The historic Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. / Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain
London, England, Sep 25, 2023 / 14:30 pm (CNA).
The Rev. Dr. Robert Billing became the next rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, the third one in the last eight years, succeeding Monsignor Philip Moger, who was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Southwark in February this year.
Billing, of the Diocese of Lancaster in northwest England, arrived in Walsingham in the last days of August; however, the official induction took place today, Sept. 25, on the solemnity of Our Lady of Walsingham — a very special day for all those who love Walsingham.
The new rector shared his feelings about his first weeks in the new role with EWTN Great Britain: “As I arrive here in Walsingham I am, of course, at a human level, somewhat apprehensive at the task ahead, but at the same time I must trust in the Lord and in his mother. They have, in a mysterious sense, brought me here, after all!”
The new Rector Father Robert Billing with Cardinal Vincent Nichols (Archbishop of Westminster and the Primate of England and Wales) and Bishop Michael Campbell, OSA (Bishop Emeritus of Lancaster) in the Slipper Chapel on the occasion of Archdiocese of Westminster pilgrimage to Walsingham, the day before Father Billings’ official induction as the new Rector. Sept 24, 2023. Credit: Marcin Mliczko
Walsingham is not a strange place to Billing. In the late 1990s he spent one summer working as a night porter at the Elmham House, the shrine’s pilgrim accommodation, and another summer as a seminarian, working in the shrine’s sacristy.
Billing has been involved in various roles and projects, including his work as a diocesan spokesperson and personal secretary to three bishops of Lancaster. He also holds a licentiate in sacred theology and a doctorate in canon law.
One of the main goals of the shrine in Walsingham is to enhance the pilgrim experience. Billing hopes that “pilgrims coming to Walsingham will have an excellent experience of the sacred liturgy,” which will be “solidly based on the sacramental life of the Church and a deeply English Marian devotion.”
In his vision for the shrine, Billing sees Walsingham as “a place of peace, prayer, and reconciliation” and believes that the positive experience “will draw pilgrims to return again and indeed to stay with us for a few nights, especially as part of the next Holy Year celebrations.”
Father Robert Billing officially becomes the new rector of the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in England, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Marcin Mliczko
To some extent, Billing arrives at a challenging time for the Walsingham shrine. Soon after the departure of the previous rector, the Order of Friars Minor Conventual of Great Britain and Ireland announced the withdrawal of three of their Greyfriars from Walsingham after six years of service to the shrine. The three Greyfriars were beloved by pilgrims coming to Walsingham, as well as those who watch the shrine’s daily livestreaming of the holy Mass and other services. Nevertheless, with the help of Father Andrew Chamiec from the Archdiocese of Westminster, Billing looks forward to providing pastoral and spiritual care for the pilgrims.
Since his arrival, Billing said he has worked hard to get to know the shrine, the people who work there, and the pilgrims flocking to the historic site. “I am keen to listen and to learn,” he said. “I anticipate meeting so many pilgrims and their priests and local organizers, and hearing about how they anticipate the development of the shrine and our facilities going forward.”
The shrine in Walsingham is one of the oldest religious sites in England and considered a very significant place in converting England back to the Catholic faith. Its importance can be summarized by Pope Leo XIII’s famous prophecy: “When England goes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England,” which he said on the occasion of signing the rescript for the restoration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in 1897.
“All of us need conversion, and there are so many aspects of society in England which need this radical turn towards the Lord,” Billing told EWTN Great Britain. “So many need peace and reconciliation in their relationships and family life and the strength and perseverance to be faithful to the Lord, to one another, and to their faith. Undoubtedly, in silence and stillness, Walsingham has a central place in the ongoing conversion of our country, and of each one of us, to the reign of Christ our king.”
Outside of Slipper Chapel at Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain
In May, Bishop Peter Collins of East Anglia, speaking on behalf of the shrine, announced a renewed program of engagement that seeks to “communicate the joy of Walsingham” across the dioceses of England and Wales.
As its newest rector, Billing looks forward to developing the shrine’s mission, “always in fidelity to the great tradition of Walsingham” to spread the message of this historic pilgrimage destination, which has been largely forgotten by English Catholics.
Father Robert Billing at his induction Mass as the new rector of the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Marcin Mliczko
“I am conscious of the fact that that despite Walsingham having such a strong and central place in the history of the Church in England, many Catholics, in some parts of the country, have not yet been to our Catholic National Shrine and Basilica of Our Lady at Walsingham,” Billing told EWTN Great Britain. “I wish to significantly improve upon that situation, and for us to reach out to those dioceses, parishes, and parts of England that have not yet come on pilgrimage here, so that they come and experience for themselves England’s Nazareth, at the heart of England, Our Lady’s dowry.”
To learn more about the Walsingham shrine, the first part of a three-part documentary called “The Mystery of Walsingham,” produced by EWTN Great Britain, can be viewed here: