Wednesday 30 September 2009

Annual Ecumenical Pilgrimage to Brugge: New Orthodox Church

Fr Bernard Peckstadt & Archimandrite Ephrem Lash
Every year, members of the Catholic League go to spend a weekend in early September in Bruges, staying with our friends the Benedictine Sisters at the Begijnhof, or Beguinage. At the heart of the pilgrimage is a daily visit to the 14th century image of Our Lady of the Vineyard, to whom their monastery is dedicated. We are also welcomed at the great weekly pilgrim mass at the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

This year's speaker, leading us each evening in an address about ecumenism, was Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the distinguished Orthodox translator and parish priest of the Church of St John the Baptist at Highbury in north London. A high point in the weekend was a visit to the beautiful new Orthodox Church of St Constantine & St Helen in Ezelstraat, to hear a talk about the situation of the Orthodox Church in modern Belgium and its warm ecumenical relations with the local Catholic Church from the rector, Father Bernard Peckstadt. Several years before, we had visited the church, which had formerly been the private chapel of a great Bruges courtyard house and more recently the city's "Ecumenical Chapel". It was rarely used and struck us plain and uninviting, hardly a positive place for ecumenical worship and encounter. But shortly afterwards, the Catholic diocese gifted the chapel to the Orthodox parish which had been experiencing considerable growth with the influx of Orthodox faithful to Bruges from other countries as well as people newly coming to Christ from within Belgium itself. They had outgrown the small room nearby they had been using. The transformation of the old ecumenical chapel has been astonishing and it is extremely beautiful. The quality of the newly carved olive wood furnishings, the frescoes and the iconostasis is of the highest order. Father Bernard gave us an introduction to the new church with understandable pride and we were privileged to join his parish as it began Sunday with the celebration of Vespers. Fr Ephrem was invited to serve Vespers and Fr Mark Woodruff, the coordinator of our pilgrimage was invited to recite the first psalm, a great privilege.

At the end of the service, we saw one of our taxi drivers was waiting in the vestibule with his face beaming and almost pressed against the glass, looking in. On the way home he told us he was a Muslim but he loved Jesus and Mary more. It was wonderful to think that our visit had enabled him to come into church and be so inspired by the beauty of the service and the singing that his heart was able to make this no less beautiful profession of faith.

Archimandrite Ephrem (centre), Fr Bernard Peckstadt, rector (left), Fr Mark Woodruff (right), Fr John Salter (far right), Mother Carolyne Joseph SSM, prioress of Walsingham (front left), Sister Teresa Burke SP, secretary of Birmingham Archdiocese Ecumenical Commission (front right)