It was the look on their faces! Twenty-five schoolchildren from inner city London encountering for the first time a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle on a Walsingham farm. The cattle obliged with much mooing and snorting, and once they got used to it, the children loved it.
It was all part of a two-day residential visit during which the children explored the village, learnt about its history, and therefore some of the most significant periods of the history of our land, and above all experienced a place of Christian pilgrimage – not a place where people used to come from far and wide to worship, to pray, to light candles and to ask for Mary’s prayers, but a place where people still come to do all those things, a living, breathing, vibrant and amazing place of pilgrimage, prayer and holiness.
Throughout the pilgrimage season, and especially during the summer months, the Shrine welcomes thousands of children from schools in Norfolk and from further afield on visits which offer them a unique and hopefully memorable experience of Walsingham. They are amongst the many other children and young people who come to the Shrine all year round with their parish groups and on the Children’s, Families and Youth Pilgrimages or to make up the serving team at the National Pilgrimage and the Pilgrimage of Healing and Renewal.
Young hearts are constantly touched and young lives changed here at the Shrine and many older pilgrims testify to the impact Walsingham had on them when they were young, how it brought them to faith, and the vital part it has played ever since in their spiritual lives. As a place which celebrates the ‘yes’ of the teenage Mary to God and honours God’s coming into the world as a child, this should not surprise us.
One of the most significant developments in the life and ministry of the Shrine in recent years has been its work with children and teenagers. The specific pilgrimages offered for them through the year are now so much part of the Shrine’s calendar that it is easy to forget that they once did not exist at all. What a wonderful sign of God’s grace and Our Lady’s guidance that this work has been so fruitful and positive and become a gift for which the Shrine is renowned in the wider Church.
The recent appointment of Caroline Ward to the newly created post of Schools & Young Pilgrims Officer is a clear sign of the Shrine’s continued commitment to this important work. Working alongside the Shrine clergy and the excellent team of teachers in the Schools Department, Caroline will be seeking to develop the programmes currently offered to school groups and what the Shrine offers to all our young pilgrims through the year.
The absence of children and teenagers (and their parents), evident in many of our churches, is a real cause of concern and demands our prayers and attention.
Walsingham has the unique ability to speak of the joy, hope, peace and holiness which comes from God through Christ the Son of Mary, and evidence abounds of the way in which pilgrims of all ages hear this message at the Shrine and are affected by it for good.
Please pray that this new chapter in the Shrine’s work with children and young pilgrims will encourage many more to discover the Walsingham Way, help them to encounter the love of God and the joy of the Gospel which lies deep in the heart of England’s Nazareth and to know the special place Mary has for them in her own heart.
Your friend and fellow pilgrim,
Fr Kevin Smith