By Thomas Colsy
As I write this, I am still steeped in the elation and buzz of a typically strong afterglow. I have Gloria, laus et honor, Te Deum laudamus, Chez nous, soyez Reine, Loch Lomond, and I vow to thee, my country ringing in my ears.
The Latin Mass Society’s annual pilgrimage to Walsingham saw record numbers this year. Its growth is stark, rapid and promising. When the initiative began 14 years ago it had some 12 attendees. In 2021, that number had risen to 120. In 2022, to 167. This year saw over 200 sign up for the full three day pilgrimage.
As is the case across the traditional movement in the Church, there is true vitality here. And for anyone who attends, it is easy to understand why.
Much of that may have to do with the momentous effort put in by the event’s organisers and helpers in feeding and safeguarding hundreds of pilgrims (many of whom are young). Or it may have to do with the quality of the preaching by the traditional Franciscan friars and the priests who make the walk throughout. But the raw spiritual power of little Walsingham itself and the ancient liturgy seems to do much of the rest in making these three days magical.
Walsingham has something intensely mystical about it. Once the fourth most popular pilgrimage destination in all of Christendom, it is where Lady Richeldis de Faverches was miraculously gifted a perfect replica of the Holy House at Nazareth after Marian and angelic apparitions. It is truly and quintessentially English, an icon of Catholic England– pre-industrial, green, silent, prayerful, beautiful and tranquil. A transfigured window into what we could have been– and can still yet be.
“When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England,” promised Pope Leo XIII. “Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed,” informed Our Lady. I have found the latter reliably true. We will see about the former, but perhaps there are signs it is already beginning.
I arrived on Thursday evening later than I ought, in a disorganised and frustrated state (spiritually and otherwise), yet instantly such feelings began to be assuaged as I was reunited with dear old faces– the traditionalists from my time at university up in Durham, a seminarian who had kindly gifted me much of his time and friendship at Wigratzbad last June, and various priests I recognised.
The first meal was soon served that evening. While Dr Joseph Shaw led the pilgrimage, his wife– Lucy Shaw– and a generous team of women laboriously took care of the catering over the weekend. For the next three days, the prospect of nourishing hot food before and after the long walks would keep us going.
So the next morning, after Mass at St Etheldreda’s, some invigorating hot porridge and plentiful new introductions to fellow pilgrims, we made our way out of Ely, along its extensive canal, for Norfolk. The crested tower of its iconic cathedral (the “Ship of the Fens”) gradually disappeared behind us.
As we walked, each of the five chapter groups of pilgrims prayed and sang the rosary, various litanies, and vernacular hymns as well as secular folk songs in an organised manner. This would continue for the duration of the walking over the three days. But between these there was always time to become acquainted with one another.
As we headed deeper and deeper into the elegant Norfolk countryside on the second day, through its fields and pine forests, I had begun to become friendly with numerous new faces and characters. These included: a Slovak father of seven living in northern Scotland who can only access the traditional Mass on the many pilgrimages he walks, a woman named Silvia who travels two hours every Sunday to her traditional parish and two highly educated Catholics my age named Rob and Stefan. All exuded visible fervour and devotion.
Saturday’s Mass saw an episode of something a little unusual and unexplained. It took place in Swaffham, which was well celebrated by the choir and Fr Thomas Crean OP. However, a great portion of the pilgrims (including myself) all-of-a-sudden found it difficult to maintain consciousness. I just about managed to fight through it (though I felt temporarily greatly ill), as did– I noticed– the pilgrim beside me.
Afterwards I found out that a couple of the group including one of the friars had actually fainted. Stefan confessed to me as we ate lunch in the aftermath that he barely remembered the Epistle or various parts of the Mass– identical to my experience. There was murmuring about what may have caused this: temperature, lack of water, fatigue.
These may have been factors but I’m not wholly convinced. I drank an adequate amount of water that day nor did I notice the temperature as unusual in either direction.
At one point one of the Marian friars named Anthony, a tall, contemplative, and bearded man who originally hailed from Africa, left me with rousing and incising– correctional, even– advice regarding consecrating myself to the Mother of God à la St Louis de Montfort. I am glad there are much wiser and holier folk than myself, it’d be quite bleak if there weren’t. It’s a cause for gratitude and wonder.
We made a much-needed stop in the time-preserved medieval village of Castle Acre, and paid our dues at its anguished ruined abbey before heading to the pub, feet aching and looking to relieve what was now beginning to be severe fatigue.
Soon, to lift up the mood, a friend named Hugo and our chapter’s cantor decided to sing the Dies Irae purportedly for the intention of a dead pigeon. That it is such a stirring, beautiful prayer and chant which easily moves the listener to reverence and contrition I am sure had little to do with it.
We pulled into our location for the evening in Great Massingham yelling Jubilate Deo at the top of our lungs and chauvinistically– also successfully, I might like to add– attempting to outcompete other chapters in volume. (Chapter four easily won this competition.)
Later, at the adjacent pub to our campsite pilgrims offered to one another moments of deep bonding and spiritual insight. I was warmly reconciled to an old female friend I’d been on uneasy terms with for some time. There is little to rival grace in healing and forgiveness.
On Sunday, the glorious choice of singing O Filli et Fillae solemnised the mood just in time before we pulled into the Catholic shrine on singing Gloria, laus et honor.
The sun was shining. The fields were green and pleasant; the traditional and iconic Norfolk cobbled stone welcoming. We had made it.
There wasn’t long before Mass, which was led magnificently by Fr Serafino Lanzetta, the leader of the traditional Marian Franciscans.
The now much larger group of pilgrims were also reminded that in the traditional liturgy of the Mass, communion is only distributed onto the tongue (not the hand) and that communion is only for Catholics in a state of grace. The choir helped elevate the laity into the heavens and the mystery of the sacrifice of the Mass with the help of William Byrd’s Ave Verum and a fine mariological sermon.
The once sunny skies opened right at the close of the Mass. This would have caused great problems had it happened any earlier. So pilgrims donned waterproofs as they lined up for the chanting procession and the holy mile to the abbey grounds barefoot.
The waters had no dispiriting flavour. I interpreted them as a sprinkling with hyssop– a benediction from the skies. My zeal had returned, and I felt encouraged.
As if by way of approval, the sun returned as we kissed the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham on the spot where the Holy House had been located. Someone even captured a photo with our pilgrim band in the foreground, the ruins in the background, and both a lone dove (wings spread) and rainbow in the skies.
One might have thought these traditionalists would have a mournful, fearful attitude given recent clampdowns and censures instigated by members of the hierarchy and Curia. But this is not so. There really is a confidence and certitude that the storm shall pass and we will inherit the Church.
We said our goodbyes, better friends to one another, and thoroughly nourished in the Faith. I’d spent less than a few hours in this esoteric little Norfolk village before, but there is something truly homely about it.
A locution I returned home with was that I could not afford to be as withdrawn and eremitic as I had been of late. There is burning faith, wisdom, and dynamism in the mystical body– it pays to be connected to it.
The pilgrimage may appear to be on a relatively small scale– undoubtedly there’s some truth here – but as was the movement which began with twelve meagre apostles in a far, distant land some 2,000 years ago. It always begins with a mere mustard seed. The pilgrimage has to be one of the success stories in the English Church. Who can tell how consequential it may turn out to be?