Friday, 30 April 2010

The end of an era at CITI

In Fellows Square, Trinity College Dublin, this morning (from left): Peter Ferguson, Katie Heffelfinger, Paul Arbuthnot, Lorraine Capper, Jason Kernohan, Jack Kinkead, Lynne Gibson, Paul Bogle, Maurice Elliott and Patrick Comerford. Missing from the photograph is Brian Lacey

Patrick Comerford

It was the end of an era today.

Students from the Church of Ireland Theological College sat the last-ever exam paper on the Bachelor in Theology (BTh) course.

The eight BTh students, who are in their third year, have been sitting exams each morning in Trinity College Dublin. The final exam this morning was a two-hour paper on Contemporary Ethical Problems.

The exams earlier this week were: Systematic Theology (Ecclesiology, theology and cosmology), Old Testament (Prophecy in Israel and Old Testament Theology), New Testament (Literary and historical approaches to the Gospel, and the Johannine writings), and Anglicanism (Anglican historical theology and formularies).

Apart from this morning’s paper, the other four exams were three-hour papers. All exams were sat in the Arts Block in Trinity College Dublin.

We began the week celebrating the Eucharist in the chapel on Sunday evening, with chapel services each evening throughout the week, including Evening Prayer on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and the Mid-Week Eucharist on Wednesday. A small group also read the Litany in the chapel on Friday morning.

With two other staff members – the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott, Director of the institute, and Dr Katie Heffelfinger, Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics – we all gathered for group photographs outside the Arts Block in Fellows’ Square before heading off to Porterhouse in Nassau Street to pop a few corks.

We were joined for lunch by the former Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Canon Professor Adrian Empey, and his wife, June.

The eight students are: Paul Arbuthnot (Dublin and Glendalough), Paul Bogle (Dublin and Glendalough), Lorraine Capper (Clogher), Peter Ferguson (Armagh), Lynne Gibson (Down and Dromore), Jason Kernohan (Connor), Jack Kinkead (Dublin and Glendalough), and Brian Lacey (Connor).

Afterwards, the students headed off for some fun on the “Viking Splash” and dinner in the Glenside.

The next stages include waiting for the exam results. But the most important stage now is their ordination to the diaconate in the coming weeks. They have been a great year, and they were the last intake on the BTh course. It has been great working with them for the past three years.

‘No morals in the market’ former TD tells ordinands

The Church of Ireland Gazette carries this half-page news report and photograph on page 3 today [30 April 2010]:

George Lee is pictured following his address to the Marsh Society with Canon Patrick Comerford, who chaired the meeting

‘No morals in the market’ former TD tells ordinands

In a punchy and at times hard-hitting speech, the former Fine Gael TD, George Lee, has challenged the emphasis on the economy as the main focus in the Republic of Ireland's present economic crisis and wondered about the place of values and people. He was addressing a recent meeting of the March Society, a student-led discussion group, in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI), Dublin.

The former journalist and broadcaster recently resigned as Fine Gael TD for Dublin South in controversial circumstances. At the time of his resignation, Mr Lee expressed his frustration at not having been given more involvement during his time as a Fine Gael TD in helping to shape the party’s economic policies. He told his CITI audience that “when you are pushed you realise what you believe in.”

As Economics Correspondent in RTÉ, where he had worked from 1992 until his election to the Dáil in the Dublin South by-election in May 2009, Mr Lee said he had watched the economic collapse and was “stunned that no-one saw it coming: it was so obvious.”

He continued: “We are the architects of our own economic misfortune … rapid economic growth that depended on the boom in the building industry and property speculation couldn’t go on for ever … it was not sustainable. Everyone was hell-bent on continuing the good times and nobody wanted to know about the consequences.”

He argued that “massive greed has broken the economy” [and there were] “no morals in the market … trust has gone because of greed.”

Mr Lee went on to speak of the social and human consequences of unemployment, and warned of the danger of permanent, long-term damage to young people, including changes in behaviour, the loss of self-esteem and the pain families go through. The permanent consequences included malnutrition, mental stress, lower life expectancy and greater risks.

“I believe this is the big issue,” he told the CITI meeting. While the government and bankers could sort themselves out, he wondered about the future for ordinary people.

“There is a huge price to pay,” the former TD added. he said that trust had broken down and reminded those present that “prosperity is all about trust; trust is the cornerstone of prosperity.”

He believed that politics ought to be about responsibility and not about power, adding that he no longer trusted political parties, the financial regulator, government departments or the Taoiseach, “but I do trust people.”

He said that, in recent years, the Irish economy “was about grab, grab, grab. Now we are grasping for survival … but no-one knows the way out.” He insisted on the need to get back to people, saying that “the economy is about people, not the other way round. We’ve got to put people first.”

