The jubilee was brought to a close in dull, showery weather, but the rain kept off for the outdoor procession and the programme did not have to be curtailed. Pilgrims from S. Magnus the Martyr and the Catholic League arrived on Saturday afternoon and Father Fynes-Clinton gave an opening address on the Ark of the Covenant before the evening procession and Benediction.
The Pilgrims’ Mass was said at S. John’s Chapel; Stations of the Cross followed as usual and they attended the High Mass in S. Mary’s. During the afternoon other groups of people arrived, so that by 6.30 a goodly congregation assembled in the Parish Church for Solemn Evensong and Benediction. Then the rain teemed down, but a little before 11.30 it lifted and the church seemed very full in the half light. When more pilgrims arrived they all assisted in saying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, after which the procession set out along the Sunk Road for the Shrine. Both the tower of the Parish Church and the west front of the Shrine were beautifully floodlit (through the energy and kindness of Mr Barrie Wells). Just before reaching the Pilgrimage Church spots of rain began to fall, but we were all inside before it started to pelt down. Here a Solemn Te Deum was sung and High Mass began about 12.30, at which a number of pilgrims and parishioners made their Communions. This was followed by low Masses in the Holy House. Unfortunately sufficient priests had not arrived to keep a continuous stream and there was therefore a break in the middle of the time, but the Watch before the Blessed Sacrament was kept all night, the Masses re-starting at 5.30 and Benediction being given at 7.30. The Administrator had to be up all night attending to priests after their Masses and supervising the Watch. Stations of the Cross and Sprinkling began soon after breakfast, when pilgrims started to stream into the village. The church was packed by midday, when Bishop Vernon commenced the Solemn Mass at the fladstool, Fr. Michael Smith as deacon; Fr. Peter Pearson, Subdeacon; Fr. Oldland, assistant priest; Fr. De Lara Wilson, first M.C.; Fr. John Foster, second M.C.; Mr Kenneth Condon at the organ and Frs. Palfrey and Harbottle, cantors. A visit was made to the Holy House at the end of Mass; Stations and Sprinkling continued after lunch served from the Refectory on the lawns and in a marquee. All too soon the bells rang out again and stragglers found the Pilgrimage Church crowded with the congregation standing waiting to hear Fr. Thomas deliver his oration, and then came the last procession, this time all through the village. According to the estimate of the police, about seventeen hundred people took part in this and a number of pilgrims stood in groups in the streets singing the hymn Ave Ave as the procession passed. A second Solemn Te Deum was sung and the Bishop gave Solemn Benediction. So the Jubilee Festivities for 1956-7 were brought to a close.
The special appeal of the Whit Monday Pilgrimage at Walsingham grows with the years. Other occasions, whether they be gatherings of priests or members of Catholic societies, parish pilgrimages or private visits, have their own particular value in our spiritual lives. This lies, to a great extent, in the opportunity which they afford to find the peace and recollection which are so often hard to seek in the busy rush of our working life.
But Whit-Monday is different. On this day hundreds of pilgrims from all parts of the country and from all walks of life converge upon England’s Nazareth to offer together thanksgiving for their Faith and the glory of the Incarnation and to gain strength from their common purpose. There is a happy and carefree atmosphere, for it is, after all, a ‘holy-day’, there is a buzz and hum about the Shrine which may to some be a little disconcerting. Out in the garden the younger pilgrims may show a slight tendency to burst into song and noisy laughter. But the important point which all have in common is that they are a praying people. All, whatever age they may be, will cheerfully stand packed like sardines and sing their heads off at Mass; they will queue for a wearying hour to go down to the Holy Well to receive a brief sprinkling and blessing. And when it is all over they will just as cheerfully embark on a long coach journey home and roll into bed, dead tired but happy, somewhere around midnight. The fact that the thrill of this day does not lessen but rather grows with each succeeding year and that the majority would not miss it for the world shows that it is something of inestimable value in the religious life of growing numbers of people of this nation.
To the Whit-Monday Pilgrimage this year, 1957, was added the final act of Thanksgiving for the Silver Jubilee of the restoration of the Holy House, the Shrine of the Incarnation in England. Many of us had, unfortunately, been prevented from joining in the celebrations in October last year on the actual anniversary of the restoration. Largely for our benefit the Festival had been extended; how grateful we are for this opportunity of making our own special thanksgivings. For those who could get to Walsingham in time there was a repetition of the Torchlight Procession on the Sunday night from the Parish Church to the Shrine, followed by High Mass at midnight and a continuous Watch before the Most Holy Sacrament until morning. On Whit-Monday itself the usual High Mass at midday was sung pontifically by the Right Reverend Gerald Vernon, a Guardian of the Holy House.
It would seem that I have been chosen to give an impression of the end of the Jubilee partly because I recently wrote on the impact of Fatima, as readers of the Mirror may remember. I feel justified, therefore, in making comparisons; and this not only on personal grounds but also for the more important reason that if Walsingham cannot stand up to comparison with world-famous Catholic Shrines then it is not worth the ground on which it is built. But have no fear; Walsingham at Whitsun stood the test well!
The first impression which carried me back vividly to Fatima was during the Torchlight Procession. Its beginning with the recitation of the Rosary in the Parish Church was impressive enough. But as we turned the corner from the sunken road, towards the Shrine with its floodlit courtyard and entrance, my eye was caught suddenly, as at Fatima, by the image of Our Lady far ahead in the procession. We who were at the back could just see the image picked out now and again by the swaying torches which surrounded Her; then suddenly She came into the blaze of light before the Shrine! Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother, was leading her children home to God. In a few minutes, again as at Fatima, She stood aside, her image forgotten, as we joined in the solemn worship of Almighty God in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
After Mass the night was one of quiet and continuous activity. Pilgrims who might well have felt they deserved their beds nevertheless stayed to join their own Priests as each offered his Mass in thanksgiving for the blessings received through the years by Himself and his people. Others kept their watch before the Most Holy Sacrament.
