ROSTREVOR, Northern Ireland — In the foothills of the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland, a Benedictine community from France has taken up the challenge to help heal the wounds and sectarian divisions between Ireland's Catholics and Protestants.

The Monastery of the Holy Cross in the Kilbroney Valley, near the village of Rostrevor in County Down, opened in January. Five members of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Mary of Monte Oliveto, from the Abbey of Bec in northern France, arrived in Rostrevor in 1998. They felt called to respond to Pope John Paul's 1996 apostolic letter Vita Consecreta (The Consecrated Life) by establishing a house dedicated to peace and reconciliation in the province.

With little money and no land, they moved into a former retreat center in Rostrevor run by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles and put their trust in God. One day in 2000, a local farmer offered them nine acres of land. The monks began fund raising, architectural plans were drawn up, and a simple monastery with a striking church at its heart was eventually built.

In 1979, three miles from where Holy Cross Monastery now stands, one of the worst single acts of sectarian violence took place when an IRA bomb exploded under an Army bus at Warrenpoint, killing 18 soldiers and one civilian. Since the beginnings of the Catholic-Protestant hostilities in Northern Ireland 35 years ago, more than 3,300 people have been killed and over 40,000 injured.

Given the bloody background of decades of violence between Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries, Father Mark-Ephrem Nolan, the abbot of Holy Cross, knew that much healing was needed in the community but also that it would take time.

“Some people still have nightmares about events that happened 30 years ago. These are not just terrible things in the past that happened to many people — they are a living reality,” he said.

Father Nolan said the consciences of many of those involved in paramilitary activity remain troubled. “Recently, I met a man with advanced cancer, and he wanted to talk about things he had been involved in 30-odd years ago,” the priest said. “He didn't directly take lives, but he knows that he endangered lives. At the time, these activities seemed perfectly legitimate, but he wouldn't condone them today in any way.”

Despite the current peace process, fierce sectarianism still exists in some communities, as Father Nolan discovered when he visited north Belfast earlier this year. “I didn't realize how bad it was there, even though I'm from that area,” he said. “For example, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Protestant minister and his wife invited the Catholic priest for dinner. But they couldn't have any public celebration because they would have alienated their own congregations.”

Praying Together

On the eve of the solemn dedication of the monastery, an ecumenical prayer vigil was held. The service opened with Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore and Church of Ireland Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore carrying an icon of the cross into the church. The first sermon in the church was preached by Lord Carey of Clifton, the former archbishop of Canterbury.

“During the service, we wanted to listen to each other's stories in the light of the Word of God,” Father Nolan said. “The Reverend Bert Armstrong, whose brother and sister-in-law were killed by the IRA in the Enniskillen bomb, talked about how this was a turning point in his ministry. On the eve of the funeral, he felt that he had only one message that he could preach: ‘Father, forgive them.’

“It was a transforming experience for him, and his ministry has now become a ministry of reconciliation. And Michael McGoldrick, whose only son was killed by the UVF (Protestant paramilitary) in the Drumcree standoff in 1996, also spoke about how he also learned to forgive.”

Since 1999, ministers of the local Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland churches have been meeting with the Benedictine community every two weeks to pray the Scriptures in the monastic tradition of lectio divina (divine reading). These meetings, reported Father Nolan, have done much to break down the barriers and mistrust that had developed between Catholics and Protestants over centuries of suspicion and violence. Furthermore, they have dispelled the myth that Catholics don't read the Bible.

“In July, eight new ordinands for the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Connor and Down and Dromore made their pre-ordination retreat here and left from the monastery for their ordination services,” Father Nolan said. “I led the retreat, and rather than discuss the Bible, we prayed our way through it. They all said that they thought they knew how to read the Scriptures but that lectio divina had been a radical discovery for them.”

Brother Thierry, who joined the Benedictines after reading French literature at Sorbonne University in Paris, says that before coming to Rostrevor, he knew nothing about the conflict in Northern Ireland. “I had heard that it was impossible to meet Protestants and that there was such a big division,” he said. “But, for us, it was quite easy. We have met very prayerful, open-minded people, both Catholic and Protestant, who are aware that there is a big problem and that there is a need for dialogue and prayer.”

Coming Home

Marie Dailow left Dublin for America 40 years ago and became active in ministry with evangelical churches in Texas and California. She now has returned to her Catholic roots through living in the Center for Christian Renewal in Rostrevor. “Coming to live in the North was a real eye-opener for me,” she said. “In America, people would say, ‘What are they all fighting about? They're all Christians.’ They wouldn't understand the sectarian aspect of Northern Ireland.”

Added Dailow, “I think the peace process has opened doors, and there are now many individuals and groups working for reconciliation. Churches have been coming together and listening to each other in order to try and understand how they grew up with the mindsets they did.”

Greg Watts writes from London.