As ‘ear-worms’ go this was a pretty good one for the five-hundred or so young people who attended this year’s Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage to get stuck with. “I can see the fingerprints of God when I look at you” they sang with great gusto, expressing the conviction that each one of us is ‘Wonderfully Made’ in the image and likeness of God, “covered with the fingerprints of God” called to reflect his glory and a masterpiece of creation.
Each year a team of us plans the five day Youth Pilgrimage to carefully reflect some of the challenges and questions that our young pilgrims bring with them. This year we wanted to pick up the theme of self-image, which can take such a battering from the pressures of Social Media and the celebrity culture that looks for ‘perfection’ in a limited understanding of what is beautiful.
Walsingham is an extraordinary place to ask that question “who am I?” as it presents us with a joyful affirmation of human dignity and destiny in the vocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a dignity which rests not on fame and fortune but on the call of Almighty God and our response to that call.
We gathered as a diverse group of pilgrims, from different social backgrounds and settings, but the striking thing about the Youth Pilgrimage is that it gives to all the security to enjoy one another’s company, to be challenged by the gospel, to grow in confidence as a Christian, and to grow. We strive to provide ways that these young Christians can meet one another, and ‘The Hub’ – a café style space for them to socialise together- is one of the places this happens; one afternoon there I noticed a Chaldean Catholic Deacon from Iraq talking to Swedish Lutheran teenagers –at an Anglican pilgrimage!
The devotions so familiar to all Walsingham pilgrims formed the framework for teaching and led our young pilgrimages on a journey of exploration and discovery. As we gathered together for the First Visit on the Monday evening we heard those astonishing words of Psalm 139 that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, and as each pilgrim entered the Holy House they could look into a large mirror bearing the words ‘Wonderfully Made’ to see the reflection of themselves and the image of Our Lady of Walsingham – both called and loved by God.
Our Mass on Tuesday morning looked at what we mean by saying that we are created in God’s image, before moving on in the evening to think about how we are made for relationship with God and one another as we made a rather soggy Holy Mile procession to the Shrine grounds, there to fall silent in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to receive Christ’s blessing at Benediction. We can sometimes talk easily about Walsingham being a ‘thin place’, a place where heaven and earth are met, and as 500 young people knelt silently praying, seemingly oblivious to the rain, the reality of that was plain to see.
Wednesday’s theme was the incarnation and God’s taking of human flesh – filling it with the dignity of his life. After an afternoon of fun activities we gathered again in the ‘Big Top’ marquee where all our worship is held to celebrate the healing graces that abound at Walsingham, and in response to a challenging sermon from Bishop Philip North our pilgrims received the water from the well, prayed for wholeness and healing with the laying-on of hands and anointing, and received that joyful assurance of the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation – and the queues of penitents will have been a cause of great joy in heaven.
Bringing a group to the youth pilgrimage can sometimes be tiring and hard work, and for the Shrine it is a tremendous undertaking and responsibility, but if ever encouragement were needed it comes from the knowledge that during this week lives are changed, hope is renewed, and the fire of faith is kindled in many young hearts. We’re conscious that this grace comes as a gift from God, and that many are joined with us in prayer and generosity –not least through the ‘Godparents’ scheme, and we are hugely grateful for this.
We anticipated the celebration of Mary’s Assumption into heaven on Thursday, seeing in that glorious ending to her earthly life a sign of our own call to life with God for ever. The message of closing Mass was summed-up by Bishop Philip North in just six words: “Eat the body, be the body“. We focused on belonging to the Church as members of the Body of Christ, fed by the Body of Christ.
After Mass the pilgrims left the big top, still dancing and singing “covered with the finger prints of God”.
It’ a truth we hope they never forget.
For photos of this year’s Youth Pilgrimage, follow this link:
Fr Philip Barnes