Our Lady of Walsingham Can Help Hispanics Return to the Church

Like most children born to Mexican-American families, I was baptized in the Catholic Church. And yet, by the time I was 12 years old, I’d left her to become a “born-again” evangelical Protestant. Until my reversion as an adult, my three siblings and I had abandoned the faith of our fathers for more “entertaining” religious experiences as evangelicals.

Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon story. While most Hispanics in the U.S. identify as Catholics, they’re leaving the Church at an alarming rate. A recent poll found that nearly a quarter of Hispanics identify as former Catholics. The same poll found that, from 2010 to 2013, the share of Hispanics who identify as Catholic dropped by 12 percent. If that trend has continued, the share of Hispanics in the U.S. who identify as Catholic most likely hovers around 43 percent today. These numbers are even lower for Hispanics under 50 years old.

This is a problem that can’t be solved by adopting some Protestant-developed faith formation program or incorporating the latest evangelical “praise and worship” songs into Mass. These bleak numbers can’t be reversed by further Protestantizing the liturgy. Rather, we must do just the opposite. Our leaders must stem the tide and go on the offensive through an emphasis on our Catholicity, as our forefathers did during the Counter-Reformation.

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One such way is the wholly Catholic devotion to Our Lady.

I recognize that veneration of Our Lady is a stumbling block for many converts—and reverts, for that matter. In fact, my formerly Catholic family members invariably remind me that they would never return to the faith of their ancestors due to its alleged “worship of Mary.” In fact, my aversion to Marian devotions was the last hurdle I had to overcome before returning to the Faith. And yet, it was Our Lady of Guadalupe who converted the indigenous people of Mexico—a non-Western, pagan people. Today’s Hispanics in the U.S. have the advantage of being Western and at least culturally Christian.

While we should never cease pleading to the Blessed Virgin under that title for the conversion of the Americas, Our Lady of Walsingham—whose feast is today—may play a crucial role in the return of Hispanics to the Church, too.

In the late 19th century, Charlotte Pearson Boyd purchased the 14th-century Slipper Chapel—so named because pilgrims remove their shoes for the last mile of their pilgrimage—and reestablished the shrine. Today, Walsingham draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world. She can draw in Hispanic Americans as well, in three principal ways.

Firstly, Our Lady of Walsingham is an English apparition. In the same way that former Catholic Hispanics in the U.S. have been pulled away from the Faith by the English-speaking (Protestant) culture around them, they can be re-evangelized through the same language and customs.

Secondly, she invites us to share in the joyful mystery of the Annunciation. Richeldis de Faverches, foundress of the shrine at Walsingham, was taken in spirit by Our Lady to the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation took place. Our Lady then instructed de Faverches to build a replica in Walsingham of the holy house where the Archangel Gabriel proclaimed Christ’s coming. This sharing in the Annunciation—Mary’s fiat to the will of God—is a powerful witness to formerly Catholic Hispanics because it allays any fears that she somehow distracts us from her Son. On the contrary, the Annunciation directs our attention to the coming of Our Lord. This is why Our Lady of Walsingham is presented with the Christ Child on her lap: He’s the Word made flesh, and the reason for the Annunciation. It’s in the Annunciation that Mary (as always) points to her Son and shows us by example to “do whatever He tells you.”

Thirdly, Our Lady of Walsingham is a symbol of hope for the return of a lost flock. At its peak, Walsingham was counted among the four great holy pilgrimage sites of Christendom during the Middle Ages, the others being Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela. However, King Henry VIII had the shrine and original wooden statue destroyed during the English Reformation. The statue was dragged through the village and eventually burned (although some recent evidence suggests that it survived).

As well as perhaps playing a role in the reversion of Hispanics to the Church, there are signs that her prayers for England’s return to the Faith are working. It’s also well known that there are now more practicing Catholics than practicing Anglicans in England. Most significantly, more young adults in England identify as Catholic than Anglican. Currently, a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is touring England’s cathedrals in preparation for the country’s rededication as “Mary’s Dowry” in 2020.

Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman famously called for a “second spring” in England. As we approach his canonization next month, it seems he’s getting it. Now we need a second spring among Hispanics in the U.S. I recently attended a Catholic men’s conference in Los Angeles in which I met a surprising number of Hispanic men who, like me, had returned to the Church after dabbling in evangelical Protestantism.

Our Lady of Walsingham’s growing popularity among the formerly Catholic people in England is a sign of hope for that nation’s reversion. It’s also a testament to her power in affecting the return of former Catholics the world over. For Hispanics, the Faith doesn’t belong only to their fathers: it will be their children’s, too.

Following the (supposed) destruction of the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, Sir Roger Townshend wrote to Thomas Cromwell about continued miracles being reported by the local populace. “I cannot perceyve but the seyd image is not yett out of the sum of ther heddes,” he complained. While it was easy for King Henry’s cronies to loot the original shrine and destroy the statue, it was much harder to erase the people’s memory. Similarly, while the Faith is being lost among many Hispanics in the U.S., its memory is harder to erase. May Our Lady effect the reversion of American Hispanics as she is that of the English people.

Our Lady of Walsingham, ora pro nobis!

  • Christopher Ortega

    Christopher M. Ortega is a lawyer, credentialed history teacher, and a Catholic revert who lives in Southern California.

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