Devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham

Devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham

The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, the Slipper Chapel, Walsingham, Norfolk, England.

The month of May, always dedicated to Mary, takes on special significance this year with the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s appearance in Fatima, Portugal. Marian devotions such as these (e.g., Lourdes, Guadalupe, Montserrat, Lujan, Czestochowa) are not technically included in the public revelation given by God for the sake of our salvation — this is traditionally understood to have ended with the death of the last apostle, Saint John on Patmos (cf. Dei Verbum 4: “we now await no further new revelation”). However, they have long been an important part of Catholic spirituality and piety. Some are incredibly familiar to us, while others have pockets of devotion unbeknownst to many other regions of the world.

This is perhaps the case concerning one such historic title to Mary popular here in England, where I am working on some summer projects for Loyola before heading to our campus in Rome. Though there is a National Shrine to Mary under this title in Williamsburg, Virginia, many Americans do not include Our Lady of Walsingham in their own regular veneration of the Virgin.

Dating from a vision by the Saxon noblewoman Richeldis de Faverches in 1061, Our Lady of Walsingham was once one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe. The carved image of the seated Queen with the royal Baby on her lap was regularly visited in Eastern England by the ruling monarchs up to and including Henry VIII, before his definitive split with Rome. The Slipper Chapel, about a mile away from the shrine, was where pilgrims left their shoes before travelling the last leg of the journey barefoot as a sign of their penitence and self-mortification.

Unfortunately, the bitter religious wars in the wake of the Reformation and the rancorous roes with the popes over the governance of the church in England resulted in the destruction of many sites of Catholic religiosity, including shrines, monasteries, and artwork. The liturgical rite of Holy Thursday’s “stripping of the altars” before Good Friday is famously used by Eamon Duffy as an allegorical device in his sweeping history of this specifically British iconoclastic moment. One casualty of this “stripping” was Our Lady of Walsingham, whose shrine was confiscated and destroyed by the anti-Catholic forces of the King, and whose central wooden icon was carted off to London and burned.

In calmer historical moments, the devotion was revived through Anglican and Catholic collaboration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A medieval seal in the British Museum was found and used as the inspiration to recreate the sculpture. Today, it plays an important role in English Catholic identity, with the image widely circulated around the country. I quietly contemplated an image of it in Westminster Cathedral this week, pondering Mary’s rather severe, resolute jaw beneath a squarish crown juxtaposed with the long delicate branch of lily replacing a scepter in her regal hand. There is a formality and seriousness to the uncomplicated image that is less alien to the restraint typically found in some currents of British culture than is the exuberance of Latin American spirituality or the grandiloquence of Italian Baroque images of Our Lady.

In December 2015, Pope Francis recognized the impact the devotion has had on English Catholics and the tens of thousands of pilgrims committed to it (including communities inspired by Anglicanorum Coetibus), granting Minor Basilica status on the Shrine. A BBC poll recently identified it as “England’s most spiritual place.”

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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