Dom Mark-Ephrem Nolan speaks of his ministry with Martin O’Brien
Dom Mark-Ephrem Nolan, OSB, Conventual Prior or Superior of the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross outside Rostrevor, Co. Down will never forget the day he saw a British soldier for the first time in his native Belfast.
It was 1969, the Troubles had just erupted and 10-year-old Mark was out shopping with his mother, Josephine and his two sisters.
Ephrem, after the Syrian saint and doctor of the Church, was his Confirmation name and that of an aunt who was a Dominican nun added later to distinguish him from a fellow Benedictine also called Mark.
“My mother immediately sensed that this was an important development. She said there are soldiers on the streets and we must rush home to get to Miss McCombe’s house to pray together for peace.”
Miss McCombe was a close Presbyterian friend of the Nolan family who lived in a then mixed area in north Belfast and a grandmother-type figure who had an important influence on Mark.
This story is important in understanding the key influences that have shaped the life, vocation and remarkable ecumenical ministry of Dom Mark-Ephrem, the leader of the first new Benedictine monastery to open in the north of Ireland in 800 years. It nestles in the picturesque Kilbroney valley at the foot of the Mournes.
The Benedictines led by Dom Mark-Ephrem arrived in Rostrevor from the great Abbey of Bec in Normandy in 1998. They stayed in temporary accommodation until the monastery was completed in 2004.
Nearly 20 years earlier, in 1983-87 Dom Mark-Ephrem was part of a dependent priory of Beck, which led a life of hidden prayer in rural Co. Down as a gesture of communion with the suffering Church in the North during some of the worst days of the Troubles. They had to return to Beck to meet needs there.
The foundation of the monastery and “its particular mission to contribute to reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in a land stained by the blood of Christian brothers and sisters” in Northern Ireland was inspired by an exhortation to monasteries in contemplative life by Blessed John Paul II in 1996.
The full story is told by Dom Mark-Ephrem in his recent book Fresh Springs from an Ancient Well: The Story of the Rostrevor Benedictines (Octagon Design) available via the internet.
Ecumenism is rooted in Dom Mark-Ephrem’s DNA. His mother’s faith life didn’t just revolve around daily Mass in the Convent of the Poor Clares opposite the family home in Belfast and visits to the Cistercians in Portglenone, Co. Antrim. But remarkably, also around frequent attendance at Protestant services in Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Congregational churches in Belfast in the Sixties.
Mrs Nolan, who died in 2012 had a special prayer room in the family home, became the Rostrevor monastery’s first lay oblate, Sr Benedict, and is buried in its grounds alongside her husband Ian. At her removal Fr Eric M. Loisel OSB, a confrere of Mark-Ephrem described her as “an instrument of peace, a bridge builder… an ecumenical pioneer….a pilgrim of unity before the term was invented”.
At his mother’s funeral Mass Dom Mark-Ephrem recalled: “In our house Protestant Faith Missionaries met with Franciscan Friars, Lutheran and Anglican Sisters met with Sisters of Mercy and Little Sisters of the Assumption – because of her family background the Dominicans weren’t forgotten.”
“Refugees from both the Protestant and Catholic areas who were intimidated from their homes at the height of the Troubles were welcomed together and given accommodation.”
He was introduced to the contemplative life as an altar server aged 8 or 9 at 7.30am daily Mass in the Poor Clare convent.
He remembers “very precisely at the age of 10 in 1969 my mother coming back from Portglenone and speaking about seeing the monks”.
“I remember feeling that is what I feel called to be.”
He stresses his mother never put any pressure on him always saying he should “be happy in yourself doing what you feel God wants you to do”.
“The ecumenical thing was at the heart of my monastic vocation.”
He expected that after studies at St Malachy’s College he would become a Cistercian monk at Portglenone but on an ecumenical weekend in London he met the inspirational Dom Edmund Jones OSB who asked him if he had considered the Benedictines and spoke to him about Beck.
He took a gap year at the age of 18 with the Jesuit inspired Christian Life Community in Rome and then “In Beck I found everything I was looking for in a place I didn’t know including a strong ecumenical tradition and a strong liturgical life”.
Dom Mark-Ephrem took his solemn profession of vows of stability, conversion and obedience 1984 and ordained a priest by Bishop Cahal Daly in 1986.
The typically autonomous community at Rostrevor is an Olivetan congregation of the Benedictine Order consisting of six brothers, three of whom are ordained priests. They wear distinctive white habits and ecumenical engagement is considered a key aspect of their charism.
Scope and scale
What is remarkable about them is the depth, scope and scale of their ecumenical embrace which would thrill his late mother. Half of the 500 retreatants who stay in their eight guestrooms each year seeking spiritual direction, counselling or the Sacrament of Reconciliation are Protestants.
A further 1,000 visitors arrive in groups on day trips.
Dom Mark-Ephrem was appointed a Canon of St Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral Armagh by Archbishop Harper last year in recognition of that contribution to ecumenical relations.
“The vast majority of young people who come are Protestants, encouraged by their pastors, for whom Jesus Christ rather than any denomination really counts.”
A majority of the clergy who come are Protestant because of the pressure falling vocations has put on Catholic priests and he would dearly love to see many more young Roman Catholics coming.
He speaks of “the healing” experienced by visitors including “women who experience being served by monks who may be celebrating Mass one moment and clearing up the dishes the next”.
Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore has said “the warmest and truest testimony I can give to the ministry at Rostrevor is that it is my ‘second home’”.
On reception of the Eucharist Dom Mark- Ephrem says “It is real pain we cannot eat of one Bread, drink of one Cup”, recalling one person observed “there were tears shed by all” when Protestants stayed in their places and Catholics went up to receive Communion when his church was opened.
At his service of installation as a canon “I asked the Dean of Armagh to bless me”.
A happier subject of conversation is Pope Francis who has “listened” taking on board the very first word of the Rule of Benedict before making many key decisions.
“There is a fresh breath of evangelical air in the Church. Francis is building a Church without walls and reaching out to all those who follow Jesus from a distance.”
Pope Francis has “not changed teaching” and reminds him of Jesus Himself who said: “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it” and is faithfully obeying Christ’s command to Peter: “Feed my sheep.”
“Francis is giving us a new beginning and a fresh start. He is looking at the flowers in the garden but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the weeds that have to be rooted out.”
Dom Mark-Ephrem is particularly forthright when asked to comment on the national Church.
“The Irish Church has been humiliated and that is a good thing. The central chapter of Benedict’s Rule is on humility but it is very hard for any of us to arrive at humility without going through the pain of humiliation.”
He senses “a really important moment in our history where we needed perhaps metaphorically and literally to come to the point where we are on our knees”.
“The Church is always best when it is on its knees, when it is a Church at prayer.
“We need pastors who will open the message of hope which is the message of the Gospel…to discover again the essence of Christian community and we have to build up confidence within our communities to grow.”
So much upon to ponder.