By CLARE SIMON
Br the lonely shores of Bala, the largest lake in Wales, thousands of pilgrims in this Our Lady's year will converge on Sunday for what is expected to be the largest demonstration ever to be held in honour of Our Lady of Fatima in that centre of Nonconformity.
The tiny village and the lakeside, setting for many a historic openair festival, will be the centre for a great gathering during which the statue of Our Lady will be crowned, and High Mass at 4 p.m. will be celebrated by Bishop Petit of Menevia at a new open-air altar.
Special trains are due from the Midlands and the North of England, thousands will arrive by car and on foot, and pilgrims from Ireland will he accompanied by hands from Dublin and Rock Ferry, If you ask a typical pilgrim to Bala, the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in North Wales, what he thinks of it all. he will probably reply: "Oh, well, you know, Bala Is Fr. James."
'Our Lady's tool' This is not as odd as it sounds, for you have only to see Fr. James himself walking down the high street of Bala in the cold winds blowing across from the mountain ranges to understand that this man, who modestly describes himself as "Our Lady's tool," is no ordinary parish priest.
Born in Holland, he is a small man with the candid bright eyes that belong only to the very young or the very holy. Fr. James came to Bala in 1946 fresh from his work in the African missions, with a dream in his heart and a very different sort of mission in mind.
Two years later, Fr. James was on his Bishop's doorstep. He wanted, he said, to dedicate the tiny church he and his handful of parishioners had converted out of an old stable to Our Lady of Fatima.
"Our Lady of Fatima?" Bishop Petit, the youthful-looking Bishop of Menevia said incredulously. Our Lady of Fatima belonged to the hot sun of Portugal, to crowds of enthusiastic Catholic peasants carrying fruit and flowers, an Our Lady of glamour and warmth. This was Bala. a great still, silent lake set in the Welsh hills, with a railway from London running near by, flurries of snow, dour people who spoke only when spoken to. In a population _of 1,400 the Catholics numbered, incredibly, less than 30.
A Welsh Saint ?
"Oh, no," said Bishop Petit firmly. "Why don't you have one of the Welsh saints?"
Fr. James's face fell. He didn't want a Welsh saint. His mouth set in a stubborn line.
"Oh, all right." Bishop Petit said hastily—recognising, perhaps. in Fr. James the unreasonableness of all the greatest beggars for God or His Mother—"Our Lady of Fatima it shall be."
So Mary came back to Bala—to a little dark chapel, hidden out of sight behind what was once a fish-and-chip shop. From the high street the only sign of a church is a lonely cross above the shop, which is now Fr. James's presbytery.
But here and there side roads cross
BALA : THIS IS THE REAL THING
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ing the main street form to the discerning eye the shape of a cross. and every year crowds of barefooted pilgrims —among them mighty Bishops. a lonely hiker, nuns and monks. parties of tired climbers from near-by Snowdonia—walk past rows of staring Nonconformists, singing the "Ave. ave. aye, Maria" which is sung thousands of miles away in Fatima.
They have come to do honour to God's Mother in the shrine she chose for herself. with the human cooperation of a small, anxious friar who eagerly counts the numbers of pilgrims; a priest in the tradition of the great Welsh martyrs Blessed Richard Gwyn and Blessed David Lewis; a man who, although he is not a Welshman himself, may one day prove to have been the humble tool helping to bring dour Wales, with its hard. true people, with its bleak but solid houses, back to what it was before the Reformation—the birthplace of saints.
But meanwhile the inhabitants of Bala—stout Nonconformists most of them. with closed faces and simple clothes, who talk among, themselves in Welsh — look wonderingly on, years of distrust and suspicion of Our Lady warring with an earlier, almost forgotten, memory in their minds.
"This is the real thing," one of them remarked almost involuntarily in the hearing of a Catholic pilgrim; and it is obvious that the great hunger for religion, which caused the Welsh 400 years ago to abandon their Catholic Faith and take to Methodism because there were no priests to minister to them, is still alive in Wales today. In the three years before 1953, Fr, James's converts numbered exactly four. But he is a missionary priest, used to cracking tougher nuts than this, and he looks on the people and the little town he has grown to love as a challenge—a challenge to himself and to Our Lady.
Four limes the grey street unusually wide in a part of Wales where the roads are apt to be narrow and stony — has resounded to the Rosary and the "Ave" of the pilgrims—pilgrims from all over England, pilgrims from the Continent, from places as far away as Australia.
And before the pilgrimages, the two great ceremonies of the inaugural Mass in the little church, and the carrying of the statue of Our Lady which was specially carved in Portugal for the shrine. Throughout it all, the pilgrims—the hot, packladen cyclists, the sodalists who have tramped 60 miles, singing as they go, through the narrow roads of Wales— have seen a rough symbolism in the fact that Bala Catholic Church is actually a stable.
That is Fr. James's work up to date, He is a tired man now, and the centuries-old cobwebs which clung to him during the work of reconstruction when he laboured in loneliness for the tow of Our Lady with his bare hands still seem to cling to him. But he sees himself as nothing; and, pointing to an exquisite piece of antique oak carving in his presbytery, he remarks that work like that, although achieved with the poorest of tools. brings honour to the maker. He adds:
"The honour cif what had been achieved here must not be given to
the poor tool whom Our Lady chose to use. hut to the Mother of God herself."
It does not seem to have occurred to the shabby. black-clad little friar. who all this past week will have stood anxiously outside his presbytery door watching and waiting for great and yet greater crowds of pilgrims next Sunday, that, although thousands may forget the tool, it is never forgotten by the maker.