In the morning, a wet and blustery one, the spiritual activity continued. Stations of the Cross were made, intercessions offered and pilgrims sprinkled at the Holy Well. And then the crowds began to arrive and Whit-Monday took on its normal busy and happy atmosphere; they came by coach and car and on foot until the numbers swelled beyond the capacity of the Church. For the Pontifical High Mass the lucky ones had already ‘staked their claims’ by sitting firmly on the floor. Soon every inch of the Pilgrimage Church was occupied; everyone was as uncomfortable as usual, yet the devotion was as great and impressive at always on this day. The ordinary folk of England, who love a crowd, had come on their annual ‘holy-day’ for the love of Mary and her Incarnate Son. They were one in mind and in spirit with the thousands who throng Fatima and Lourdes and the other great Catholic Shrines all over the world.
There is one small impression of this day which I feel constrained to record as I alone was privileged to receive it. I had been deputed to sit in the Holy House to receive the thankofferings of the pilgrims as they cam away from the Sprinkling and Blessing. The shuffle of slowly moving feet outside, which never seemed to end, was almost soporific in its effect at that hour of the afternoon, yet the sound, together with the oft-repeated ejaculatory prayers, was one of deep and simple faith – the children of God were going to receive the special blessing of Walsingham. But a deeper impression still which, as I have said, was for me alone on this occasion, was to watch them as they came into the Holy House afterwards and put up their candles and knelt to say their individual ‘thank yous’. On every face was the joy of coming home – this Holy House of Nazareth was to them a real Home and they had come to their Mother, “their life, their sweetness, and their hope”.
The Pilgrimage and the Jubilee were drawing to an end. After the Oration by Father Thomas we carried Our Lady again through the streets of Walsingham, as those who cannot bear to keep the joy of their Faith to themselves. The last impression I wish to give it, fittingly, a pastoral one. As the Procession returned to the Altar we lost the Bishop! So great was the press of people that even his attendants had to pass on in front. When all had reached the sanctuary, and looked around for His Lordship, there he was, way back in the Church, happily and unhurriedly giving his individual blessing to every child that he could reach; blessing also crucifixes, rosaries and medals which will be specially treasured because of this. It was a delightful moment of pastoral care which was reflected in the completely absorbed and happy look on the Bishop’s face. Walsingham owes much to Bishop Vernon; not the least, perhaps, for this loving and fatherly act at the end of a memorable day. As he is shortly leaving England to work abroad again it may be a long time before he can repeat it. But it will remain a happy memory for a long time in the minds not only of those who received this special blessing but also in those of their parish priests for showing to their people a true Father-in-God.
And so we came to the Altar once more to offer our final Te Deum, for England’s Nazareth and its restoration in our time to become the Shrine of the Incarnation and the focal point of the conversion of our country to the fullness of the Faith through Mary’s prayers. Thanks be to God! Our Lady of Walsingham, we thank Thee!
Postscript. It would be easy to stop at this point and bask in the thrill of this day, Whit-Monday, 1957 – and in a short time, perhaps, forget its inner significance. There is, therefore, I think, a further comment to be made ‘in season’.
It is often remarked, and only recently I have heard it again, that Walsingham would be lovely if only one could have it without the ‘frills’ and the hymns and that goes with them, and just ‘drink in’ the peace of it all. Such critics says that they could not stand the racket and activity of Whit-Monday, when the behaviour of some of the younger pilgrims, so they have heard, is not always all that it might be.
To them I would say first – don’t believe all that you hear! Secondly, steel yourself to go to Walsingham one Whit-Monday, even if by nature you hate crowds. They would then, I think, begin to understand what Walsingham can mean in the life of ordinary men and women, many of whom could not possibly go at any other time. I have made several references in this article to the ‘ordinariness’ of the pilgrims on Whit-Monday. I mean this both as a compliment to those who come, who are of all sorts and conditions and of all ages, and also to emphasise the ‘genius’ of Walsingham by which it merits its place among the great Catholic shrines of the 20th century. For too long it has been considered by the uniformed to be a place specially designed for the over-pious and exotic; and far too often this notion has been encouraged by the apparent ‘exclusiveness’ of some of its devotes. Each succeeding Whit-Monday proves that Walsingham is becoming what God intended it to be, the place of pilgrimage for all the people of England, good, bad and indifferent (but not for long!). And the things that are there – the ‘frills’ if you like are all part of this ‘genius’ for reaching the hearts of all. You may not like everything you find there; some of it may offend certain temperaments; but do you like everything you find in the homes of your dearest friends? Walsingham belongs to no particular ‘set’. It is the Home which Mary has chosen for Herself in this land and which She has caused to be restored in the most miraculous way during the last 30 odd years. For what purpose? – Simply to bring her children Home again to find Her Son and His Love. All of us, whether we appear in the staid attire and manner of the elderly and middle-aged, or in the colourful garments and sometimes high spirits of ‘rock an’ rollers’ and other manifestations of youth, are part of her Dowry. And we should all be together or the Crown will be incomplete. Walsingham does not belong just to you or to me, to the devout or the ‘purist’ in art or in music. It belongs to the ordinary men and women, and boys and girls of England – and they belong to Walsingham. May the time soon come when every days is just like Whit-Monday!