Earlier this year I enjoyed a few days break in Krakow, which
has become one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited. Most foreign visitors who go to Krakow will be familiar with
the ‘chocolate box’ medieval streets and squares and buildings, and nearby places such as Auschwitz and Wieliczka
Salt Mine. Having been fortunate to have toured these places on previous holidays I managed to go to see something else I’d
longed hoped to visit: a rather unusual church called, in Polish, Arka Pana – or in English, The Lord’s Ark. It’s
found in one of the outer suburbs of Krakow, Nowa Huta, and was consecrated just over forty years ago
of Nowa Huta is interesting in itself. In 1947, the decision was made to build a kind of Communist utopia, with construction
beginning straight away. It was meant to rival the ‘twee-ness’ of medieval Krakow and show what modern socialism
could achieve in terms of ideal community living. The development is impressive in its enormity and precision and as one of
only two Socialist Realist settlements ever built, it is considered one of the most renowned examples of social engineering
in the World.
The Communist authorities had intended the suburb
to be church-free, as part of their atheist manifesto, but as people began to move in to the new properties, there were many
who began to press for a church to be built. A cross was erected on the proposed designated building site in March 1957 but
by 1960 this had become the focus of open conflict between militia forces and local inhabitants who defended the cross. This
resulted in permission being granted for the cross to stay but there being no official permission to build a church –
it would be a further seven years before this was won... and then the authorities refused to provide any building materials
or labour. In a state-run economy this made construction
extremely difficult. It can be argued that this was part of a calculated move on the part of the government - they would appease
the protesters by greenlighting the project and the same time making construction practically impossible.
However, the government did not take into account
the sheer determination of the people. Instead of giving up, the residents promptly built the church by hand out of whatever
stones that they could gather up, mixing their own cement. The façade alone is made up of 2 million stones. It is built
to resemble Noah's ark, which was washed up on Mount Ararat after the flood had finally reseeded. It was finally completed
in 1969, and consecrated by the local bishop Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.
The design of the church, and its ecclesiastical
furniture, is as unusual as its Ark shape. There are seven doors, representing the seven sacraments; seven ways ‘into’
knowing God and his love. The high altar is carved from marble in the shape of a giant open hand, and there is an immense
statue of Christ, soaring up to heaven. The tabernacle, where the consecrated sacrament of the Eucharist is kept, is in the
shape of the globe and has set within the door a stone from the moon, originally given to Pope Paul VI by the crew of Apollo
11. There’s even a statue of Our Lady made from shrapnel removed from Polish soldiers at the Battle of Monte Casino.
Currently the interior of the church is undergoing renovation so I was limited in what I could see but it would be fascinating
to return when it is fully open again and spend some proper time inside.
As we move through Holy Week into Easter this month, this Church,
with its remarkable story, is, I think, a great symbol of both suffering and Resurrection. Just as the authorities thought
they could silence Jesus by killing him, so too the atheist authorities thought they could quash religious faith and Christianity
in the Soviet Union. Neither succeeded. The power of God at work in the life of Jesus Christ, and in the life of his body
the Church, is one which cannot be crushed, or even contained. It is vibrant and vital. Just as Jesus triumphed through seeking
to do the will of his Father, so too have Christians triumphed in many generations when they have found themselves under persecution.
And just as Jesus achieved the new life of
Resurrection at the place of death, Golgotha, the Arka Pana symbolises this too – the construction had to be halted
when it was found that the site was an abandoned WWII ammunition dump and 5,000 mines and shells had to be carefully removed.
But that's not the end to the drama witnessed by the church. The town later became a stronghold
for anticommunist troops, at which time the church provided shelter from militia, as well as holding monthly masses during
the period of martial law from 1981 to 1983.
Church rises over what was the source of death and now points to new life and new hope.
The message of Easter, that
Love triumphs over evil; that new life is raised from death; that God is faithful in his promises to love us and save us,
is a powerful one which the world is always in need of hearing afresh. Alongside the first Easter in history, when Jesus was
raised from the dead, there are many ‘mini-Easters’ to be found in the life of Christ’s Church which encourage
us to sing our Alleluias anew, but also to recognise that they often come from periods of struggle and suffering. The Lord’s
Ark is not just an incredible building with a fascinating story – it is also a modern icon of the resurrection truth
that God’s love prevails even in the midst of disaster, and that Christ’s risen life is flooding the world and
May you all know the power
and joy of Christ’s Resurrection this Eastertide.