Joanna Bogle is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. She is the author of some twenty books, including several historical biographies and A Book of Seasons and Celebrations with information on traditions and customs marking the Church year. Her most recent book is John Paul II - Man of Prayer with colleague Clare Anderson, exploring the spiritual life of St. John Paul the Great. She broadcasts regularly with EWTN and has recently initiated popular Catholic History Walks around London. She blogs at “Auntie Joanna Writes” and EWTN’s “Catholic Journalist in London”.
Next year, 2020, England will be dedicated anew to Our Lady of Walsingham. It will happen on the Solemnity of the Annunciation at Walsingham, the ancient shrine that has been a place of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years.
England was first dedicated to Our Lady in 1381 by King Richard II, at a time of division and unrest and at the initiative of the king. England became “Mary’s Dowry.” This is central to the nation’s story, and the dedication is shown in the famous Wilton Dyptych, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. In the image, the king kneels before Our Lady and presents the country to her.
The rededication in 2020, led by the bishops of England and Wales, comes as fresh challenges face the country. The rededication will be, as the official “Dowry Tour” website notes, “the personal gift of the faith of the people of England to the Mother of God, to seek her help in building a strong spiritual foundation for the New Evangelization.”
Today, we use the word “dowry” to mean the money that a bride brought to her marriage, but the medieval meaning was different. It was the portion of money that a man set aside on his wedding day for his wife, to provide for her always, even in widowhood. The word essentially referred to something “set aside”: So England has been “set aside” as a gift to Mary.
The bishops of England and Wales are making this project central to the life of the Church over the next months. The Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is visiting churches, shrines and cathedrals across the country, with special services, prayers and Masses. This “Dowry Tour” has been spread over two years and began at Liverpool Cathedral in June last year. It has already gone to, among other places, Brentwood, Salford, Hallam and Middlesborough Cathedrals. As I write, London awaited the pilgrim statue, at St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark, on Feb. 21, and after the ceremonies and devotions there, it will take off again to visit East Anglia’s cathedral in Norwich, before returning to London’s Westminster Cathedral in March. Then it sets off again for Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Arundel and more. Not only will every Catholic cathedral receive the statue, but also extra groups like the Bishopric of the Forces and the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The National Shrine at Walsingham explains the re-dedication: “We call upon Our Lady to guide and protect our country in the years to come, that the people of our country may work together to build a common good, as we seek to embrace the truth of the Gospel that inspires us to create a culture that respects life, embraces the great diversity of our people, and inspires all to a greatness of heart that will serve our community, seeking the good of others before ourselves, especially the poor and the marginalized of our world.”
In an ecumenical gesture, Westminster Abbey — founded by St. Edward the Confessor in the 11th century and now Anglican — will have a day in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham on May 4. It will include Marian devotions and a lecture by Eamonn Duffy, Britain’s leading Catholic historian. And Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, will preach at a special Evensong.
This is all much more important than a mere statement of the facts indicates. Westminster Abbey is where King Richard made the first dedication, back in 1381, on the feast of Corpus Christi. It is where Pope Benedict XVI was greeted at an ecumenical gathering during his state visit to Britain in 2010 before he went across the road to Parliament to address a gathering chaired by the speaker of the House of Commons and attended by representatives from across Britain’s political and civic life.
In a striking way, this rededication marks a new vigor for evangelization. Catholic bishops in England have for a long while tended to steer clear of too much talk of a need for any very dramatic renewal of the nation’s spiritual life. This new Marian emphasis marks a fresh chapter: It offers an understanding of the need for spiritual renewal by drawing on a gentle and attractive message from deep in our history. It is at once deeply Catholic and open to everyone.
The spiritual state of the country is certainly such that Our Lady’s care is needed. Knife crimes and teenage suicide are now major problems, huge numbers of babies are aborted annually, public funds pay for the promotion of homosexual and lesbian lifestyles, and there is a high rate of family breakup. There is increasing pressure to legalize euthanasia under the guise of “assisted suicide.” Drugs, particularly cannabis, play a large part in the everyday lives of many, with destructive results.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham long predates the reign of Richard II. It was established in the last days of Anglo-Saxon England, in 1061. St. Edward, founder of Westminster Abbey, was then king. It was a time of uncertainty: Just five years later, upon St. Edward’s death, the country’s future would be battled out at Hastings, with William of Normandy the victor. Over the next centuries, pilgrimages to Walsingham became important to the life of the Church not only in England but across Europe. For England, it was central: The throng of pilgrims every summer was so great that the constellation in the sky that we today call the “Milky Way” was known as the “Walsingham Way” because the myriad stars resembled the vast crowds that made their way to the shrine.
The shrine is enjoying a great revival at the present time, with renewed pilgrimages, large summer events and youth gatherings. A rededication of England to Mary in this 21st century is a powerful thing.
This blog was updated on Feb. 19 at 10:58am EST to indicate that the dedication will occur on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, not Assumption.