Experiencing Durham Cathedral and ‘the Hidden Gem’


Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies recently inaugurated an exciting program in partnership with the Northern English dioceses of Liverpool, Leeds, Hallam, Salford, Middlesbrough, and Hexham & Newcastle to offer a customized professional development certificate in Pastoral Ministry. I was delighted to co-teach the first module to a cohort of 50 British diocesan employees, teachers, deacons, catechists and lay leaders in our fully interactive and accessible online platforms.

Following the class, I visited the United Kingdom to participate in some academic meetings and conferences, and had the chance to convene once again with a few of those responsible for helping to launch and coordinate the program from the ground there, in collaboration with us in the Windy City. I’ve been back and forth quite a few times over the last two years helping to get the program up and running.

As with every local church, Catholicism in England and Wales has a character all its own. But instead of focusing these reflections on the inspiring academic exchanges involved in that particular church’s relationship with esteemed echelons of higher education (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham) or on the enlightening late-night conversations with local pastors in various pubs over pints, I want to reflect a bit on two remarkable liturgical gatherings I experienced while visiting Great Britain in April.

The first was the blessing to participate in what I was told was the first Catholic Mass in Durham Cathedral since the Reformation. The principal celebrant was the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham. Though dating to an undivided British Christianity, Durham Cathedral rests today in capable Anglican hands, and those responsible for its upkeep and liturgical life were there to welcome us as their brothers and sisters in the faith for the first time in this way in hundreds of years.

The Mass began with a procession from the tomb of Saint Bede the Venerable, widely considered the founder of British ecclesiastical history-writing and an enormously influetial figure in English lore. I, in fact, taught for a time at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, a seminary named for him.

During the Litany of the Saints, which was adapted to include many local heroes and English martyrs, I was touched that someone organizing the program made note to include Saint Ignatius of Loyola among those holy men and women invoked. After a stirring Mass in what was once voted the most beautiful building in Britain, the entire community moved together toward the intricate stained glass “rose window” at the eastern end of the Romanesque cathedral as the sun set to pray at the tomb of Saint Cuthbert, a central site of pilgrimage for Christians in the Middle Ages.

It was a privilege to participate in such a memorable event and to receive the gesture of welcome from our Anglican confreres, especially with some of the most prominent living theologians from both traditions present.

The second was a more intimate affair, when my fiancé and I attended the Good Shepherd Sunday liturgy in Manchester, at an 18th century church officially named Saint Mary’s but more commonly called “The Hidden Gem.” Again, the local particularities of the scandalous divisions which have rent the community of the baptized in England for hundreds of years can palpably be felt in the architecture and Latin inscriptions in a central gathering place for a minority Catholic community. There is a distinctively Roman feel to the white marble and formal design of “the Gem,” a place that can trace its heritage to the distinct “difference” of what it meant to be Catholic in England for so long — whether one’s religious roots were due to the recusant families who did not accept Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth’s defiance of the pope and practiced their faith in secret amidst great peril, or to waves of immigration (first from Ireland, but now from places as far afield as Jamaica, Nigeria, India or the Philippines), or to a counter-cultural personal conversion to Roman Catholicism in a country where such believers are not the majority.

The North of England has long served as a seedbed of Catholic faith in the country, and still exhibits an intensely strong cultural identity with it, though today places like Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies prove the advantage of the community fully immersing itself in the intellectual, political and socio-economic conversations taking place in a wider secular public space.

These two unique and emotive liturgical celebrations will long continue to serve as inspiring fonts of wisdom, beauty and prayer for me, and I hope they will undergird my own humble attempts at helping to bridge the Atlantic so as to strengthen the pastoral ministerial competencies and fraternal bonds of theological exchange unfolding on both sides of the pond.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.