The Pilgrims’ Tales (Walsingham Pilgrimage)

Nine months after first starting preparations for Quest’s Walsingham Pilgrimage, I left England’s Nazareth happy and uplifted, reflecting on a wonderfully touching weekend, full of warmth, openness and trust I had shared with a group of new friends.

As organiser, I was also left with much gratitude with how we had been received, and indeed with the whole process of planning the pilgrimage with the [then] Shrine Director, Fr Alan Williams, and Pilgrimage Coordinator, Julian Foord.

I first met with Fr Alan, now the new Bishop of Brentwood, on a busy weekend in August 2013, to discuss the possibility of organising a pilgrimage. In person, Fr Alan is earnest, gentle, and humble. My ‘gorilla feet’, reference to my footwear, were a funny conversation starter. I spoke about Quest, and we laughed at the difficulties of the word order in ‘LGBT’. Fr Alan hadn’t heard of Quest before, and he said we would be most welcome, and that certainly this was the first LGBT Catholic group to visit Walsingham – there had been an HIV-related pilgrimage a long time ago, but we would be the first openly LGBT group. He also told me that a support group of that kind was great, and for me to ‘keep going’.

We were sensitive in choosing a date where we would not encounter a staunchly right-wing pilgrimage group, which would not be in anyone’s interests. I was struck at how Fr Alan, in his role, has to warmly receive people across the whole spectrum of Catholicism, and indeed how beautiful that diversity was. In his words, he tried to ‘stay in the middle’ and avoid getting too close to the cliff edge on either side. His honesty really touched me, and I am sure his experience and sensitivity will make him a tremendous Bishop.

A request I made was to be able to have a bidding prayer in the Pilgrim’s Mass for us, to pray for inclusion of all people in the Church, especially those who had felt they had been marginalised. Usually, bidding prayers were decided in advance, but I told Fr Alan how much this prayer would mean to some in our group, and he gladly agreed to include this on the day. Indeed, the prayer was noted by members of our group, and warmly received. Fr Alan was interested in our group – the priest, Fr Kieran, and we discussed the spiritual content of the weekend, and how best to schedule those activities. Fr Alan was also interested in me and my PhD in Norwich, he had also completed a science PhD and we shared our experiences.

I finalised details with the guest house where we were to stay, and completed arrangements for the procession we were to have with the statue of Our Lady, as well as the timetable, with the Pilgrimage Coordinator. In all of this, my experience was of complete acceptance in all my dealings with everyone at the Shrine.

Over the weekend, Julian was attentive to organising the items for our procession, and came to find our group in the grounds, to make sure all was going well and if we needed help. We were clearly conspicuous since some of our group were wearing Quest t-shirts, but we were warmly received – Fr Kieran in concelebrating at Mass, members of our group helping with the collection, in the grounds of the Shrine, and processing through the town. Fr Alan remembered me when we met again over the Pilgrimage weekend, and spoke openly to Fr Kieran and myself about his thoughts on the change in moving to Brentwood, and again, made time to ask me how the PhD was progressing, and my future plans, as well as talking with Fr Kieran about his religious community.

• Ania Kowalski

Laughter, Love and a Very Large T-shirt!

It seemed that we were to be blessed from the moment I arrived. The warmth and sunshine was characteristic of what I thought I should expect in Southern France. The lanes were full of wild white flowers that reminded me of a picnic we had as children back in the sixties in a different world.

Having parked the car outside the village I walked through the picturesque few streets to the accommodation noting the flags along the high street set out as if for royalty? Either our current queen was coming for a visit, the villagers were fond of colour, or the true queen of this world, ‘Our Lady’ was being feted. I chose to think the latter. I was happy.

The crowd from London arrived on time to make up ten of us in total, six guys and four girls with Fr Kieran leading, a lovely man. I was pleasantly surprised at this stage to be issued with a VERY large T shirt with the Quest logo and the words lesbian and gay on it. Fine, fab, no doubts in any girls’ mind here then. I had thought I was on the petite side of large, not XXL! I quickly changed into this billowing white tent and enjoyed the way some people would read this and politely ignore or pretend they had misread. Aren’t the British lovely? I was to find that the people in our group were just lovely, how to describe them … warm, open, children of God, interesting, beautiful, funny, broken, part mended (like me), normal, full of life, holy! What a blessing to be with them.

We all made our way to the main Catholic shrine which, although modern, was welcoming and enjoyed a sublime Mass. I was intrigued by the Slipper Chapel. It was easy to imagine pilgrims from another age making their way here on foot and trusting in Our Lady to guide and support them on their way. The Mass was like coming home.

After Mass we carried a statue of Our Lady and the Christ child with an iconic cross through a lane buzzing with bees, full of butterflies and the constant sound of birdsong. It made a change I thought, for me to be carrying Our Lady, when for years she has carried me through some dark and lonely times.

Kieran was wonderful in his humour, commentary, prayers and witness, truly put her in the here and now to provide the chrism on our time together.

The meals together were easy, mellow, relaxed and full of laughter tinged with wide-eyed wonder at some of the stories I heard. The outing to the pub in the warm balmy evening brought a lovely mix of scouse humour and amazing commentaries on life, the universe and how to lisp (If that’s the right word? Maybe blow a covert raspberry would be a better description) when dealing with recalcitrant young men!! … ask me some time or better ask Ruby and Kieran, I still can’t do it LOL. They say a family that prays together stays together, I’m not sure of that. I can say that as we prayed together, sat around the benches and trees behind Elmham House in the sun and had our private moments with Kieran, I felt a connection with my new brothers and sisters that I hope I can renew one day, maybe at the conference or again in the lanes of Norfolk or the cities and towns of this country of ours.

The next day brought more beautiful warmth, sunshine and a Mass to blow away any lingering doubts that we are the Church! The Mass was full of Dominicans and their choir and a medley of nuns, sisters and priests who with us ordinary folk made a rousing and inspiring prayer of thanks to just be there with friends, brothers and sisters. I loved it. After lunch under a boiling sun, where we were stuffed with some lovely Indian food by another table, who obviously thought we needed fattening up to fit our outsize T-shirts, I crept off to the Slipper Chapel, wrote a deeply heartfelt request to Our Lady and said a quick prayer of praise before re-joining my new family, and then we all departed for our very ordinary lives. The hugs said it all.

My request to Our Lady … Oh yes, and my daughter is now back in touch with me, ‘Thank You Mary, my mother and mother of my Lord’.

● Mandy Pyke

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