Cardinal Leads Pilgrimage to 'Lourdes of Wales'
posted on 20 June 2005
‘We need places such as Holywell to express the presence of God’
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor on Sunday (19 June) led a 1,000-strong pilgrimage to one of Britain’s most ancient healing wells, known locally as the “Lourdes of Wales”.
Pilgrimages to the shrine St Winefride’s, in the village of Holywell in the Diocese of Wrexham, have been uninterrupted since the seventh century. There have been many reports of healings at the well, which was founded by a niece of the Welsh saint, St Beuno’s. The shrine is in the care of the local Catholic parish in the Diocese of Wrexham.
The pilgrimage was led by the Archbishop of Westminster as well as the three Catholic bishops of Wales: Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Bishop Edwin Regan of Wrexham, and Bishop Mark Jabale of Menevia. Mass at the shrine was concelebrated by the four bishops as well as about 20 local priests, and attended by around 1,000 pilgrims. The Mass concluded with a veneration of a relic of St Winifrede.
The Cardinal’s homily drew on the rich history associated with the site.
On Sunday morning a Diocesan-owned museum was opened, which explains the history of the shrine.
The text of the Cardinal’s homily follows.
HOMILY PREACHED BY THE ARCBISHOP OF WESTMINSTER AT THE SHRINE OF ST WINIFREDE’S, HOLYWELL, ON 19 JUNE
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, my dear friends,
I begin with a humble confession as befits a pilgrim arriving for the first time at such a holy place as St. Winefride’s shrine. Let me explain. In my student days in Rome at the England and Welsh College, I was blissfully unaware of the ancient Christian history of Wales. Nor had I adverted over-much to the constellation of Welsh Saints, beginning with St. David, who have graced this land. Nor was I aware that the tradition of pilgrimage to St. Winefride’s Well is an uninterrupted historical fact since the seventh century – unbroken even in the centuries of anti-Catholic persecution after the Reformation. So I am delighted to be with you today and make joyful and prayerful amends for my youthful ignorance.
If I may return for a moment to my years in Rome, first as a student in the 1950’s, and later as Rector of the English and Welsh College in the 1970’s. I learnt that in 1558 on the accession of Elizabeth the First, the last Catholic Bishop of St. Asaph, Thomas Goldwell, was deposed and exiled by the new regime. During his brief ministry at St. Asaph, Bishop Goldwell had restored the pilgrimage chapel at Holywell, sold into lay hands by King Henry VIII. He also obtained a renewal of the papal indulgences for pilgrims to St. Winefride’s shrine.
In exile, Bishop Goldwell found shelter at the English Hospice in Rome which later became the English and Welsh College. He lived there throughout the years of its transition from hospice to seminary. A number of young Welsh students were present at that time, preparing with their English friends to return for the dangerous adventure of priesthood. Bishop Goldwell stayed there until his death in 1585, the last of the former Catholic bishops of England and Wales. It is one of those lovely ironies of our faith that he who helped so significantly in the history of this shrine, himself found shelter in Rome in a hospice for Pilgrims. He must have contemplated there, as here, the great cost of fidelity and the need for courage in the face of hostility or persecution.
I also think of one of the other great glories of Holywell which is that it sheltered a future canonised Saint: John Plessington, a secular priest from Lancashire who ministered here to the Catholic residents and pilgrims from 1663 to 1670. Later, as chaplain to the Massey family at Paddington, just over the ford across the Dee in Wirral, he was captured and executed for his priesthood at Chester in July 1679. Again, this place printed in the memory of one of its faithful sons a story of the power of God in an individual’s life and the great need there is of Christian faith and witness.
I am very conscious that Holywell is still a living shrine, not just a focus of ancient memories. Pilgrims come from every part of Wales – and indeed from England and abroad – to join in the celebration of Mass, to give thanks for the gift of Faith, and to pray for physical and spiritual healing. As Catholics we need places of pilgrimage such as this to focus our faith and to give expression to the presence of God in our world.
May I stress especially today the faith and devotion of the people of Wales to the greatest gift that we receive in our faith, which is the Holy Eucharist – the Mass. How often we heard in our childhood that ‘it is the Mass that matters’. How delightful it is for us to recall that the Mass has been celebrated in this place, over so many centuries, through all the ups and downs of human history. We are celebrating this year The Year of the Eucharist, a year in which Pope John Paul urged us to understand and to deepen our love and our reverence for the Mass. In the Mass, in and through and with Jesus Christ, we offer praise and thanksgiving and glory to God as we remember His life and death and resurrection. In the Mass is focussed for us the presence of Christ, still nourishing us, still building up His own Body, which is the Body of the Church, the Body of Christ. How grateful we should be for that gift and how faithful we should be in our understanding and our participation and our love for the Mass.
In the gospel today, Jesus says time and time again, ‘Do not be afraid’. He says, ‘If anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father’. I cannot but recall today those events nearly three months ago, on the occasion of the death of Pope John Paul II, and the election and inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI. To be in Rome, for me at that time, was an extraordinary privilege. As I looked out at the vast crowds that flocked into St. Peter’s Square at the funeral of Pope John Paul, and at the election and then the inauguration of Pope Benedict, I could not help repeating in my own mind the words of Pope Benedict, ‘The Church is alive’. To see those countless numbers of people, was not just a spectacle, but rather an expression of the faith of the Church, because all of us, women and men, young and old, were expressing what is at the heart of our Catholic faith, namely, prayer and thanksgiving to God and faith in a life to come after this life. We must acknowledge that we have a task to do and that we are on pilgrimage in this life.
And that is what I feel today as I look upon all of you who are here assembled at Holywell. The Church is alive here in Wales. I want to say how delighted I am to be joined by my fellow bishops in Wales. The Church here has a task to do, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in word and in deed. I want to commend also the bishop and priests and people of this great Diocese of Wrexham. I feel greatly privileged to be amongst you. We, all of us here today, are related in a long line of pilgrims who for thirteen hundred years have found joy in the faith of St. Winefride’s shrine. I noticed a road sign here that says, ‘Holywell is the Lourdes of Wales’. It should, of course, be that ‘Lourdes is the Holywell of France’! Let us pray today for courage and hope. Courage to withstand the icy winds of religious indifference, to declare ourselves for Jesus Christ in the presence of all people, just as Jesus will declare Himself for us in the presence of His Father. Let us pray in hope - to prepare for a return of the Christian faith to the fair land of St. David and St. Winefride, of St. Richard Gwyn and the Welsh Martyrs, and for St. John Plessington your adopted English Saint.
As for myself, I shall always treasure memories