and anticipates the fulfilment of Pope Leo XIII’s prophecy: “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England”.
New Dawn is a celebration of the pilgrim Church with “all Her lights on” (Myles): Trinitarian, Christo-centric, Eucharistic, Sacramental, Liturgical, Hierarchical and Charismatic, Marian, Eschatological, Mystical and Contemplative, Catechetical and Missionary. It is a glimpse of the Church to be revealed in all Her splendour and beauty as the Bride of Christ. (Cf. Isaiah 61: 10-11; Rev 21:2) Celebrating the Church in all Her dimensions, New Dawn echoes to pilgrims the words of Our Lady: “All who come here shall find help in their need”. Like John the Baptist, New Dawn is a gift of God’s Mercy ‘by which the dawn from on high will break upon’ the Church both in this and other nations. (Luke 1:78) Indeed, international pilgrims have embraced New Dawn taking it to places of Pilgrimage in their own homeland including Fatima in Portugal, St Andrews in Scotland, Skalka by Trencin in Slovakia, Hájek a Franciscan Friary on the outskirts of Prague in the Czech Republic, Uganda in association with the Ugandan Martyrs and Lusaka Zambia in association with Our Lady of Lourdes, with plans for Kenya deep into the Kenyan Mountains!
New Dawn Walsingham encourages pilgrims to embrace its ascetical nature through prayer, penance, fasting, camping, sharing facilities and by having the main Conference in a large outdoor tent. Again, international pilgrims have embraced New Dawn’s ascetical nature where for example in the Czech Republic, modest facilities provide pilgrims the opportunity to appreciate how much they have and the little they need! By enduring the discomfort of camping, unpredictable weather and basic food pilgrims are humbled in realising not only their limits but the gratuitous blessings of God. The climax of New Dawn as a pilgrimage is illustrated in the Wednesday Marian Procession where pilgrims, young and old gather to walk the Holy Mile to the Abbey Grounds for Holy Mass.
Pilgrims process behind the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham; for it is Our Lady who ‘calls the faithful to her Son and His Sacrifice’! (Lumen Gentium 65) In following Our Lady, pilgrims are reminded to ‘turn their eyes to Mary who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as the model of virtues’. (Lumen Gentium 65) Pilgrims not only pray the Rosary and sing hymns in honour of Our Lady, but some choose to walk bare footed in a spirit of reparation and silence.
(Photos courtesy of Andy Drozdziak CCR England)