Will it work?
Next year, 2020, will see the re-dedication of the faithful people of England and Wales to Mary.
Scotland was thus dedicated in 2017 in a powerful ceremony at the Marian grotto in Carfin. Now it is England’s turn.
This dedication has a notable history. Back in 1381 in the reign of Richard II, following a time of social unrest, the king presented England to Mary as her “dowry”. The event was recorded in a finely detailed painting which has become known as the Wilton Dyptych: it shows the monarch, flanked by St John Baptist, St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund of East Anglia, kneeling before Mary who holds out the Christ-child wrapped in cloth of gold and is surrounded by flower-crowned angels with soaring wings pointed Heavenwards.
A special bond
But the notion of England as having a special bond with Mary goes back beyond the 14th century to the last years of Saxon rule, another time of uncertainty and turbulence. In 1061 the Saxon king, Edward the Confessor had no children, and no one was sure who would be the next ruler. Pagan Vikings continued to attack Britain’s coasts. The Holy Land, in these years following the first Christian Millennium, was in Moslem hands, something which felt shocking.
In the farthest Eastern part of England, some six miles from the sea, the manor was held by the Royal family of Harold, who seemed likely to be chosen as the next king. The manor’s name, Walsingham, indicated an even older heritage: the prefix “Wals” was the Saxon name for a place of Romano-British people, denoting a group of “Welsh” or “strangers” - Christians, with beliefs strange to the first Saxon barbarian invaders who had arrived as the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th century.
So when, in 1061, the (now Christian Saxon) Royal lady of Walsingham – to whom history has given the name Richeldis – announced that she had received a vision from the Holy Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, people listened. This was not something random. This was something deeply rooted in the land’s distant and living past – a past that went back to the first arrival of the Faith long centuries before, travelling the roads and seaways of the Roman Empire and coming to Brittannia at an unknown but certainly very early date. Following the collapse of the Empire the Faith had been taught anew with the arrival of Augustine and a team of missionaries from Rome, sent to evangelise the Saxons – and Walsingham bound together these two strands.
The command from Mary, as announced to Richeldis in 1061, was to construct a new Nazareth on English soil. Nazareth itself could not be reached – it was in Moslem hands and effectively banned to Christian pilgrims. Walsingham must be a substitute: a place of prayer, of holiness, of petition, of consolation.
Thus the shrine was established, five years before the Norman Conquest which produced immediate and massive changes in the nation’s life: we number our kings from William I, and date our national sense of ourselves with reference to 1066.
Devotion to Mary was central to life in Medieval England: Walsingham was a shrine of international importance and thousands flocked there annually from across Europe. And it was just one of many shrines across the country, some of them of greater antiquity. Flowernames, place-names, pub-signs, songs and rhymes all echoed devotion to Mary in popular culture.
In more recent times - 19th and 20th centuries - a sense of Catholic identity in England focused on the story of the destruction of the shrines and abbeys in the 16th century, and the recusant years that followed. But in this 21st century something new began to emerge: with no Empire, and with the disappearance of the sense of a “protestant identity”, England’s longer history slipped back into focus and with it a sense of the presence of Catholicism. Two world wars, massive immigration, and all sorts of events that would at one time have seemed impossible – including two Papal visits – shifted attention away from a version of history that had dominated since the Tudors.
And so to the re-dedication of 2020 an initiative of the Bishops of England and Wales, to be carried out by the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham on the Feast of the Annunciation . A prayer-centred action, beginning with a Dowry Tour of the image of Our Lady, taken to every Catholic Cathedral in England. At each one, a Triduum of prayer, Masses, and devotions. The message one of renewal, missionary zeal, and a commitment to the new evangelisation. These events and their associated literature and displays have drawn together various threads: from a 15th century document in which an Archbishop of Canterbury called for renewed Marian fervour, via the words of Leo XIII in the 1890s emphasising the importance of Walsingham, to Pope St John Paul’s visit in 1982 when the Walsingham statue was carried to a massive gathering in London (at Wembley) and placed on the altar.
