In Hot Sunshine and a Barren Culture, Pilgrims Walk to Walsingham

At Walsingham, the shrine of the Holy House was established – and this place became England’s Nazareth, a center of massive pilgrimage for centuries to come.

(photo: Photo by Joanna Bogle)

It was hot — horribly, cruelly, sizzlingly hot — with an unrelenting sun burning down on the countryside as we walked. The meadows were scorched and the rivers were low. One village pond had dried up entirely.

We were walking to Walsingham. And, along with pilgrims down the centuries, we were doing so in some discomfort. But also surrounded by great beauty: Walsingham is in the lovely countryside of Norfolk: this ancient shrine, dating back to the 11th century, stands 6 miles from the North Sea, with rich fields of wheat and sugar beet all around, along with great stretches of open meadowland and forest.

The John Paul Walking Pilgrimage to Walsingham was just one of many events at and around the shrine this summer. This Walk was begun in 2006, to mark the anniversary of the passing of the great John Paul, and is organised by the Dominican Sisters of St. Joseph, based in the diocese of Portsmouth. The Sisters invite people to join them in the Walk – there is a modest fee to cover the meals and so on, and the whole pilgrimage is well organized. And, despite the heat, I loved every moment of it.

As we walked, we were of course unaware of the specific crisis that would break over the Church as the summer ended, with revelations of sexual abuse and cover-ups, and more… but we were well aware in general terms of the problems in and around the Church, and we carried these with us as we trudged. That is all part of what a pilgrimage is about – especially this one, which is dedicated to the New Evangelization.

The pilgrimage begins at Bury St. Edmunds, the ancient town centred on the great abbey – ruined following the destruction under Henry VIII – where Magna Carta was drawn up. Mass is celebrated here in the ruins, a wonderful experience. We all then gather at the nearby Catholic church, for a wonderful welcoming supper in the hall, followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Evening Prayer in the church: a beautiful candlelit experience. We stay the night there – ladies in the parish school, men in the hall – sleeping on the floor with our camping-beds and sleeping bags, ready for the pilgrimage ahead.

The New Evangelization has an urgency in Britain. In some of our cities, the largest number of people at worship week by week is that of the followers of Mohammed. Muslims have large families – a man may have three or four wives, each with several children – and there are large mosques and huge gatherings of the faithful. Our country needs Christ – we must pray, fast and evangelize, bring the truth of the Gospel. Perhaps the heatwave of this summer of 2018 is symbolic – our country is thirsty, dry and longing for refreshment.

On the first day of the four-day John Paul Walking Pilgrimage we cover some 20 miles. We start with Mass in the small town of Brandon, where the local Catholic parish provides us with a splendid breakfast – waffles and fruit and cream – and then we set off through the Norfolk countryside. Plump pigs grunt and guzzle as we pass the big pig farms. Golden wheat rustles in the vast prairie-size fields awaiting the roar of the harvesting machines. The glorious medieval churches await our visits. On the second day of the pilgrimage we have Mass in one of them, warmly welcomed by the Anglican vicar who, touchingly, comes up for a blessing from our Dominican priest at Communion.

We picnic, we pray the Rosary, we sing, and we listen to superb talks on the sacraments and on the Scriptures as we walk along. At night we pray Evening Prayer together. At the small village of West Raynham, members of the local Anglican parish bring us homemade cakes and offers of accommodation: the bliss of having a shower and bedding down comfortably in a cool house is indescribable!

Treating the blisters, and coping with our discomforts in the long hot trudge, is all part of the pilgrimage. And when, on the final day of walking, we reach the ancient shrine, and join the vast crowd of other pilgrim groups for Mass, there is a sense of time and history converging. The shrine at Walsingham was established in the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, our last Saxon King. It was a time of worry about the future: the religion of Mohammed had occupied the Holy Land and pilgrimages there were now impossible. In Britain, the whole future seemed uncertain: the king had left no heir, there were pagan Vikings attacking our coasts, and within a few years there would be a successful Norman invasion which would change things for ever. In 1061 the future was unknown, but there was vision, consolation and a renewed dedication to the Mother of God. At Walsingham, the shrine of the Holy House was established – and this place became England’s Nazareth, a center of massive pilgrimage for centuries to come.

I am at home now, back in London, blisters healing. Wounds do heal, but there will be fresh ones: sometimes it feels frightening to look ahead, which is why on pilgrimage it is better to take one day at a time, praying, helping one another, sharing this thing together.