Reconciliation, Reparation and New Memory - Essential First Steps to Visible Unity
In response to Pope John Paul II's call to conversion, spiritual renewal and human unity in Christ towards the close of the Second Christian Millennium, the Catholic League reflected on its contribution, in terms of its own history and objectives. Recent guidelines on popular devotion and making pilgrimage had suggested that, despite great advances on the road to reconciliation - such as common witness, shared spiritual traditions, collaboration in social justice, and growing affinity in worship and doctrinal understanding - some important first steps need to be retraced. Reconciliation needs penitence, humility and mutual forgiveness, as Father Paul Couturier had taught the Churches from the 1930s onwards.
But these genuine feelings need in turn to be embedded in the lives and hearts of Christians on the way to Unity, as well as in the day to day consciousness of what it is to be the Church. It is part of being one, like the Father and the Son, so that the world may believe the Church's proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul thus spoke of the 'purification of memory', and Pope Benedict XVI, from the very beginning of his Petrine ministry, has called for 'concrete acts of unity'. So our prayer for Unity and all our ecumenical endeavours ought to be characterised by a sense of reparation: concrete acts that repair the damage and divisions of the past, purify Christians' sense of memory and history and, since they are gifts of God's own grace, restore for the future the sight of our 'unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace'. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente Pope John Paul called for a 'new memory' for the way that Christians recall the martyrs who died as a result of strife and mutual persecution between Christians because of division and disintegration within the Church. For England this addresses a still keenly felt separation arising from the Protestant Reformation. But hurts from other parts of the Church and its histories are present too. An attitude of reparation, a conciliatory approach to different views of history and an embrace of the whole of the Christian past so that it may be fruitful for unity in the future is therefore at the heart of what the Catholic League is working for.
For more on our work and support towards reconciliation, visit our sister websites
The League's Nicholas Mileham Ecumenical Chapel of Reparation
Nicholas Mileham was martyred on the Martyrs Field at Walsingham in 1537, following the protests made by those who feared the destruction of the shrine by the agents of Henry VIII. He had been sub-prior of the Augustinian Priory. The night before his death he was held, a manacled prisoner, in the cellar of a house in High Street, Walsingham, opposite what is now known as the Abbey Gateway. Thomas Guisborough, a layman, was also held there and subsequently suffered the same fate as Nicholas.
As with many buildings in Walsingham, time has seen these premises in the High Street change in use and fortune. In recent years, the cellar, under what is now the Sue Ryder shop and tea-rooms, was known only by those with a real talent for finding arcane sites of unusual religious or historic significance.
Fr Philip Gray, Vicar of Mendlesham in Suffolk and for many years Priest Director of the Catholic League, had initially seen a picture of the Martyrs' Cellar in a book of photographs of Old Walsingham. It seems highly likely that the seeds of the events that eventually took place in April 2004 were sown when Fr Philip saw this book. He and his wife, Anne, who had between them written and illustrated the book, "Rosary Around Walsingham", were able subsequently to visit the cellar in 2000 – finding it dark, damp and full of rubbish. The idea for its transformation, conceived then, was received enthusiastically by the manager of the Sue Ryder shop and, when put to the Council of the Catholic League, by them as well.
The Martyrs' Cellar was then included in the Catholic League’s Rosary Pilgrimage of Reparation in 2001, when the more agile members of the pilgrimage gingerly descended the difficult stairs into the less than welcoming room. There they offered prayers for reparation amidst the empty bottles and broken brushes, by the light of a single bulb suspended from a fraying flex. But – to use a well-worn phrase – there was a vision. It was not of a ghostly sub-prior, but for the restoration of this damp little cellar to its rightful place amongst the Holy Sites of the Holy Land of Walsingham.
A long-serving officer of the catholic League at that time was its General Secretary, Geoffrey Wright, widely known as arranger of pilgrimages, "MC to the CofE" and a passionate worker for Christian Unity. Sadly, he did not live to see the vision come to fruition. After his untimely death in 2002, it was decided that the altar in the chapel should be made and given in his memory. Others too, however, shared and developed the vision; and, through long months of sometimes considerable frustration, progress was made. As Christians, we should not be surprised when things just seem to fall into place, but we always are. Judith Brassley and her husband John had taken over the management of the Sue Ryder shop. She was one of those who knew about the Cellar before she moved in, and she too had a vision of it, restored and used again, but lacked the funds to do anything about it.
