Out of the rubble emerges a ministry of reconciliation

By  Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, Catholic Register Special
  • February 24, 2011
Coventry CathedralCOVENTRY, ENGLAND - Most of the ruined churches of England are the outcome of the violence of an early age, the dissolution of the monasteries. But the ruins of St. Michael’s Church in Coventry are the consequence of the violence of modern times.

On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, the German Luftwaffe devastated the city of Coventry. And as it burned, the cathedral burned with it. A total of 568 people lost their lives.

This past summer I co-led a group on a Reconciliation and Unity study pilgrimage, and Coventry, the only English city to lose its cathedral as a result of aerial bombardment, was one of the places we visited. It would not have been surprising if, following the raid, another kind of flame were to have been fanned into being — the fire of bitterness and hatred. It was largely due to the inspired, prophetic leadership of the cathedral provost at the time, Dick Howard, that a different spirit prevailed.

On the morning after its destruction, the resolve to rebuild the cathedral was born, not as an act of defiance, but rather as a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. Shortly afterward, the cathedral’s stonemason, Jock Fobres, observing that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen across each other amid the rubble, tied them together, and set them up in the ruined sanctuary. Again, it was the imagination of provost Howard that led to the words “Father, Forgive” being inscribed behind the charred cross. 

At the same time, a local priest, Fr. Arthur Wales, created another cross by binding together three of the huge medieval nails that littered the debris. The Cross of Nails became the symbol of Coventry’s international ministry of reconciliation and was also placed in the ruined sanctuary, on a simple stone altar, built there as an “altar of reconciliation.”

The profound eloquence of the ruins is not, then, simply architectural. It is the story they tell that gives them their meaning. Their ability to gently heal memories bears witness to the healing power of the words: “Father, Forgive.” Not “Forgive them,” which would create an “us” and “them” polarity, but simply “Forgive,” because we too have committed acts of destruction and violence.

The new cathedral, built at right angles to the destroyed one, is a laboratory of the spirit, a workshop. This forward and outward looking approach to the role of a cathedral began in 1940 when it began to proclaim a ministry of reconciliation in an effort to say and do something about the situation of division and hatred which accompanied the destruction of the city and the cathedral.

The International Centre in the ruins was opened in 1960 by the then bishop of Berlin, Otto Dibelius, and the money for it was furnished by a Berlin donor who had himself lost his entire family in an Allied air raid. The centre was subsequently extended by young volunteer Christians from Germany, the name of whose organization, Action Reconciliation, sums up so much of what the early days of the cathedral’s life stood for then and continues to represent today.

The ministry of international reconciliation is, perhaps, the unique contribution that Coventry Cathedral, because of its story, has been able to make to Church life. The Community of the Cross of Nails was founded as a practical expression of the work of reconciliation, supporting the rebuilding of a hospital wing in Dresden which the English air force had bombed; the building of the House of Reconciliation in Corrymeela, Northern Ireland; and a house for friendship and dialogue between Jewish, Christian and Muslim people in Galilee.

The cathedral continues to be actively involved in areas of conflict such as Northern  Ireland and Central America, while groups, inspired by the symbol of the Cross  of Nails, have sprung up in many parts of the world where they, too, work for reconciliation, justice and peace.

Disparate churches and organizations now belong to Coventry Association. It also includes members of other religions.

“It’s as much about the Punjabi Sikh and the Punjabi Muslim as about Anglicans and Roman Catholics,” said Canon David Porter, whose full-time ministry at the cathedral is reconciliation.

Having worked for reconciliation for 20 years in Northern Ireland, Porter noted how often times those involved in social justice issues become disconnected from the Church. This has led him to put at the centre of his work the development of a theology and spirituality of reconciliation that helps people engage with social justice issues precisely as committed Church members. Within the cathedral complex is a Centre for Leadership Training in reconciliation whose educational department hosts about 15,000 students annually.

In the old cathedral’s ruins, beneath the sculpture of a man and woman kneeling with their arms around each other, reads the inscription: “In the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace.”

On the outer wall of the new cathedral there is a sculpture of the archangel Michael standing with sword in hand, triumphant, over the fallen Satan: “Why choose such a warlike image for a cathedral dedicated to reconciliation?” asked Porter.

“Because just as we wage war, we must wage peace and solidarity with the same kind of energy and resolve.”

(Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.