Coventry is a city in the English Midlands. It is famous for its modern Anglican cathedral and for the dramatic ruins of the old cathedral that stand alongside it. The old cathedral, dedicated to St. Michael, was itself a replacement for the ancient Catholic St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was destroyed under Henry VIII. The king forcibly closed down all of Britain’s monasteries in a wave of destruction that was part of his dramatic break with Rome following the Church’s refusal to allow him to abandon his wife, Queen Catherine, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.
The old Catholic cathedral dated back to Saxon times, having been established in the 11th century, shortly before the Norman Conquest, by the local Earl Leofric and his wife, Godiva. It was at the heart of a Benedictine community of nuns, whose life of prayer and service was bound up with the life of the city and its people.
After the destruction of Henry VIII’s reign — and the outlawing of the Catholic faith in the reign of his daughter Queen Elizabeth I — the whole history of the Catholic Church in England took a different turn. All the church buildings in the land were now owned by the Church of England, formally headed by the monarch.
Freedom finally came to Catholics in 1829, shortly before Queen Victoria came to the throne. Slowly, Catholic churches were built across Britain, and Coventry and the surrounding area — where many had preserved the old faith with great courage — could once again be a place where Catholics worshipped openly.
Today, there are a good number of Catholic parishes in and around Coventry and a thriving Catholic community life — all part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham.
In the 20th century, the Church of England designated its Church of St. Michael in Coventry as a cathedral. Then came the Second World War: On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, the city of Coventry was badly bombed, and St. Michael’s was among the buildings destroyed.
After the war, it was decided that a new cathedral would be built, while preserving the old ruins as a reminder to everyone to pray for peace and an end to war. The new cathedral became a place where a message of good will, peace and ecumenical contacts between Christians of all denominations was emphasized. Links were forged with the city of Dresden, which was destroyed by Allied bombing, with massive loss of life in 1945.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I took part in a wonderful ecumenical venture at Coventry, staying at a hostel attached to the cathedral while working on local projects. I remember visiting local elderly people in their homes and helping them with household tasks, as well as sharing times of prayer and discussion with young people from many different countries. We were made welcome in local churches; we talked together about our lives and our hopes; we made real friendships.
We also worked as volunteer guides in the cathedral and in the ruins. I was particularly struck by the cathedral’s "cross of nails," which was made from nails found in the burned-out ruins. The cross also called to mind the nails in the hands and feet of Christ, and it was a powerful symbol of the cathedral’s message to the world.
In 2010, Pope Benedict visited Britain and made history — he was the second pope to visit the country and the first to make an official state visit. He arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was met by the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, and began a four-day visit, with huge crowds flocking to see him.
The main event of the Pope’s visit took place at Cofton Park, on the outskirts of Birmingham, not far from Coventry. In this great open place, thousands and thousands of people gathered for a special Mass at which the Holy Father beatified John Henry Newman, the great Churchman of the 19th century. Cardinal Newman lived and worked for many years in Birmingham, founding the Birmingham Oratory.
The summer of 2010 marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the great air battle in the summer of 1940 in which the Royal Air Force succeeded in preventing the Luftwaffe from gaining air supremacy and thus saved the country from a German invasion.
Pope Benedict specifically spoke of this in his homily and referred to nearby Coventry, which had suffered such a terrible air raid. He spoke as one who had, of course, lived through those years in Germany. To hear tribute paid to the Royal Air Force and to the city of Coventry from this native of Germany was profoundly moving. Many in the crowd found themselves in tears. It was an unforgettable moment.
Standing there at Cofton Park, my own memories of Coventry came back to me. I remember the friendships with young Germans who were at the Christian hostel with me, and I thanked God for being able to grow up in peace. I thanked God, too, for the courage and dignity of the Holy Father for coming to what had seemed to be, according to the media, a bitterly hostile nation and for speaking openly of the ghastly wartime events with a message of peace and with a generous tribute to our nation.
A visit to Coventry is worthwhile, and when you are there, remember to pray for peace and for the future of Europe, which in the 20th century saw such terrible horrors and which in this 21st needs to rediscover its soul.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.