Concluding, he explained his decision to resign his seat, saying: “I have no regrets myself about leaving … I believe I did the right thing, I made the right decision.”

A similar report is carried in the May edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A disparate, despised group of Christians

The Antioch Chalice, lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to the exhibition, Byzantium, in the Royal Academy, London, last year. Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Patrick Comerford

Acts 12: 24 – 13: 5a; Psalm 67; John 12: 44-50

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our readings this evening continue some of our threads in the readings for Saint Mark’s Day, which we heard at our Eucharist on Sunday evening.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about Barnabas and Saul bringing John Mark with them from Antioch to Jerusalem to join in their mission work.

And we can see how already that mission work was extending way beyond those nice, respectable groups some people would like to see our parishes being confined to. For, in Antioch, the Christians in the Church were not the sort of people many think we should be drawing into the Church through our mission work.

Just look at them:

● Barnabas, a late arrival in the inner circle, not mentioned in the Gospels, a parvenu who only arrives on the scene in the Acts of the Apostles.

● Simeon, who was called Niger – presumably a black African.

● Lucius of Cyrene, another African. Was he in Jerusalem before this, with Simon the Cyrene, but silently watching Christ carry his cross to Calvary, afraid to stand out from the crowd?

● Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler … some translations more accurately grasp that the word σύντροφος (syntrophos) means he was a foster brother of Herod the Tetrarch. I don’t think too many us would think kindly of one of Herod’s courtiers, never mind a close member of his family. Had he once, on behalf of his foster father, Herod the Great, ordered the soldiers to go into Bethlehem and seek out every male child two years old or under? Had he been complicit in the execution by his foster brother Herod Antipas of John the Baptist? Was he present when Herod Antipas questioned and mocked Christ at his trial?

● And, of course, Saul, the once snooty Pharisee who collected booty for the Christian martyrs he hunted down.

You are bound to find parishioners who object to perople like this – in 21st century modes – being drawn into the life of the Church.

They’ll get a surprise, won’t they, when they realise these are the very sort of people who turn up for selection conference, who end up as ordinands, deacons, priests, and even as bishops?

But our Psalm this evening (Psalm 67) shows how embracing and inclusive God’s vision, God’s mission, God’s love is.

Psalm 67, Deus Misereatur, was introduced into the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer as a Canticle for Evening Prayer, as an alternative to the main canticles. It is one of only four canticles that are provided in the traditional language in the Book of Common Prayer 2004 [see p. 134] – the others are Urbs Fortitudinis, Cantate Domino, and A Song of the Light, although quick thinking will allow you to find modern language versions either in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer or in the Irish Church Hymnal.

This psalm is a plea for the mercy of God, for his “saving health” to be seen in all nations, for his righteous judgment, and for his governance of the world. When all of that is in place, “Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, and God, our own God, will bless us. God will bless us, and all the ends of the world shall fear him.”

God raises up his own, in the face of popular prejudice, and in spite of our prejudices, so that his saving health may be received and may be a blessing in all nations. Long before Paul and Barnabas arrived in Antioch, there was a disparate, perhaps even despised group of Christians there – two Africans, a former intimate of Herod … how many more?

Indeed, those who worry about people like this turning to Christ need to hear the Good News in our Gospel reading this evening. For Christ says that it matters not what background we come from, what the colour of our skin is, which tribe or country we come from, or what have been our past political or religious convictions.

What matters is that whoever believes in Christ, whoever sees Christ, whoever accepts Christ as the light come into the world. As another Canticle for Evening Prayer, Nunc Dimittis, reminds us, he is a light to lighten the Gentiles, a light and revelation to the nations, and not just for those who would keep him to themselves.

Keep that light before you always, then can God’s servants go in peace.

And may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
who gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again.
Keep us always under his protection,
And give us grace to follow in his steps;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the mid-week Eucharist on 28 April 2010.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Saint Mark, the rejected curate

Saint Mark in the Lichfield Gospels … not the first choice of the Apostle Paul for a curate

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 April 2010

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

8 p.m.: Said Eucharist

Acts 15: 35-41; Psalm 119: 9-16; Ephesians 4: 7-15; Mark 13: 5-13


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I imagine this morning some of you heard sermons on the Good Shepherd, based on the appointed Psalm for Holy Communion, and the Gospel reading on Christ knowing his own and his own knowing him.

Or perhaps you heard a sermon on the Communion of Saints. I tried to be a little different in Saint Bartholomew’s Church this morning, taking a thread on the Communion of Saints that runs through the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C.

However, 25 April is also Saint Mark’s Day. Because it falls on a Sunday this year, Saint Mark’s Day has been transferred this year to tomorrow. And so I thought the readings were very appropriate for us this evening.

This coming week is one packed with anxiety and worries for you, with exams each morning. But it should, instead, be a week of joy and anticipation as each of you looks forward to your ordination as deacons and starting as curates for the first time in your new parishes.

And, believe you me, I know how you feel from my side too. For my primary purpose here is not to pump you full of facts and information that you can instantly recall between now and Friday morning in the hope of getting excellent results.

My primary purpose here has been to help in shaping and forming you spiritually so that you are prepared to be the deacons and priests God is calling you to be.

And there have been tough times for each and every one of you along the way … whether it was finding it difficult to cope with, and digest some of the things you were hearing; or difficult to cope with community life and the personal difficulties that inevitably creates; or simply not getting the curacy offer you had hopes and prayed for.

And as you coped with those problems and difficulties and challenges, it would have been no comfort to you if others glibly remarked: “I have been there too,” or: “You’re not the first one to complain.”

Saint Mark (right) and Saint Matthew in a stained glass window in Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

But sometimes I think Saint Mark, whose day it is today, must be the patron saint of all Third Years who have gone through the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and all other Anglican theological colleges and seminaries too.

Saint Mark and the Apostle Paul had the personality clash to beat all personality clashes. Barnabas nominated Mark to Paul as their curate: as they stayed back in Antioch, Barnabas suggested that he and Paul should take John Mark with them as they went on their pastoral rounds in every place they had worked.

But Paul said no. He was hurting. He said Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia, that he wasn’t up to the work.

There must have been a right row between Paul and Barnabas too, although it’s not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. And so Paul got neither Mark nor Barnabas. Instead of setting off with Barnabas, Paul sets off with Silas, to do their pastoral rounds in Syria and Cilicia, building up the churches.

Barnabas doesn’t accompany them. Instead, he’s happy to take on Mark as his curate, and they sail away to Cyprus.

It works out in the end. Mark may have learned a lesson or two. But he went on to be a key person in the life of the Apostolic Church. Saint Mark’s Gospel is the work of a slugger, not of a slagger. Nor is it the work of someone who bore any grudges from his early lessons in ministry.

Mark is credited with founding the church in Alexandria. Mark is an evangelist and a martyr.

Paul’s first impressions of Mark bear no relation to his lasting impact on the life of the Church

The Apostle Paul, for his part, learns that we all have different gifts, styles and approaches when it comes to ministry. In his letter to the Ephesians, he shows how he has learned that some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, all to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

That work of ministry is not going to be an easy one for you. The Gospel reading warns of the difficulties facing the disciples: of being led astray, of the trials of wars, natural disasters, famines, persecutions, trials, false accusations, being confronted and challenged by the powers of this world, being betrayed by those who are near and dear to you.

But remember always that the Good News must be proclaimed, and you will be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church prays for that at your ordination. And I would not be here if I did not believe that prayer is answered.

Long after your ordination, when others have even forgotten that day, you can be assured of those prayers of the Church. And of my prayers too.

May God bless you in all your future ministry, may Christ always be your guide and be before you, and may the Holy Spirit continue to lead and strengthen you.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect

Almighty God,
who enlightened your holy Church
through the inspired witness of your evangelist Saint Mark:
Grant that we, being firmly grounded
in the truth of the gospel,
may be faithful to its teaching both in word and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Post Communion Prayer

Blessed Lord,
you have fed us at this table with sacramental gifts.
May we always rejoice and find strength
in the gift of the gospel
announced to us by Saint Mark,
and come at last to the fullness of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached at a Eucharist celebrated with the Year III B.Th. students on Sunday evening, 25 April 2010.

With the saints before the Throne of the Lamb

The calling of Saint Nathanael, also identified with Saint Bartholomew … a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 April 2010, the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin

11 a.m.: Solemn Eucharist

Acts 9: 36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is particularly nice to be back in Saint Bartholomew’s this morning, and to join you in celebrating the Eucharist.

This has been a very busy few weeks in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and the last intake of B.Th. students are about to begin their exams tomorrow morning.

So, it’s good to back in a parish like this on this weekend, and to be reminded what parish life is truly about, and to be reminded of the standards we should be seeking in liturgy.

After my last visit, I was re-reading Kenneth Milne’s history of this church, published almost fifty years ago. But I failed to discover why this church was named Saint Bartholomew’s. Nor does Peter Costello tell us why in his book, Dublin Churches.

I can’t imagine it was because the founding figures wanted to provide a landmark memorial for the French Huguenot martyrs massacred in Paris in 1572. Nor was the Church dedicated on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August – it was dedicated on Ascension Day.

Nor is Saint Bartholomew a particularly happy apostle to illustrate in iconography – it is said he was skinned to death. The symbol used for him in Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Wednesbury in the Diocese of Lichfield is three flaying knives, and there is a gruesome, skeletal statue of him in the Duomo in Milan, holding his own skin.

I think the more probable reason is connected with the fact that in the mid or late 19th century, Saint Bartholomew was one of the few apostles who had yet to have a church named in his honour in this diocese. Already we had churches names after Peter [Aungier Street], Andrew [Suffolk Street, Lucan and Malahide], James [Saint James’s Street], John [Fishamble Street, Clondalkin, Coolock, Mounttown and later Sandymount] , Philip [Milltown and Booterstown], Matthew [Irishtown], Thomas [Marlborough Street, Mulhuddart and later Mount Merrion], James [Booterstown], Jude [Kilmainham], as well as Matthias [Ballybrack, 1835, and Hatch Street, 1843] … but there was none yet named after Simon or after Bartholomew, who is also identified with Nathanael – nor, for that matter, after Judas.

At the time this parish was shaping its particular identity and its place within tradition. An important statement was being made about the Church of Ireland and our claim to be heirs to the full apostolic legacy of the church – not just part of it.

So this church could have been named Saint Simon’s or Saint Nathanael’s. Perhaps those involved in forming this parish, as they thought of images of Saint Bartholomew, thought they too that they were in danger, metaphorically speaking, of being skinned alive in those days of antagonism and vitriol when it came to differences in churchmanship.

But, of course, they also reminded us that we are part of the Communion of Saints – not just one part of it, but part of the whole Communion of Saints, heirs to the full apostolic legacy of the Church.

I am surprised that there so many churches in the Church of Ireland named after saints – apostles or the saints of these islands – but that are reluctant to give thanks in the intercessions to the witness and legacy of the saints over the generations and over the centuries.

And our readings this morning tell us in different ways how the Church and the Communion of Saints are one.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it may appear first of all to be yet another miracle story. But it is also a story about the Communion of Saints. Tabitha, or Dorcas, whether she is dead or alive, is part of the praying, believing, living community of Christians, and the saints who are all called into her presence are called into new life (Acts 9: 41).

She is going to die, eventually, just like Lazarus, or the daughter of Jairus. This is a story reminding us that in death or in life, the Communion of Saints are bound together in faith, love and hope, and this bond is never broken.

The saints coming before the Lamb on the Throne … from the Ghent Altarpiece

In our reading from the Book of Revelation, we are reminded that the Communion of Saints is drawn from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. All are gathered together, across time and space, breaking down all the barriers of history and discrimination, to give blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might to the Lamb of God (Revelation 7: 9, 12).

In our Gospel reading, we are told that the saints, those who have eternal life, are those who hear Christ’s voice, answer his call, follow him and do his will. He knows them, they know him, and they have the promise of eternal life (John 10: 22-30).

Recent Popes have been criticised for choosing as saints for canonisation those who often appear to set an impossible ideal for the saints alive. Not that I want to deny the holiness or sanctity of anyone who has been canonised in recent years.

But how long will it take before we see the canonisation of a pastorally caring and self-sacrificing bishop like Oscar Romero, who was martyred 30 years ago last month? How long before popes become ecumenically adventurous and recognise as saints great martyrs of the Christian faith such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King?

The recognition of relevant exemplars as saints is still a living tradition in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

In 1958, the Lambeth Conference, speaking about the commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion, said saints should be scriptural, or those whose historical character and devotion are beyond doubt. In other words, they have been exemplars of how to answer Christ’s call and to do his will.

The ten statues above the West Door of Westminster Abbey representing modern saints and martyrs (from left): Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Archbishop Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, Wang Zhiming

Have you ever looked up in recent years at the West Front of Westminster Abbey? It now contains the statues of ten 20th century martyrs including the Polish Franciscan martyr, Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1968; Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was assassinated in Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror.

Those niches had been left empty from the late Middle Ages until the statues were unveiled in 1998. The other saints and martyrs that now fill those niches are: Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Manche Masmeola, a 16-year-old South Africa catechist killed by her mother; Esther John, an evangelist murdered in Pakistan by her brother; Wang Zhiming, who was murdered during the Cultural Revolution in China, and Lucian Tapiedi – one of the oft-neglected 12 Anglican martyrs from New Guinea.

Many of these modern saints and martyrs were commemorated already in the chapel in Canterbury Cathedral where Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul knelt together in prayer in 1982.

The calendar of the Church of England commemorates not only English saints, but Irish saints that have yet to make an appearance in any calendar of the Church of Ireland, including: Jeremy Taylor (13 August), Bishop of Connor, Down and Dromore; and Mother Harriet O’Brien Monsell (1811-1883, 26 March), from Dromoland, Co Clare, sister of the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien and founder of the Clewer Sisters after she was widowed. In the US, the Calendar of the Episcopal Church includes CS Lewis (22 November), who, of course, was born in Belfast.

I was taking part in a memorial service yesterday in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green. I find it difficult to grasp what Unitarians may mean by the Communion of Saints. But in the main stained-glass windows they had images of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Florence Nightingale and William Caxton, portrayed as if they were the patron saints of discovery, truth, love and work.

Why do we have a problem in the Church of Ireland in remembering saints other that the Apostles and the founding figures of our dioceses and great monasteries?

In one of my favourite churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, I have been asked to preach on the day Jeremy Taylor was remembered in the calendar of the Church of England. But I have been impressed too by the way that church has also remembered graciously and with dignity Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, giving thanks for his role in helping to shape Anglicanism as we know and love and cherish it today, and for his contributions to the beauty of literary English through his Collects and the Book of Common Prayer.

Why do we have difficulty in the Church of Ireland, even to this day, in remembering the saints of Ireland, never mind the saints of the wider Church?

We have no place, yet, for Irish Anglican saints such as William Bedell, Jeremy Taylor, Harriet Monsell or CS Lewis, never mind other Anglicans like Thomas Cranmer and Janani Luwum, Roman Catholics like Maximillian Kolbe and Oscar Romero, Lutherans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Baptists like Martin Luther King.

If you were to pick your own modern saints, the saints who had influenced you in your faith journey, modern exemplars of Christian faith and discipleship, who would you name?

The late Bishop John Yates (1925-2008), who, as a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, first prompted me to think about ordination when I was only a 19-year-old …

Two former rectors of Wexford, Canon Eddie Grant and Canon Norrie Ruddock, who did the same ....

Dietrich Bonhoeffer …

Martin Luther King …

Colin O’Brien Winter, the exiled Bishop of Namibia, who combined his pacifism with a firm resistance to apartheid, racism and militarism …

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the priest who first showed me what engaged discipleship really demands, and the cost of it …

I truly enjoy the way Greeks and other Orthodox Christians put a greater emphasis on celebrating their name days than their birthdays. For when we join the saints in glory before the Lamb on the Throne, the only birthday that will matter will be the day in which we join that wonderful company of saints.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Clyde Road, Dublin, on Sunday 25 April 2010.

Joining the saints in the company of the Lamb

Saint Bartholomew's Church, Clyde Road, Ballsbridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 April 2010, the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin

9 a.m.: Said Eucharist

Acts 9: 36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is particularly nice to be back in Saint Bartholomew’s this morning, and to join you in celebrating the Eucharist.

I know you don’t normally expect a sermon at this Eucharist, but I just thought I’d take a few moments to share some of the things I may say later this morning.

Since my last visit, I have been thinking about why this church is named Saint Bartholomew’s. I can’t imagine it was because the founding figures wanted to commemorate the Huguenots martyred in Paris in 1572. Nor was the Church dedicated on Saint Bartholomew’s Day.

Nor, despite the window here of the calling of Saint Nathanael, is Saint Bartholomew a particularly happy apostle to illustrate – it is said he was skinned to death, and there is a gruesome, skeletal statue of him in the Duomo in Milan, holding his own skin.

I think the more probable reason is connected with the fact that by the mid or late 19th century, Saint Bartholomew was one of the few apostles who had yet to have a church named in his honour in this diocese. Already we had churches names after the four evangelists and after most of the apostles … apart from Simon, Bartholomew, who is also identified with Nathanael, and, of course, Judas.

At the time this parish was shaping its particular identity and its place within tradition. An important statement was being made about the Church of Ireland and our claim to be heirs to the full apostolic legacy of the church – not just part of it.

We need to be reminded every now and then that we are part of the Communion of Saints – not just one part of it, but part of the whole Communion of Saints, heirs to the full apostolic legacy of the Church.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter calls the saints together as witnesses to the promise of new life in Christ. In our reading from the Book of Revelation, we are reminded that the Communion of Saints is drawn from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, across time and space, breaking down all the barriers of history and discrimination.

In our Gospel reading, we are told that the saints, those who have eternal life, are those who hear Christ’s voice, answer his call, follow him and do his will. He knows them, they know him, and they have the promise of eternal life.

Have you ever looked up in recent years at the West Front of Westminster Abbey? It now contains the statues of ten 20th century martyrs including Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The calendar of the Church of England commemorates not only English saints, but Irish saints that have yet to make an appearance in any calendar of the Church of Ireland, including Jeremy Taylor and Mother Harriet O’Brien Monsell from Dromoland, Co Clare.

Why do we have a problem in the Church of Ireland in remembering saints other that the Apostles and the founding figures of our dioceses and great monasteries?