So out of these visions, shared and expanded to include many other people, a project was launched. To clear and redecorate the cellar, to make it as far as possible accessible and safe, to furnish it with an altar and to make it available for pilgrims to use for prayer and Eucharist - with the particular emphasis on reparation for past wrongs. From the outset, it was to be an ecumenical project – despite the challenges and problems which that posed.
After various and frustrating delays, much hard work and many telephone calls, all came together on Saturday, 17th April, 2004. On a weekend when Spring was trying hard to make us believe that it was Summer, the crowd at the Sprinkling at the Well in the Anglican Shrine included some for whom this was the beginning of a larger event. Then Fr Philip North, Administrator of the Anglican Shrine, in his address before pilgrims went to the well, mentioned the forthcoming blessing of the altar and invited those present to join the procession from the Shrine to the Sue Ryder building. This they did in considerable number, priests and laity following thurifer and crucifer past the Pump and along the High Street before making the rather tortuous entry to the Sue Ryder Chapel, which is at ground level behind the shop. The chapel was full – very full. All the service sheets that Fr Norman Banks, vicar of Walsingham, had prepared - even the ones he was sure we would not need - were pressed into use.
The first part of the Service of Blessing – the Liturgy of the Word – was conducted here so that everyone could take part. Fr Robert Farmer (vicar of St Mary's Wellingborough), then Priest Director of the Catholic League, Fr Michael Rear from the Roman Catholic Shrine, Fr Norman Banks, vicar of Walsingham, Fr Philip North, administrator of the Anglican Shrine, Fr Brooke Lunn, editor of the Messenger of the Catholic League, Fr Mark Woodruff (from the diocese of Westminster and a member of the League's Council) and others were involved in this part of the service. Then the Council of the Catholic League, Simon Marshall (the craftsman who made the altar), a representative of the Sue Ryder foundation, Fr Philip North and Fr Philip Barnes, Anglican Shrine Priest, descended into the Cellar whilst the others were enjoined to pray in silence for unity and reconciliation.
In the Cellar, now transformed with new lighting, newly whitewashed walls and a sturdy handrail by the stairs, Fr Rear blessed the altar with prayer, holy water and incense. The altar is of light oak and is square, having a small inset altar stone with relics of St Constantius beneath. It stands on four pillars joining it to a square base, in the centre of which is a carved representation of the badge of the Catholic League, showing the Key crossed with the Pastoral Staff, indicating the ministry and authority of the successor of Peter to set free from sin and to strengthen the Church with his pastoral care and teaching. It is hoped that in due course a display board will be provided, which will record something of the history of this historic site, the genesis of the vision for its restoration, and that the Altar is provided by the Catholic League in loving memory of Geoffrey Wright and the visible Unity of Christians.
The Cellar party returned to ground level and joined in Vespers. All present then received a card showing Nicholas Mileham, the Catholic League badge and the Collect for Martyrs. Refreshments were provided in the Sue Ryder café. It should be recorded that Geoffrey’s mother had made a generous donation towards the cost of the altar. In her late eighties and recovering from a broken pelvis, she felt unable to be present herself, but Geoffrey’s cousin made the journey, as did a party from St Matthew’s Church, Ponders End, where Geoffrey had been Churchwarden for many years.
In Walsingham, where uniquely there is close co-operation between Roman Catholics and Anglicans centred on devotion to Our Lady, Mother of the Church, the Catholic League is honoured to have been able to facilitate the opening of this site. It is much to be hoped that individuals and groups of pilgrims from Anglican, Roman Catholic and other traditions will make a point of going there to offer prayers for reparation and Unity and to thank God that Nicholas Mileham, Thomas Guisborough and so many others did not die in vain. A year on, and a small, steady stream of Unity pilgrims have found there way there, not failing to celebrate the Holy Mysteries.
Sadly, a few years after the dedication of the chapel and the altar, the Sue Ryder Home and shop closed. Our altar of reconciliation is currently in storage, but it is hoped that it can be restored to Prior Mileham's cell when it again becomes accessible.