As you know, the Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was placed under the care of the Marist Fathers for many decades until five years ago when the last Administrator, Alan Williams was appointed as the Bishop of Brentwood.
Sadly, the Marist Fathers were unable to continue to look after the Shrine and the parish of Walsingham so the search for a Diocesan priest to oversee the running of the Shrine began. The Shrine needed someone with energy and vision – and I knew just the man for the job. So fair exchange is no robbery – Brentwood had taken Alan Williams – perhaps they would provide the new administrator.
Negotiations began, and Mgr John you were the result! You arrived here just over five years ago. Little did anyone suspect the amount of energy and generosity you would bring with you to the Shrine which I know you have loved from your early days. Rather than bringing with you a breath of fresh air, you came from the East and created a whirlwind which has captivated and inspired so many different people in so many different ways. These last five years have been a very significant ones in the life of the Shrine.
Mgr John – you came with a vision for the Shrine which was rooted in your own deep spirituality and your love for Our Lady. First you knew that at the centre of this place there must be a beating heart of prayer before anything else could be achieved under God.
So it was not by chance that the first building to be renovated was Dowry House, generously given to the Shrine on a long-term lease by a local Catholic family. It stands opposite the ruins of the Priory Church where the original Shrine stood until it was destroyed at the time of the Reformation. In its cellars were imprisoned the Walsingham martyrs before their execution.
You invited the Community of our Lady of Walsingham to oversee it as a place for people to make retreats and to find a space of peace and refreshment in busy lives. In the chapel there is 24-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – at the heart of the village and in the homes of thousands of other people as it is live streamed each day across the world.
And just recently you negotiated with the Franciscans to return to Walsingham after nearly five hundred years to live and pray and work in the village and the Shrine. We are greatly blessed by these two communities and all the religious who work here.
You also knew how important hospitality is for Pilgrims – both those who stay in Walsingham and day pilgrims. You have achieved what was thought to be impossible – the upgrading of Elham House which can now welcome groups of young people, the less able bodied and the sick.
And for both these projects you have managed to find generous sponsors who were willing to support them.
The longer-term renewal of the Basilica and the grounds here and of making better provision for the increasing number of Pilgrims is an ongoing work, but you have set us on a road from which we cannot go back. We thank you for the great energy and time you have given to all these matters and particularly in your negotiations with the local authority, the police and the local people.
You have facilitated so many projects during your time here. You have built up the ecumenical relations with the Anglican Shrine. You have used modern technology to the full to promote the Shrine – EWTN has arrived in the village. And you set up a permanent live streaming of the Mass and other celebrations which are enjoyed across the country and the world. The Shrine was a huge blessing for so many thousands of people during the recent lockdown, connecting them to their faith. And there is so much more.
But by far your greatest undertaking has been the promotion of Our Lady’s Shrine and the Message of Walsingham. Here you have presided over the increasing popularity of the Shrine with a huge growth in the number of pilgrims.
The recent Pilgrimage of our Lady to the Dioceses of the country, has been a wonderful venture and has drawn great crowds to honour and pray to Our Lady. This pilgrimage culminated in the re-dedication of England as the Dowry of Mary by all our Bishops on the first Sunday of the Lockdown. On that day, over five hundred thousand people tuned in to the live streaming from Walsingham and joined in the re-dedication prayers. it will be seen as a defining moment in the history of the Church in this country – facilitated and drawn together by you, Father.
You would have thought that all of this would have taken a lifetime’s work – not just five short years. That is the measure of the Rector you have been, Fr John. You have served our Lady and her Shrine with deep commitment, with outstanding enthusiasm and patience in spite of the many setbacks and obstacles that you have encountered on the way.
The Church in England and Wales owe you a great debt of gratitude.
We know that you are looking forward to returning to normal parish life in the East End of London – Canning Town. You go with an assurance of our gratitude, our prayers and good wishes for the coming years. May God bless you – and may Our Lady of Walsingham protect you with her prayers and maternal love.
Pictured above are Bishop Alan Hopes and Mgr John Armitage