By BERNARD PHILLIPS
THINGS have never gone 3smoothly in Walsingham. Even the pious widow Richeldis, who founded this shrine of Our Lady in 1061, ran into difficulties over its site. Nine turbulent centuries later. it would be too much to expect Walsingham to escape the wind of change which swept through the
post-Conciliar Church. .
After the desecration of the Holy House at Walsingham in 1538, devotion to Our Lady went underground until 1897 when the first formal pilgrimage since the Reformation took place.
The site of the ancient shrine was in lay, non-Catholic hands where (pace persistent wishful thinkers) it is likely to remain. But a mile south of the village, in the valley of the River Stiffkey, stood the last of many wayside chapels which were once strung out like the beads of a giant rosary along the green lanes which led to England's Nazareth—the Walsingham Way.
It was to this little chapel, so insignificant that it had escaped the worst pillage, that the 1897 pilgrims came, and it was here that the National Shrine of Our Lady was restored.
Used for centuries as a farm building, this last of the slippe chapels had somehow retained its old name, which means
branch or offshoot. Its modern spelling, slipper. has inspired many quaint speculations involving monastic passageway and bare feet.
The restored shrine flourished until 1939, but in the difficult post-war period Walsingham came low on the list of diocesan priorities, preceded
by more immediate pastoral needs such as churches and schools.
However, in the Marian Year a new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was officially crowned by the Apostolic Delegate acting on behalf of the Pope.
In 1968, the Marist Fathers, at the invitation of Bishop Grant of Northampton, took over the administration of the shrine which until then had been one of the local parish priest's duties. Their instructions were to make the shrine relevant to the needs of the modern world, to chart a Walsingham way for the Seventies.
They were to bear in mind that devotion to Our Lady should be a healthy. vital force in Catholic life and that Walsingham had always adapted itself to the needs of successive generations.
It was soon obvious to the new administrator, Fr. Roland
Connelly, that pilgrimages were in decline and that those which did come were, with a few notable exceptions, confined to certain age groups from certain parts of the country. The National Shrine, it was felt, should be drawing pilgrims of all ages from all parts of the country.
Today, regular pilgrimages come from London and Birmingham as well as the traditional Marian centres in the North. The Walsingham message is spreading.
All the same. a majority of the 2,500 pilgrims at this year's national pilgrimage came from the diocese of Northampton. There is a long way to go before Walsingham becomes the National Shrine in fact as well as in name.
One obvious drawback was the shrine's notorious lack of basic amenities which used to add a new dimension of embarrassment and discomfort to the concept of penitential pilgrimage.
This situation has now been remedied with the provision of an extensive "service area" behind the Slipper Chapel with ample toilet and medical facilities and an independently managed repository. _ The next step will be a new outside altar to replace the existing shabby structure which dates back to 1938 and is quite unsuitable for a modem liturgy.
As well as modern amenities and a liturgy appropriate to 1970, emphasis is placed on ideas. Discussion groups, retreats and even theological conferences reflect the administrator's aim — shared by Bishop Grant — that Walsingham should take a lead in establishing an authentic Marian theology.
Relations with the neighbouring Anglican shrine have never been easy, often complicated by rival claims and unseemly squabbles about sites and dates. At the moment, however, an atmosphere of cautious cordiality prevails.
This is just as well, since the Post Office, in true ecumenical style, has decreed in its latest directory that the "R.C." and "Anglican" (sic) shrines share the same telephone number. (The unfortunate Walsingham R.D.C. is omitted altogether.) Walsingham is essentially a sad place. There is nothing cosy or reassuring about devotion to Mary here.
She is the Virgin of the Annunciation, and as the modern pilgrim pays his shilling to visit the site of her desecrated Holy House he must realise that the message delivered in Nazareth went beyond the Crib at Bethlehem, to the slaughter of the Innocents, to Calvary.
But down the road, at the slippe or Slipper Chapel, an authentic offshoot of this longdead shrine is alive and flourishing.