Written by Philip Murray, Ordinand.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
On entering the Shrine Church at Walsingham, pilgrims come immediately to the Annunciation Altar. There, in bright white and Marian blue, that tremendous moment at the beginning of the Incarnation is depicted in still simplicity. The Angel Gabriel kneels in petition; the Blessed Virgin Mary sits in quiet humility; the Father looks on expectedly, surrounded by the heavenly host who wait in nervous excitement on her word. “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum” pilgrims read on the Altar—the angel’s first voicing of those words uttered by countless Christians ever since. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”. And on reading these words, pilgrims can’t help but think of Mary’s reply: the proper prayer of all who, like her, seek to follow her Son: “be it unto me according to thy word”.
These words, of course, have a particular significance for those preparing to take Holy Orders in the Church. Mary’s unhesitating acceptance of God’s call on her life, her complete self-giving in service of God’s plan for his creation, is the ideal that guides all of us in formation for the diaconate and priesthood. It was appropriate, then, that the Annunciation Altar was where pilgrims from the House gathered at the beginning of our pilgrimage to the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The pilgrimage was, in a sense, already well under way. We had made the not-very-long journey across the Fens, the many verses of the Walsingham Pilgrim Hymn sung with gusto on the bus (Ave! Ave! Ave Maria! still rings in our ears). We’d visited the Slipper Chapel at the Roman Catholic Shrine, and availed ourselves of the plenary indulgence offered to all pilgrims crossing through the Mercy Door during this year’s Jubilee of Mercy. We’d walked the Holy Mile to the Anglican Shrine, many of the braver members of the House barefooted. But it was at the Annunciation Altar, as S. Luke’s account of the Annunciation was read, that our spiritual pilgrimage got properly underway.
Walsingham is a microcosm of the Church, a place where a myriad of individual Christian vocations are woven together into something that supports and guides all those seeking to follow Christ: the Lady Richeldis de Faverches, asked by the Blessed Virgin Mary almost a millennium ago to build a replica of our Lord’s childhood home; Fr Alfred Hope Patten, called to rebuild the shrine in the 1920s and 30s after its destruction during the Reformation; the priests and deacons who have ministered at the shrine from that time since, singing the Mass and offering pilgrims the healing waters of the well. And so our pilgrimage to Walsingham gave us the opportunity to bask in this same spiritual atmosphere, as we sought to draw closer to God for guidance and support in our formation. In the Holy House we were reminded of the humility of Christ; at Mass we were shown once again of his generous, sacrificial giving; in Benediction we dwelt on his on-going presence in the world; at the waters of the well, we were shown the healing that only faith in Christ can bring. All of these are things that we, as men and women who—God willing—will one day be ordained, will be expected to model, as we serve as a reflection of Christ in the communities to which we’re sent.
Walsingham, then, is chiefly a place of vocation: the vocation of Mary, who’s unwavering Yes to God forms the very basis of our faith; the vocations of all Christians who’ve made pilgrimage to Walsingham, aided by the prayers and example of Mary, Mother and Model of Vocations as they seek to follow her Son. As we came away from the Shrine, we too were refreshed in our own vocations. Through a day of prayer, communion and frivolity, we were made more able to say, with Mary, “be it unto me according to thy word”.