“In this eastern corner of England a simple house was built almost a millennium ago as a replica of the family home of Nazareth so all generations in this land would never lose sight of the place of the home and family in God’s plan. The family is we could say “the house” which shelters the precious gift of human life because in Saint John Paul II’s striking phrase humanity “passes by way of the family.” And amid all the changes to kingdoms and constitutions this Holy House of Walsingham stood in witness amongst us to the family as the first and vital cell of society. In the message we have received from Pope Francis’s personal representative, Archbishop Mennini, the sanctity of human life and family life are spoken of together. Pope Francis speaks of his closeness to us on this pilgrimage for life in prayer “for the protection of life and in reparation for all those sins which violate and undermine the sanctity of human and family life.”
Today, amid a new crisis which has shaken our still United Kingdom the witness of Walsingham reminds us how the well-being of society will always depend on the foundation of the family. On the health and strength of this first cell of society rests not a political union but those timeless bonds which hold human society itself together. And wherever we have allowed the institution of marriage and this house of the family to fall into disrepair the Family of Nazareth offers us in Saint John Paul II words “the incomparable model of how new life should be welcomed and cared for” (Evangelium Vitae n 102) The Gospel shows us how this Holy Family stood secure in their union amid the hardships of homelessness in Bethlehem and as refugees in Egypt. Likewise, our society will hold together in its deepest bonds, Walsingham reminds us, when we begin to rebuild the neglected fabric of the family founded on marriage. It is precisely this “crisis of the family in the context of evangelisation” which Pope Francis wishes us to address in next month’s worldwide, Synod of Bishops in Rome.
Today in Walsingham we recognise the need for what Pope Saint John Paul called “a general mobilisation of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life” (EV. n.95). In the passage of St. Matthew’s Gospel read in churches across the land this Sunday we are reminded we cannot stand idle, like the workers a landowner found at the eleventh hour who were asked: “why have you been standing here idle all day?” (Matthew 20: 6). We are being called even at the eleventh hour to become workers in defence of the sanctity of human life, to re-build all that the Home of Nazareth represented for those who first built this nation. And we each have our part in labouring to build what Saint John Paul II called “a culture of life and love.” I have been asked by children in our primary schools what did I do during the Second World War? I had to explain to them that despite my aged appearance I wasn’t here to do anything! However, one day we will surely be asked what did we do for the cause of life at this moment of crisis across the western world? In our own last hour we will be asked whether we stood idle all day or whether we prayed and made reparation, used our own voices for the defenceless and gave witness to the sanctity of human and family life.
In Walsingham today we hear the words of Our Lord “Go to my vineyard” (Mt. 20: 5) a vineyard like these fields around us which require constant labour year after year. It will surely be a tireless work in our time to uphold the sanctity of the family and affirm the value of every human life from conception until natural death. Pope Francis, following his predecessor Pope Benedict, has emphasised how we must show what the Church is always “for” as well as what the Church is “against.” The building of a culture of “life and love” in which every human person is valued is surely the most positive cause imaginable. However, we must make reparation for any way in which we have allowed the Gospel of Life to become portrayed as something sour or negative. “The Gospel of life,” the great Pope of the Family declared “is not for believers alone: it is for everyone … the question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and cares about the future of humanity” (EV n. 101). May we present this Gospel of life to our contemporaries not as those “sourpusses” with the demeanour of “pickled peppers” Pope Francis strikingly refers to in his recent letter, but as people bearing the greatest message, the Gospel of Joy.
At certain moments we might feel humanly speaking this labour is beyond our strength in the face of the powerful forces ranged against us. However, on this pilgrimage to Walsingham “let us discover anew the humility and courage” in St. John Paul II’s words, “to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit” (EV n.100). Let us entrust this prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham here where the Home of Nazareth was visibly raised-up for the people of our land. Let us rededicate ourselves to the cause of life, to building a “culture of life and love” with faith, with joy and with renewed labour!”
+ Mark, Bishop of Shrewsbury