The annual Forward In Faith and Society of Mary day pilgrimage to Ladyewell is approaching, (7th June , http://www.ladyewellshrine.co.uk/) so the summer is clearly approaching as well. Ladyewell is a very attractive place, set in the Lancashire countryside, with a fine Parish Church, shrine, outdoor Church, relic Chapel, bookshop, cafe and all the other essential paraphernalia of a truly great Marian shrine! About four hundred people are expected to form the procession this year, accompanying the statue of Our Lady from the Church to the Shrine for an open air Mass before a picnic lunch, sprinkling with the waters (for where would a shrine be without a supply of miraculous water!) followed by Benediction given by the Roman Catholic Priest administrator of the Shrine. Everyone is, naturally, welcome.
So why doe we go on pilgrimage to Marian shrines if we believe in the real presence? Would we not just gaze adoringly at the tabernacles in our Parish Churches or indeed gaze adoringly at our own hands, for they have touched the body of Our Lord? Is it that we feel a need to 'tread where the saints have trod', to be in a place which has been associated with the Divine since before we know and which has felt the footsteps of people coming here long before us? Is it a slightly Pagan gathering in a 'gathering place', used as such for mystical purpose and therefore hallowed for that use? Is it just that it is good to be together, to meet new people who share our convictions and to remind ourselves that we are not alone? One of the great lost chances of the English Roman Catholic Church was in moving Holy Days of Obligation pertaining to Our Lord Jesus to the nearest Sunday, killing the day at the same time as killing the associated devotions and, therefore, teaching opportunities for people to grow in the Faith. Far better, if the RC Hierarchy of this land will allow me to say, would have been for each Deanery to choose the biggest Church and have a great High Mass for the Deanery on the Thursday, with the massed Choirs of all the Churches, the serving teams all pulling together and all the Priests to produce, preferably with the involvement of all the schools, a really beautiful Mass and an 'event' which would have brought all those people associated with the servers, choirs and children together for this special day. Instead, it is transferred to a Sunday and, except for a change of vestments, the day is unremarked upon.
The sadness of this is that an opportunity for collegiality has been by-passed. The chance to walk in procession as a greater number and bear witness at an unexpected time has been lost. One of the most inspirational vocations videos for years was the American one showing a Priest delivering a motivational talk to a congregation before a procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the streets of what we were supposed to believe was a downtrodden part of New York. You could feel the positive energy rolling off this film, and the subliminal message that 'this is a really good thing to do' oozing out of the magic lantern. However, this is a fairly unique happening, but the second message was 'Christ is really present in this host and it is good and beneficial to show Him to the people outside'. Weigh the cost of the Real Presence very heavily in your mind when looking at the future. The cost is ultimate, but the benefits are never ending. Thus it is with pilgrimage, it is good to come together in hope and faith in Christ Jesus, guided by Mary and looked upon by the Saints. People have put themselves under the patronage of Mary since she gave birth to Her Son and they shall do for longer yet, so in this country, referred to as 'Mary's Dowry', it is doubly fitting to meet to worship the Son in a place dedicated to His Mother. Whatever qualities the waters might have, whether you choose to avail yourselves of the plastic statues or not, whether you really like looking at jauntily painted statues of Padre Pio or not, whether certain parts of the liturgy irritate you or not, this is a good and useful thing to do. Pilgrimage, at it's best, brings you closer to God and even if, like me, you would rather meditate in silence than enter into the carnival, the carnival is where people are, and there we must go. When I was asked what sort of Parish I would like to serve my curacy in, I said 'one with people in it'. This is the essence of pilgrimage, both mine and yours, both our life pilgrimage and a day pilgrimage to Ladyewell or Walsingham, we are to go where people are, as Christ did and as his holy Church does.