Sunday, October 19, 2008

Unity at the feet of Bernadette - Canon Robin Ward

This article, by the Principal, appeared in the Church Times on 3rd October 2008:

When Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher visited Pope John XXIII in 1960, the first visit of its kind since the Reformation, he was apparently astonished when the Pope’s initial remarks included a warm com­mendation for the revival of the shrine at Walsingham.

Fisher was no Anglo-Catholic, but even where the Oxford Movement had made more progress than it had in his headmasterly mind, anything other than the most subdued Marian devotion has generally been seen by most Anglicans as impossibly exotic and potentially superstitious.

Of course, the culture of Marian devotion in the Roman Catholic Church appeared to lend justification to this suspicion: apparently detached from any firm scriptural moorings, it built binding dogma on tradition defined by papal decree, and then surrounded the ensuing theological superstructure with a visionary, often apocalyptic piety. Not for nothing has the ARCIC process struggled most to find consensus in the area of Mariology.

So, when Dr Fisher’s successor, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, agreed to join the pilgrimage or­ganised by the Society of Mary and the Shrine of Our Lady of Wal­singham to Lourdes in this 150th-anniversary year of the Marian apparitions there, he was committing himself to a bold ecumenical act; for Lourdes is not a sanctuary that can be taken moderately: it is pre-eminently the shrine at which Mary is honoured as the Immaculate Conception, the title by which Our Lady revealed herself to the peasant girl Bernadette at the rubbish dump of a small Pyrenean town in 1858, only four years after Pope Pius IX had defined Mary’s freedom from Original Sin as part of the deposit of faith. Indeed, the pen with which he carried out this act of magisterial machismo is preserved in the treasury of the shrine.

There is, of course, just enough An­glican theological straw with which to make bricks here: Thomas Ken writes of Mary as “cleansed from congenial, kept from mortal guilt”; and Jane Shaw has shown us more recently how the miraculous was more prominent than we once thought in post-Reformation Eng­land.

But this pilgrimage led by the Archbishop, and in which eight bishops, 70 priests, and 500 laity took part, was not looking to be tentative. It was coming to the place where, pre-eminently, for millions of souls over the past 150 years prayer has been valid, and to bring our own penitence and intercession to the grotto of the apparitions, which has been called the “ear” of the Catholic Church.

The boldness of this gesture was matched by the generosity of the welcome we received. The Arch­bishop’s banner flew over the shrine grounds for the duration of the pilgrimage. At the great International Mass at the heart of the pilgrimage, 20,000 people heard the Archbishop preach, while one of our deacons read the Gospel in English, and our ordinands served.

In his homily, the Archbishop compared Bernadette’s encounter with Mary to that of Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke, where Mary comes as a missionary of the Christ she bears in her womb, passing on this joy­ful truth not by “the commu­nication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a prim­itive current of spiritual electricity”.

At Lourdes, Mary calls to Bernadette as one unlettered virgin peasant girl to another, and the message which she brings is what the Archbishop called “our ‘Elizabeth’ moments — when life stirs inside, her­­ald­ing some future with Christ that we can’t yet get our minds around.”

The Archbishop developed this theme subsequently in the ecumen­ical colloquium that took place with Cardinal Kasper: the physicality of Mary’s God-bearing elucidates both the grounding of the gospel in history and the way in which that history finds its continuation in the sacra­mental life of the Body of Christ.

What did the pilgrimage achieve? Cardinal Kasper described it as a little miracle of ecumenism, and there were many powerful, moving images to bear this out: the Guar­dians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham taking part in the torchlight pro­cession; the Arch­bishop walking bare-headed behind the Blessed Sacrament as the desperately sick were blessed; his meditation and prayer in the grotto of the apparitions.

For us, as individual pilgrims, there was the opportunity to fulfil our own intentions: to receive reconciliation and forgiveness for our sins, and for the sick to pray for healing of body and soul.

The success of the pilgrimage as an ecumenical event owed everything to the willingness of inspired indi­viduals to transcend old differences: the perseverance of Fr Graeme Rowlands, who for 30 years has been bringing Anglicans to Lourdes, and the willingness of the Archbishop to express through pilgrimage the eirenic search for common ground which has been the inspiration of the ARCIC process.

As Anglicans committed to the Catholic character of our inheritance we were left with a hard question: what justifies our continued separa­tion from those with whom we share so much?