An Interview with The Rector, Fr Robert Billing

January 8, 2024

  1. What are your priorities as the new rector of the shrine in terms of evangelisation?

Upon arrival in Walsingham at the beginning of September 2023, I have worked to get to know the staff and volunteers at the Shrine. I am getting to know the local Diocesan Bishop [of East Anglia] and the new Chairman of the Walsingham Trustees, Rt Rev Peter Collins, the other Trustees, and to listen, learn, and share, their dreams, and aspirations for the Shrine. They are getting to know me too. The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales will have their own hopes too, for our National Shrine, as well as the many pilgrims who love Walsingham, and regularly come on pilgrimage to the Shrine from many of the dioceses and parishes in various part of the country. Our pilgrims’ experience of Christ our Lord and Our Lady are at the centre of our mission at Walsingham. Indeed, I have been meeting so many pilgrims and their priests and local organisers, and hearing about how they anticipate the much-needed development of the Shrine and upgrading of our facilities going forward. Meanwhile, all should understand it is my duty to ensure that the governance and financial sustainability of the Shrine is placed on a sound footing going forward and to make our Shrine a centre of liturgical excellence and our grounds are an environment that fosters deep prayer, cultivates spiritual growth, and feeds evangelisation. For all of this, I will need the prayerful and practical support and collaboration of so many for the changes ahead!

 

  1. What experiences and skills from your past do you hope to bring to the shrine?

I hope to bring several years of experience and involvement working as private secretary for three diocesan bishops, as secretary to a board of diocesan trustees, in media work, in works of administration at diocesan level, and theological and canon law training, to my appointment as Rector. I also bring a ‘track record’ of incorporating overseas religious institutes and clergy into the apostolate of my own diocese and in accompanying and mentoring such priests and religious in their new ministry in the UK. I offer this experience and knowledge, and the broad perspective that such work gives, to the practical challenges of this appointment and to build up further the Shrine’s resilience in ministering effectively to the needs of pilgrims and the pilgrimages that come to Walsingham. These are the needs that are fundamental to our ministry here at our National Shrine. All else must be secondary to this service.

 

  1. Pope Leo XIII said in 1897 “When England goes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England.” Do you see this happening soon?

I am conscious, that despite Walsingham having such a 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. 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. Shortly before Christmas, I communicated directly with every parish priest of the country inviting each parish to come here on pilgrimage. I have done this mindful that once the faithful turn their hearts to Walsingham, and come here on pilgrimage, then a new evangelisation of our country can indeed take root in our lands, and the prophetic words of Pope Leo XIII will be fulfilled.

 

  1. Before your appointment, the Franciscan Friars withdrew from the Shrine, Will other friars or members of other religious orders or congregations be taking their place?

It is true that the Franciscan Friars were withdrawn by their own leadership, and other communities have departed, all before my time here. In time, however, other proven religious communities and clergy will come to join us in serving the mission of the Shrine. For example, already, I hope to welcome, next summer, a new community of young Augustinian Friars from Nigeria to serve in Walsingham. In this way, the Augustinian charism that founded the Priory in Walsingham, and the original Holy House here, will be restored and renewed.

Meanwhile, I hope to ensure that pilgrims coming to Walsingham will have an excellent experience of the Sacred Liturgy, and that our Shrine be known as a place of welcome, peace, prayer, and reconciliation. Hopefully, such a positive pilgrim experience will be solidly based on the Sacramental life of the Church and a deeply English Marian devotion and will draw pilgrims to return and indeed to stay with us for a few nights, especially as part of the 2025 Jubilee Year celebrations. All of this should mean we can continue to develop our mission and improve our facilities into the future, always in fidelity to the great tradition of Walsingham. For such development of the Shrine, however, I will certainly need some generous benefactors to come forward to help make our Shrine shine, especially in terms of improving the nobility of our chapels and grounds.

 

  1. The Bishops of England and Wales tend to choose other shrines abroad as venues to meet for retreats, etc. Why don’t they come to Walsingham and what will you be doing to encourage them to make pilgrimages to the Shrine?

In fact, the bishops, as a Conference, have tended to go to places like the English College at Valladolid or the Venerabile’s Villa at Palazzola, outside Rome, rather than to shrines, for retreats or in-service training. In time, I will, of course, be asking them to come to Walsingham. I am grateful that many of the bishops, individually, do indeed come to Walsingham leading their various diocesan groups on pilgrimage. Later in 2024, I understand that the bishops hope to gather in Walsingham, along with their seminarians, seminary staff, and vocations directors, for a day of celebration, reflection, and vocations promotion.

 

  1. What are your overall hopes for the Shrine and the reconversion of the English to the faith of their fathers?

All of us need conversion, [a work of the Holy Spirit] and there are so many aspects of society in England which need this radical turn towards the Lord; in our attitudes towards human life, [the unborn, the disabled and the elderly], towards the poor and marginalised, and towards the refugee and asylum seeker. So many come to us in Walsingham needing peace and reconciliation in relationships and family life and the strength and perseverance to be faithful to the Lord, to one another, and to their Faith of their Fathers. Undoubtedly, in silence, joy, and stillness, Walsingham has a key place in the ongoing conversion of our country, and of each one of us, to the universal reign of Christ our King. I would want Walsingham to be at the centre of that movement!