I know a church in the Diocese of Lichfield that has remembered as saints both Jeremy Taylor from the Church of Ireland and Thomas Cranmer, for his role in shaping Anglicanism and his contribution to the beauty of literary English through his Collects and the Book of Common Prayer.

If you were to pick your own modern saints, the saints who had influenced you in your faith journey, modern exemplars of Christian faith and discipleship, who would you name?

The late Bishop John Yates (1925-2008), who at Lichfield Cathedral, first prompted me to think about ordination when I was only a 19-year-old …

Canon Eddie Grant and Canon Norrie Ruddock, who did the same in Wexford …

Dietrich Bonhoeffer …

Martin Luther King …

Colin O’Brien Winter, the exiled Bishop of Namibia, who combined his pacifism with a firm resistance to apartheid, racism and militarism …

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the priest who first showed me what engaged discipleship really demands, and the cost of it …

I truly enjoy the way my Greek friends put a greater emphasis on celebrating their name days than their birthdays. For when we join the saints in glory before the Lamb on the Throne, the only birthday that matters is the day in which we enter that wonderful company of saints.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Said Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 25 April 2010

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable

The Printers’ Patron? ... William Caxton in a stained-glass window in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There is a popular hymn written in 1974 by Leonard Smith, Our God Reigns, and it has these well-loved opening lines:

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him
who brings good news, good news,
announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness:
our God reigns, our God reigns.


Lenny Smith in his life story represents an interesting diversity – a diversity that we could find here this morning too. He is a writer who comes from a mixed Catholic-Protestant background. But he also had many sad life experiences in his early adulthood. He was forced to give up studying for ordination, and before he was 30 he had been sacked as a teacher on no less than four occasions.

Just before penning these words, Lenny was a deeply depressed and unemployed schoolteacher who had given up all hope in life. And then he came upon that beautiful, poetic and visionary verse in the Prophecy of Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns”
(Isaiah 52: 7).

Good news is not necessarily bright, happy news. Good news is truth. Good news is news that inspires and empowers people, and allows us to make decisions and to take action.

Good news is not the same as news that seeks to disguise or distort the truth.

Journalists love the old joke about the two main state-owned Russian-language newspapers in the days of the old Soviet Union: Pravda (Правда) and Izvestia (Известия). The word pravda in Russian means “truth,” while izvestia means ”news.” And so there was a popular saying among Russians about these two newspapers: “There’s no truth in the News, and there’s no news in the Truth.”

For generations, the staff of The Irish Times have been involved in proclaiming news – not always news of happiness, but always seeking to proclaim the news, and to bring the truth, whether it appears to be good news or not, to the nation.

News and truth are not always palatable. But they cannot be ignored.

Is it any wonder that the word Gospel in its original New Testament Greek, ευαγγέλιον (evangelion), means not “Holy Word,” nor “Sacred Writ,” but “Good News.” When the angel appears to Mary, when the angels appear to the shepherds, when the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in scattered churches across the Mediterranean basin, they all say not that they have a book of the Bible to read, or a holy story to tell: they say they are bringing good news, proclaiming good news.

No wonder Victorian newspaper proprietors chose the image of winged messengers for the titles and logos of their newspapers – Herald, Mercury, Guardian ....

And when those who seek to proclaim the truth and the news from the mountain tops – or these days, from the pages of our newspapers – fail to maintain the values of truthfulness, they lose credibility and our newspapers lose credibility. When they seek to bring only what passes as good news, what in fact is soporific news, when they try to “spin” difficult news on behalf of vested interests, the truth suffers, and the people suffer too.

Empowering, truthful news is, in the end, always good news, because it allows people to act morally and to act with purpose. And so truthful news is always good news, is always what people like you and me must be prepared to see as having Gospel-like qualities to it.

Truthfulness is so important in the Gospels that at his trial Jesus startles Pilate by telling him: “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18: 37).

Pilate is so taken aback that he asks that very fundamental question we all need to ask ourselves constantly: “What is truth?” (John 18: 38).

Long before this, Jesus had told his disciples: “The truth will make you free,” or “The truth shall set you free” (John 8: 31).

Those who tell the truth bring good news, no matter how unpalatable it may be at first reading. Those who tell the news as it really is empower people, give them the truth that can set them free.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, those of us who are engaged in the religious exercise, as priests, pastors, theologians, spiritual guides and advisers, must wake to the fact that those who bring us the news are engaged in an essentially religious exercise of allowing people to be who they are truly created to be.

The messengers of good news, those who proclaim the truth, are truly engaged in one of the most noble, one of the most blessed tasks in life, a task that is life-enhancing, life-affirming, in partnership with the act of creation.

