We gathered as a family to watch the royal wedding on TV — champagne, sandwiches, a great glow of patriotic pride at the sight of that glorious Abbey, the sound of that glorious music, and a nation celebrating with a sense of confidence in the future. We needed this — there has been a sort of wobbling uncertainty over recent years as we seemed to have lost our sense of community, our sense of history, our shared ideas and values. How good to see a great church filled with people singing familiar hymns, to hear them saying the Lord’s Prayer together — with my small niece at home joining in enthusiastically, explaining, “We learned this at school!” — and to rise with them as the notes of the National Anthem rounded things off, and we at home echoed the sentiments of those in Westminster Abbey in the hymn invoking God’s blessing on our sovereign.
But I had to hurry off after the balcony and kiss scene, as I was due at another event: Another niece was taking part in a play at Oxford celebrating Pope John Paul II. In honor of his beatification, a young drama group was presenting a play on the theme of Divine Mercy. The young people, drawn from the university and from the Oxford Oratory parish, had been rehearsing for weeks at the university chaplaincy, which has a vast auditorium behind its medieval premises in St. Aldates in the heart of the city.
The trip to Oxford involved a cross-country journey by bus and train. There were towns and villages with bunting and flags, and the rather odd sensation of a country half on holiday and half not. The day was a public holiday, but normal services were running and many shops were open. Various community events were happening — street parties and get-togethers in halls and churches.
At Oxford, the atmosphere proved exactly right for this theater of youth exploring the life and message of one of the most remarkable men of our era: The sense of hope and goodwill all around was a perfect setting for an evening of drama centered on the glory of God’s mercy.
And what a drama. Author Leonie Caldecott had produced a magnificent script, The Quality of Mercy — the story unfolding around a group of young people on pilgrimage and joined by a stranger who, as he shares their journey and they open their hearts to him, shows them the way ahead and the glory of God as He accompanies each of us through life. As we grasp who “Charlie” is — Karol, Lolek, a kindly uncle/father figure — we are led to explore the love of God and the depths of His mercy, with echoes throughout of Shakespeare’s exploration of mercy: “‘Tis mightiest in the mighty, it becomes a throned monarch better than his crown . . . .”
A glorious theme to journey with, and on such an English evening as Shakespeare knew, the soft scents of spring, the grass lush and green on Oxford’s lawns, blossom thick on the trees and cascading like wedding confetti on the streets and on the heads and shoulders of hurrying students in the evening sunshine.
But I was still travelling. I had to make an overnight stop in London, catching a midnight bus from Oxford with the beauty of the play’s last scene — a superb tableau as the pilgrim group gathered for Mass, and all hearts were raised to God — still in my mind as we sped through silent countryside.
I was staying briefly with a friend, as I needed to make an early start the next morning. As the bus passed Buckingham Palace, we speculated that the partying was still going on (it was — the newspapers reported that Prince Harry and other revelers finally left at dawn). And the next morning saw me at Westminster Cathedral, setting out with a pilgrim group to Walsingham.
This had been long-planned: an annual pilgrimage by coach to England’s popular national shrine. But it could not have been arranged for a more suitable time, and my task, to explain the history and significance of Our Lady of Walsingham, could not have been easier or more delightful on this weekend of all weekends. The shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk, on England’s eastern coast — founded 950 years ago this year, and so having a round of jubilee celebrations — has had royal connections from the beginning. Monarch after monarch visited on pilgrimage, until the tragedy of Henry VIII and the destruction of the shrine in the 16th century. Henry had been an enthusiastic pilgrim, and when he turned against the Church in his bitterness, he took a particular vengeance on Walsingham: He had not had the son he wanted, and now he was angry. Today the ruined arches of Walsingham Priory stand testimony to his wrath.
But the shrine was restored — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were separate restoration initiatives by Catholics and Anglicans, and today Walsingham welcomes pilgrims as of old. During my stay there we marked the Day of Divine Mercy, and it was at the Pilgrim House in the village that I watched the beatification of the great John Paul in Rome — handing around chocolates to an assorted pilgrim group by way of celebration as that great picture of him was unveiled on the facade of St. Peter’s.
Mercy — God’s mercy, given and received — is what Britain needs at this point of our history. We prayed for this in the shrine church, after I had walked along the Holy Mile — a journey traditionally undertaken barefoot — past meadows and woods of almost unbearable beauty. We prayed for the young royal couple who had married at Westminster Abbey — founded by our last Saxon king, almost contemporaneously with the shrine at Walsingham — and for many blessings on them in the years ahead. We prayed for the Church and gave thanks for the glorious witness of Blessed John Paul II and the rich heritage he has left us. We prayed for our country, that we might see a restoration of protection for unborn children, that there might be a revival of faith and love. We prayed for peace in the world.