Friday, February 11, 2022


The 11th February in the Church’s calendar is when we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title, ‘Our Lady of Lourdes.’ Recently I spent an evening trying to organise past articles and essays on my computer and came across this piece I wrote in 1991 when I was Rector of S. John’s Horsham in the Diocese of Ballarat. It's about my first visit to Walsingham and then Lourdes. I put the article aside to share with you today.


While it is true that in places like Western Europe and Australia churchgoing seems to be a declining habit, the great centres of pilgrimage surprisingly draw larger crowds than ever. And not just the already converted, but people from all walks of life searching for truth and reality. 

The tiny English village of Walsingham, in a remote corner of Norfolk, 190 kilometres from London, with its narrow cobbled streets and centuries old buildings set in the most beautiful countryside imaginable is just such a place.

From April to November each year a stream of pilgrims finds its way to this village. At the end of May the 'National' (as they say) takes place. Not a horse race, but a pilgrimage attracting thousands of people from all over England.

It all began in 1061 when Lady Richeldis of the manor had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary said that she was to set up a shrine honouring the holy house at Nazareth, and the ‘hidden years’ of Our Lord’s life. 

Our Lady went on to say that Walsingham would become a place of special blessing where people from all over would seek God and find him.


Each of Our Lady’s shrines draws attention to some aspect of the Gospel. Walsingham honours the hidden years of our Lord’s family life at Nazareth. 

Walsingham stresses the truth that through the mystery of the Incarnation God lived an ordinary human life, giving us the confidence that we can seek him, find him and know him in the ordinariness of our lives, and not just in those ‘spiritual mountaintop experiences’ with which the Holy Spirit might bless us from time to time. 

Walsingham helps us to be Gospel people who expect to experience God’s grace, life, power and healing to surge right there in what we sometimes think is the meaningless hum-drum of our unspectacular existence.



My first visit to Walsingham was in 1989. It was my first time in England, and I had tacked myself onto an ordinary parish weekend pilgrimage.

It was a blend of devotion and hilarity, penitence and joy, colourful processions, endless singing, and little children doing their own thing. The crowd, also, was spectacularly multi-racial.

The thing that surprised me most of all was that on this particular pilgrimage about one third of our party were not churchgoers, but had come with their friends for a weekend away. Some came purely as tourists. Some came out of curiosity to see if Walsingham was for real. Others had deliberately set out on a spiritual quest hoping that their deep and ancient longing for God might be satisfied.   

So many ‘ordinary people’ (that is, not just the clergy!) were sharing their experiences of the Gospel and the Faith over meals (and pints at the ‘Lion’ - the pub just across the road from the shrine). As a result of this some of us clergy had the great joy of praying with a number of non-churchgoers in our party who were opening their hearts to the Lord for the very first time.


A couple of weeks later, on a rather roundabout way back to Australia, I was sitting on the railway platform at Lourdes having spent three days at our Lady’s Shrine there. Lourdes is the small town nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south of France where in 1858 Our Lady appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a forteen year old girl from a poor family.

Our Lady spoke of our need for true conversion of heart to the Lord, and she highlighted the importance of ministry to the poor and the sick. She asked Bernadette to get a church built on the site of the apparition and promised healing blessings to all who would go there on pilgrimage. 

I treasure the memory of that visit to Lourdes, and hope one day to return.


While I was waiting for the train, dressed in clericals, an American back-packer in his early 20’s came up to me and told how he had stumbled upon Lourdes quite by accident a couple of months before. He had no church background at all, but out of curiosity had followed a trainload of pilgrims to the grotto where our Lady appeared to the young Bernadette.

Through the worship, the joy of the praying community, and the ‘magic’ of the place (or, as we would say, the Holy Spirit’s ‘anointing’), that young man found the Lord (or, rather, the Lord found him!). Then someone told him that he should start reading the Bible. So he got hold of a New Testament at Lourdes and had read through most of it during his two months of backpacking around Europe.

He was due to fly home to the USA from Paris, but came all the way back to Lourdes on the train, just for a couple of hours (literally), to thank God and Our Lady for the turn-around he had experienced in his life at that holy place.

He assured me that upon arriving home in the States he would seek out a priest and be baptised.

That young man is not unique. Despite the secularisation of the west there is a constant trickle of intelligent adults with no religious background responding to the Gospel of Jesus and the Catholic Faith, and coming into the worshipping life of the Church.   


We tend to concentrate on negative developments in our ‘post-Christian’ culture to the point that we don’t notice how many genuine seekers there are. 

So, while it is true that in countries like ours people can be extremely cynical about ‘organised religion’ and understandably turned off by the Church’s sins and failures, a survey carried out recently by the Australian National University indicated that only 7 percent of Australians ‘definitely did not believe.’ It also showed that many people prayed, that many people vaguely accepted the Christian creed, leading to the conclusion - in the exact words of the report - that ‘the much-touted drift from religion was greatly exaggerated.’

In other words, there is plenty to build on. God gives us such wonderful opportunities for evangelism. Can you imagine how it would be if all practising Christians took full advantage of the opportunities God gives us to share our faith with others.

So, it ought not surprise us to hear of unlikely friends and neighbours beginning their own spiritual pilgrimage.

It ought not surprise us that they find God, for at the heart of our Faith is the confidence that God can be found, and that he rewards those who diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)


Post a Comment