And so it is truly important to remember them for that – whether they ever had any religious values themselves, or not, is not the point.

The great German theologian Karl Barth once said in an interview in 1966:

“The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.”

Some years earlier, in 1961, he discussed journalists and their place in the world in an interview with Time magazine. He said that newspapers are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion … Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit.”

Barth recalled that 40 years earlier he had advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”

His advice was taken to heart by so many in later generations that Billy Graham often preached this way, literally, with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. John Stott, the famous evangelist, told theology students constantly to keep these two before them: “The Word and the World.”

When the late Stephen Hilliard was leaving The Irish Times shortly before his ordination, Ken Gray said at his presentation that he was moving from being a column in the Times to being a pillar of the Church.

Some time later, shortly before his death, a tired and weary Stephen called around to my house. At the time, I too was thinking of ordination. And I asked him how life had changed for him.

“Oh,” he said, “not much.”

“Too many late nights?” I asked.

“Not so much that,” he said, and then he quoted that old adage attributed to both HL Mencken (1880-1956) and to Mr Dooley, the character created by Peter Finlay Dunne (1867-1936): “I still have two responsibilities, to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

It’s a clever old aphorism, but it’s still true. And when we stop keeping these values before us, then no-one will any longer appreciate us, not just for bringing news, but for empowering them, for enabling them to make key decisions, for keeping before them the essential values that we all share, irrespective of our religious values.

And so, this morning, I give thanks to God for all who have worked hard over the generations to bring truth and news to people through the pages of The Irish Times:

● journalists who wrote and who created the ideas;
● photographers who showed us what it was truly like;
● printers, who made it possible for those words and images to be seen and read;
● advertising staff, advertisers and sales teams who made it financially possible to continue doing this;
● lawyers who fenced against those who would have silenced us;
● the messengers, the cleaners, the canteen staff, security, the management, switchboard operators, the drivers, the maintenance workers …
● the readers …

Everyone who did their job was engaged in holy work, a holy task, a sacred undertaking, everyone who placed their trust in us, everyone we depended on … they all made this a more blessed task, and a more blessed world.

May they ever be remembered, and may they receive their reward in glory, Amen.

The interior of the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was a contribution to a memorial service for deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times in the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, on Saturday 24 April 2010.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Rediscovering younger days in Wexford

18 High Street in on the market today … I lived here in the early and mid-1970s

Patrick Comerford

I went in search of some dead ancestors today … and found myself remembering my early 20s.

The former Bishop’s Palace in Kilkenny, seen from the new Bishop’s House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I was in Kilkenny yesterday for a meeting of USPG’s Irish directors in the Bishop’s House. But today wanted to take some photographs of houses and places in Co Wexford associated with previous generations of the Comerford family.

I hadn’t been back in Wexford for about six months, and it was a joy to return to my roots on a day that was bursting full of the promises of summer.

I started off in Bunclody, where the Post Office on the Mall was once a Comerford family home, and passed from them to the Lawler family.

From Bunclody, I went on out to the junction with Kilmyshall, and climbing the straight road up the hill, stopped at a small farm gate that is marked with a cross, and crossed a long field that looks down to the Slaney and the bridge at Clohamon to visit the unmarked graveyard where Eibhlín A’ Rúin is buried.

I hope to write over the next few days about the romantic story of Eibhlín A’ Rúin and how she eloped with Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, and perhaps tell the story too of the horrific outcome of the conflict between two local families, the FitzHenrys and the Ralphs.

But I was in this deserted churchyard and graveyard to photograph the graves of a number of Comerfords, including Michael Comerford, who died in 1719, John Comerford (my great-great grandfather’s brother) from Newtownbarry or Bunclody, who died in 1823, and his sons, John Comerford, who died in 1827 and William Comerford, who died in 1850.

From there it was across country to pretty Templeshambo, where the Church of Ireland Parish Church, Saint Colman’s, is being redecorated. I failed to find the grave I had visited many years ago of my great-great-great-grandfather, Edmund Comerford (died 1788), my great-great-grandfather James Comerford (died 1825), and my great-grandfather’s brother Richard Comerford (died 1848).

The interior of Saint Colman’s Church, Templeshambo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A lot of moss and grass has grown over many of the gravestones since I was last there, and I’ll have to return with a plan of the churchyard to find the grave. But I was surprised rather than disappointed – the work that’s going on meant I was able to get inside the church, which was rebuilt in the early 19th century, see its fine interior, and stay awhile and pray.

From Templeshambo, I headed into Enniscorthy, to photograph the interior of Saint Aidan’s Cathedral – one of the splendid Pugin churches that decorate Co Wexford, and where great-grandfather James worked in the 1840s.