Groups involved in the re-dedication include Youth 2000, EWTN the Catholic television network, and New Dawn the charismatic gathering. At one time, these were all new and somewhat marginal groupings within the Church – not so now, as each has grown and flourished somewhat against the odds along with a revival of Eucharistic adoration and fresh enthusiasm for the Rosary. They join older groups including the Knights of St Columba and the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, and newer ones including Shalom TV and Animate youth ministries.
This dedication is for everyone. The faithful Christians of modern Britain include many whose ancestors came only fairly recently to these shores. The biggest annual pilgrimages to Walsingham are those of the groups from the Indian subcontinent
and from the Caribbean. The most thriving parishes are those with many Catholics from Kerala, Sri Lanka, Nigeria or the West Indies. “England” is a geographical expression, but not a racially homogenous one. We are a great mixture – and if the attendance at the various cathedrals so far, is anything to go by, the actual English among the Catholic faithful getting involved in this re-dedication are a minority.
How things stand
Will it work? Asking people to dedicate themselves to Mary seems out of keeping with modern secular Britain. But is it? Things are bleak. The biggest single cause of death among young men in Britain is suicide. Knife crime dominates the youth sub-culture of London and of several other cities. Large numbers of people are regularly hallucinating through the use of marijuana, the scent of which is often all too evident in many suburban streets across the country. Other drugs are sold by criminal gangs using schoolchildren, a trade involving millions of pounds. “Sexting” – stripping, taking a self-photograph, and then sending this image to friends for group leering - is a standard teenage and pre-teen activity. Pornography is everywhere on the internet and its use is on a massive scale. And we are dying – fewer and fewer children are being born, there is much loneliness as marriages break up or are never formed, the elderly are denied proper bonds with their grandchildren.
None of these things are easily tackled by use of law or commerce. Is it so stupid to try prayer?
Will it work?
The Catholic Church is the biggest Christian denomination in Britain in terms of numbers actually attending church: this is not because we are large but because other groups are even smaller.
This re-dedication is not a piece of noisy Catholic showing-off. It is, rather, a plea for maternal help that unites us with the faithful of past centuries and in real humility takes us to our knees. Catholics know only too well the sins of the Church as well as the sins of society. And it is our tradition to invoke Mary’s aid in times of trouble and misery.
Our society needs to recover a sense of God’s loving presence, and a renewed sense of respect for his will. Let us learn this from Mary our Mother. In England, the Dowry of Mary, the faithful, for centuries, have made pilgrimage to her shrine at Walsingham. for centuries. Today Walsingham comes to Wembley, and the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, present here, reminds us it is Mary who will teach us how to be silent, how to listen to the voice of God in the midst of the busy and noisy world. We need to live as Mary did, in the presence of God, raising our minds and hearts to him in our daily activities and worries.
- Pope St John Paul, England, 1981.
And Marian prayer has, or should have, a sort of non-threatening quality. This is not about enforcing anything: the Church “proposes, she imposes nothing”. Just as the millions who visit Lourdes or Fatima each year include some who are not Catholics or whose faith is confused or limited, so this re-dedication can speak to those who would be untouched by stern rallying-calls, denunciations of sin or announcements of Catholic beliefs. It is a form of pre-evangelising. Mary can surprise us. Many Catholic evangelists have discovered that the gift of a Miraculous Medal or a Rosary can often achieve what a Scriptural tract or missionary exhortation cannot. An invitation to place our country in Mary’s care is a gentle thing.
In this time of need
We invite our readers, Catholic and non-Catholic, to join in the preparations for a rededication of our country to Mary, the mother of the Saviour. Her “yes” at the Annunciation was in a mysterious sense necessary for the Saviour to come among us. We should add our “yes” to this call to prayer in this time of need.