Sr Mary Clare Mason, a Daughter of Jesus in England, plays her part in the mission of Canterbury Cathedral to “show Jesus”. Discover the history of this symbolic place of worship as she describes her role as a “welcomer”.
After I arrived in Westgate-on-Sea, I missed the prison chaplaincy that I had carried out in my previous insertion in Peterborough. Wanting to respond in some way to the Acts of the General Chapter of 2016, I therefore decided to become a welcomer/greeter at nearby Canterbury Cathedral.
With well over 100,000 visitors a year, teams of volunteers are on hand in the Cathedral to greet those from all over the United Kingdom who venture into the building. Centre of the worldwide communion of the Anglican Church, the Cathedral declares its mission to be “to show Jesus”.
Volunteers have to follow a formation over a 14-week period where they learn about the history of the Cathedral as well as how to deal with the unexpected. All of which concludes with a written exam! Imagine my surprise to discover in the group a niece of Sr Mary Bovington (Sr St James) who had been head of St Bernard’s, the Daughters of Jesus school I attended in High Wycombe.
A troubled history
The building’s long history goes back 1400 years to when Saint Augustine landed in Kent in 597 AD to begin his mission of converting the “Angles” to Christianity. A first cathedral was established in Canterbury at this time but the majestic building standing today dates from between 1070 and 1077.
Tension between Church and state in the Middle Ages led to the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in the Cathedral in 1170. Becket was canonized soon after and the Cathedral quickly became a centre of pilgrimage with many miracles attributed to the new saint. Later, the shrine fell victim to King Henry VIII’s dispute with Rome which led to the destruction of many churches and monasteries. Becket’s memory still lives on, however. A candle burns permanently at the spot where the original shrine stood and some of the miracles attributed to him can be seen in the cathedral’s stained-glass windows.
In the Middle Ages, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales. In the ballad, about 30 pilgrims are travelling from London to Canterbury and compete in a storytelling contest over the course of the journey. They are from a cross-section of English life at that time and the stories they tell reflect the concerns sparked by the social upheavals of late medieval England. I am sure that the same cross-section of English life is replicated in those visiting Canterbury today and that Chaucer’s stories would find their equivalent in today’s world.
Some of today pilgrims to the Cathedral, are on their way to Rome or Santiago de Compostella, others come just to marvel at the beauty of the building. I recently met four Dominican Friars who were celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the order’s arrival in the United Kingdom. These 21st Century pilgrims had decided to retrace Augustine’s route from Ramsgate and were en route for Oxford.
To show people Jesus
When churches were allowed to open again for prayer during the pandemic, I volunteered to monitor the desk at the main door of the Cathedral where people were being allowed into part of the nave to light a candle and pray. I witnessed many folks in tears as they lit their candles and I assumed loved ones had died due to the pandemic.
The crypt is kept as a quiet area, allowing space for private and personal prayer. A prayer board is available for folk to write a prayer which is then placed on the altar the following day during the morning eucharist.
It is evident that tourists from around the world are still missing among the visitors. This in fact gives me more time to spend helping people understand the history of the magnificent building let alone discover why they have come. I have found myself chatting with people of other faiths, who gave praise that nowadays we can visit places of worship of all faiths. I have chatted with nurses from London Hospitals on their day off, as they found the peace of the Cathedral help them regain their inner calm after working on the “front line”.
Monks, friars, and religious communities
The Chapter House and Cloisters are an area where I find an opportunity to talk about monks, friars, and religious orders. People ask lots of questions about monks and religious today – “Do they still exist?”, “Are there monasteries and convents in Canterbury today?”. Alas no, but there were – the Daughters of Jesus had a community in Canterbury and I taught in one of the state schools in the city. Imagine their surprise when they discover they are chatting with a Roman Catholic Sister.
I don’t see myself as a tourist guide but rather as someone interested in the pilgrims of the 21st Century. I use the factual knowledge to make initial contact but then I delve further by asking why they have come or even where they have come from. I pray that I may radiate Christ just by my presence so I can become “Good News to others”.
Sr Mary Clare Mason dj