“The Ordinariate is not new, but strengths that have always been there are coming back and strengthening the Church”

Interview with the newly appointed Rector of the National Shrine at Walsingham, Mgr John Armitage. The interview was conducted by the Ordinariate’s Communications Officer, Catherine Utley, on 8 January 2015.

Mgr John Armitage (r.), singled out by the telephoto at the end of the Service of Lessons and carols, just minutes before this interview was made

Mgr John Armitage (r.), singled out by the telephoto at the end of the Service of Lessons and Carols, just minutes before this interview was made

C. Utley:
Speaking as a cradle Catholic, it seems to me that Walsingham is not embedded in the consciousness of most English Catholics in the way that other Marian shrines, such as Lourdes, are. Do you think that’s an accurate observation and, if so, what accounts for it?

Mgr Armitage:
If you look at the history of the Church in this country there are three very distinct periods – the pre-Reformation period, and then the penal times and then the rebuilding of the Church again. The strong influence on us at the moment is a result of the fact that we are currently living in that third period of our history, the rebuilding of the Church since the 1850s. Inevitably, the pre-dominant expression of the Church influences us and that has been that we have been part of a persecuted Church and then a Church that re-established itself. Those two periods were very strong in people’s minds, Therefore the whole time of the recusants and the martyrs are very much part of our strong history. However, equally, part of the strong history of the Catholic Church in this country is the Church pre-Reformation, and Walsingham sits at the centre of that history and I think what’s happened over the years is that that period of our Catholic story has not been as strong in the conscience of Catholics in England as the other two periods, of recusancy and re-building have been.

C. Utley:
And do you think the Ordinariate has a part to play in making that pre-Reformation period better known among Catholics?

Mgr Armitage:
I think that, just by its very name, the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham brings the knowledge of Walsingham to a much higher plane of knowledge among Catholics. I was delighted when I heard that it was going to take the title ‘of Our Lady of Walsingham’ because I think that just having the title can – and does – help. Obviously, among Catholics of the Ordinariate, devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham has been there as very much part of their history and so this devotion of Ordinariate members can strengthen the general understanding because, although Walsingham is the National Shrine, the majority of people would probably not appreciate that it’s the National Shrine. They may know that it’s the National Shrine, but they may not know why it’s the National Shrine and so I think that the Ordinariate can make a big contribution and I am very grateful, as the new Rector, for the great devotion of the members of the Ordinariate to this great pilgrim site in honour of the Mother of God. I think that, as the years develop, we have got these different parts of the equation that is Walsingham and I think we can build a knowledge of Walsingham through the different experiences that we have and I would certainly, as the new Rector, want to strengthen the knowledge of what it means to have a National Shrine to Our Lady and the significance of it, because the message of Walsingham is very clear. It’s around the Annunciation. Our Lady said ‘come and remember what happened in Nazareth and remember the Annunciation’. The whole event of the Annunciation is: the word became flesh and lived among us and that is not a ‘niche story’, so to speak. People can’t say: ‘I’m not into Walsingham’. That’s not what it’s about. Our Lady is pointing, not to herself, but, as always, to her son and the story at Walsingham is: remember what happened at the Annunciation, which is that the word became flesh and lived among us and her acceptance of that message from God was the key to our salvation. So, the fact that Our Lady took the trouble to appear to Richeldis in this part of our country is such a great honour and all the great titles that flow from that – of Walsingham being ‘England’s Nazareth’, of England becoming ‘Mary’s dowry’ – have their roots in Walsingham. Come to Walsingham!

C. Utley:
The Ordinariate group in Coventry has just established a branch of the Walsingham Association there and another Ordinariate group has plans to do the same later in the year. Perhaps others will follow. There is also a new Ordinariate group being formed in Walsingham and two Ordinariate sisters are resident there and work at the shrine. Can you think of other practical ways in which the Ordinariate might help foster devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham?

Mgr Armitage:
I’ve not arrived in Walsingham yet; I start on Ash Wednesday. But this year the Church is looking to encourage the whole Church in this country to engage, to see what it means to spread the good news and evangelise and I know that evangelisation is very much at the heart of the thinking and the mission of the Ordinariate. What does it mean to evangelise? Now, in Evangelii Gaudium, the last part of that amazing Apostolic Exhortation talks about Mary as the ‘star of evangelisation’ so that there is a particular Marian way to understand how we pass on the faith. There are two significant statues of Our Lady of Walsingham
at the Catholic shrine. There is the one in the Slipper Chapel which was crowned in the name of the Holy Father by the Apostolic Delegate during a Marian year – that was 1954 – but there is also the older statue that was there before that. I am hoping to bring that statue around the country to each diocese and areas within each diocese and it would be wonderful if the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham could support that and help in the logistics, because if she is the star of evangelisation, then we need to see how she can, for our present day, shine that light on our sometimes inadequate struggles to evangelise. In so many ways Our Lady shines her light on us and I think that, whatever is going to happen in the next year both nationally, but also in the way in which the shrine supports these national initiatives, that the role of the Ordinariate can be of great significance in helping to shine this light on Walsingham.

C. Utley:
Could I ask you for your general comments about the Ordinariate – which I know you have watched very closely since it was established here in the UK – and the contribution it has to make to the wider Church?

Mgr Armitage:
I was until recently the Vicar General of the Brentwood diocese and so, really from the beginning of the Ordinariate, I have been involved. We have had great blessings in Brentwood with the Ordinariate communities and the Ordinariate priests who have come to be part of our diocese, but in a very distinct way, as members of the Ordinariate. On just a purely practical basis, it has been a great blessing to have them there and it’s been an enormous practical help. But it’s much more than practical help, I believe. It’s really important to recognise that the Catholic Church is made up of a whole range of different families. I have been a parish priest in the East End of London for 30 years and so many of our different groups who are part of the Church have come from different Catholic traditions and they are Catholic traditions which when I look at them, I think: I don’t know these; I can’t identify with these, being from the Roman Catholic tradition and people think that the only tradition in the Catholic Church is the Roman one, the Latin rite. But there are lots and lots more. You try telling some of the members of the different rites that they are not Catholics and you get a very sharp answer! And so it’s important for us to recognise the breadth of Catholicism. Catholicism means universality and the Ordinariate is part of that remarkable patchwork which is the Catholic Church and brings with it a deep and profound, lived experience of the Christian gospel. And for us, I believe, the Ordinariate gives a particular strength in regard to the Scriptures and the liturgy and the particular life that has been a strength in the Church of England, which came from the Catholic Church anyway. And so the Ordinariate is not new, but strengths that have always been there and are being celebrated, are just coming back and strengthening the Church as it is in our country today. So I welcome the Ordinariate and look forward to it really finding a home in the place that belongs to its title.

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