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  Administrator's Letter



"Sacred Air" in a secular world


Bishop Lindsay Urwin OGS, the Shrine Administrator (who returned to Australia at the beginning of September 2015) writes:

So in a few weeks I will become like the rest of you. I will become a non-resident pilgrim. No longer will I be just a couple of minutes away from the charism of Walsingham which is the Holy House, a gift that I must admit I have sometimes taken for granted over the past six and a half years. And like most of you I will be trying to stay faithful and focused on Christ while breathing the secular air of Western culture.

Time and again pilgrims to the Shrine have said as I have walked around the refectory greeting them at supper after the 6 p.m. Pilgrimage Mass on Saturday.“Eeh Father, that were a loovely Mass!” (I shall so miss those northern pilgrims who are our mainstay) But what is it that makes a mass ‘lovely’, or seem more lovely than other masses?

My egocentric self would of course love to think it was something to do with the way I offer it and, while there is no doubt in my mind that a mass that is prayed by the president provides all the possibility of the community seeing and hearing the most blessed voice of the risen Lord at his Table, it’s not that, though I can say I do try to pray it.  Or maybe it’s to do with the music, and indeed we work hard to allow music to lead people beyond the words and themselves to the mystery of God, to the edge of Glory. Or the homily perhaps, again mainly preached by yours truly! Or is it that the church is generally full and that’s always an encouragement and provides a feel good factor?

I have come to the conclusion that it’s not simply a matter of the mass and the way it’s done. It’s as much to do with the ‘air’ in Walsingham, an ‘air’ which most have been breathing for twenty four hours or so before they gather for the “lovely Mass”, and that this ‘air’ is one of the great gifts of Shrines and monasteries to the Church, indeed the world. It’s an air that can make us ready, more open to experience the depth of the Divine Love, the Grace and the kindness that is of course available at every mass, every ritual entrusted to the Church. It’s sacred air.

By contrast, secular air makes for ‘stony ground’ with its tendency to lead the gift of imagination into flights of fantasy rather than to the reality of God’s kingdom ‘in heaven and on earth’.  It is ground that, however beautiful the landscape, has forgotten God or abandoned God, and the glorious reality that men and women are made in his image, and made above all else to worship and enjoy him forever. The ‘stony ground’ of secularism does by its very philosophy believe that everything ends in death, and so will have quite a different view of what life means and how it should be lived.

I’m not claiming for a moment that there is no goodness in secular people and that in some way religious people have the monopoly on wisdom and goodness! But I struggle to find the compass that gives consistent direction to the moral life in that tradition, or from where a consistent understanding of human value emerges. Secular democracy has brought many good things in its emphasis on individual liberty, but there seems to be less and less of a common mind about the appropriate constraints to that liberty, to ensure that one person or group’s freedom isn’t at the expense of another’s

Secularism with its tendency towards individualism struggles, or so it seems to me, to provide a reason why I should make sacrifices for others outside my circle, or why my well being is bound up with theirs. On this stony ground, free of the commands of God, mercy is in short supply.  The most abiding reality of the Divine Love and the discipline of mutual love is overwhelmed by economic systems that favour the self regarding provision of the few or the able, with provision for the poor as dependent on affordability, offered with a hint of largesse.  

There have been times, are times, when the Church (and me too!) has allowed itself to be overwhelmed and attracted by the secular worldview.  But then, it seems that God,  in his generosity, provides new places to breathe sacred air and raises up new, often young, people living the sacred way. I am sure that Walsingham is one such place.

Walsingham, in spite of its faults and failings is often experienced as ‘soft ground’. It’s soft because it is consecrated, and is seeking to live out that consecrated vocation 24/7. Bells ring as a reminder that all time belongs to God and what’s more, a God who has become ‘made of the earth’; rooms and corridors draw the eye to crosses and holy images; the garden is designed to immerse you in the greatest story ever told; cassocks and habits a reminder that frail earthen vessels are entrusted with riches. Few hours, even minutes pass by here without a candle being lit and a prayer, however faltering, said and acts of piety are expressed by tourists who surprise themselves with their actions, and strangers are welcomed as friends. It is sacred ‘air’ and as long as it remains so will Walsingham be true to its vocation.

In this sense, Walsingham is a place of persistent and loving protest amidst a forgetful nation and, sometimes, Church. Its life is offered not sitting in judgement, nor unappreciative of all the good in our culture that is not done consciously to glorify God, but believes that in the end all good, acknowledged or otherwise finds its source in him.

Here we feel a particular vocation to pray for priests and deacons, indeed for congregations who join this protest in parishes up and down this land. Lives lived most of the time in secular airspace, they struggle faithfully to bear witness to the reality of the sacred. Often only experiencing that sacred air in snatches, like in the hour and a quarter on Sunday morning, when there’s hardly even time for them to make that difficult transition.  But they keep on!

I am somewhat fearful of how I will fare living immersed in the secularity of ‘marvellous Melbourne’. It’s a great place to live, and voted one of the best in the world, though not by the measure of holiness or Godfearing-ness. I’m looking forward to it.  But the ‘lovely Mass’ will be at the heart of my daily life there too, and the ‘Prayer to our Lady of Walsingham when absent’ an urgent prayer.

+Lindsay OGS

Prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham when Absent

Most Holy Virgin,
I kneel in spirit before your Shrine at Walsingham,
That sanctuary blessed by your visits, favours and many miracles.
I unite myself with all those who have ever sought you, and seek you now, in that holy place.
I offer you my life and devotion, asking you to remember that I am numbered among the pilgrims who have sought your intercession in the Sanctuary of your choice.
I renew the promises and intentions made when I last made the pilgrimage.
Dear Mother, Our Lady of Walsingham, remember me.

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