La Dolce Vita in Trimmer’s Lane Wexford … the finest, the best, Italian restaurant in the south-east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Then I followed the course of the River Slaney down to Ferrycarrig and Wexford Town, where I had lunch in La Dolce Vita – which must be the finest, the best, Italian restaurant in the south-east.

Trimmer’s Lane has been paved, and now makes a beautiful piazza—it would be wonderful to sit out in the open on a warm summer’s day, enjoying the food and the sunshine.

I was sorry I couldn’t get into Selskar Abbey, despite a sign saying keys could be obtained in the Westgate Centre. But I went on to take photographs of Rowe Street Church, built in the style of Pugin, the Franciscan Friary Church at the junction of John Street, Mary Street, and School Street.

The White House in School Street … the first house in Wexford I lived in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I also wanted to photograph two houses I had lived on: one on School Street was known as the White House when I lived there in the 1970s, but it now has a grey exterior. The second is in High Street, where I had the top storey of No 18 as my own apartment.

From the front windows at the top, I looked across to the printing works of the Wexford People. From the back window, I looked down on the crumbling old town wall. I was only a stone’s throw from where my great-grandfather and his brothers had lived and worked over a century earlier, and I was paying a minimal rent … I think it was only £3.50 a week at the time.

Now the People Printing works are gone, and the site has been incorporated into the new Opera House. I thought this development would have made No 18 a plum piece of property … but I see it’s on the market for €80,000. Should I buy? But I could never buy back those days from the sunny 1970s.

After buying the papers and some books in Byrne’s on North Main Street, I headed back up the backs of the Slaney to Enniscorthy and on to Kilmuckridge for a long walk on the beach at Morriscastle. It had been a warm, sunny day … it was almost like early summer. There were few people on the beach, and the water looked cold, but the sand was golden and light under my feet.

The beach at Morriscastle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have just started a new course of steroids in a new effort to beat the symptoms of my sarcoidosis. But my walk on the beach at Morriscastle was refreshing and reinvigorating. I can never buy back my youth … not even if I think of buying 18 High Street … but I felt better after today’s walk on the beach.

On the way back to Dublin through Co Wicklow, the golden sun was clinging onto the tops of the trees and mountains to the west, as if it was reluctant to set this evening. And I knew that even though I have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis will never have me.

Monday, 19 April 2010

A Home Communion set and the Communion of Saints

The Benson Home Communion Set, passed through a long line of clergy for almost a century and a half (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After my walk on the beach in Balbriggan and along the pier on Sunday afternoon, I strolled through the town and up to Saint George’s Church and churchyard in Church Street.

Bedford House ... home of the Revd Dr Charles Benson while he was Rector of Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Almost immediately across the street from this charming church is the imposing facade of Saint Anthony’s Nursing Home, which was known as Bedford House, and which – 100 years ago – was the home of the Revd Dr Charles William Benson while he was Rector of Balbriggan from 1903 until his death in Bedford House on 6 February 1919.

And there lies an interesting connection. For, when I was ordained priest, my good friend Canon Norman Ruddock presented me with a Home Communion set which had first belonged to the good Dr Beson.

Norrie was the Rector of Wexford from 1993 until his retirement in 2004. But we had been friends for over 30 years, since he came to the Diocese of Ferns in 1973 as the Rector of Killane and Killegney. I was then living in High Street, Wexford, around the corner from Saint Iberius’s Church, and he was the first rector to invite me to speak in his parish, and one of the first to suggest I should consider ordination in the Church of Ireland.

Canon Norman Ruddock presented me with the Benson Home Communion set when I was ordained priest

When I was ordained priest, he presented me with that home communion set – a small and obviously long-treasured chalice and patten. With it was a hand-written list of all the priests who owned the set and who – over the generations – passed it on to those they saw as their successors in the ministry and heirs to their vision, with my name at the very end.

The Revd Dr Charles Benson, founder and headmaster of Rathmines School, and the first owner of the home communion set

This set was first owned by the Revd Dr Charles William Benson (1836-1919), a pioneering figure in education in the late 19th century who was responsible for nurturing and encouraging the vocation of many leading bishops, priests and missionaries in the Church of Ireland.

Benson was born on 12 July 1836, the eldest son of Dr John Benson of Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. He spent his boyhood days in Waterford, where he went to the Diocesan Endowed School. After Trinity College Dublin, Benson taught briefly at the Excelsior Institution, a school run by the Revd Charles Fleury in 89 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin – a house now part of the Catholic University School.

In 1858, when he was still only 21, Benson opened his own school at 48 Lower Rathmines Road, and he remained there as headmaster for over 40 years until 1899. Two years after opening Rathmines School, Benson was ordained deacon in 1860 on behalf of the ailing and feeble Archbishop Whately by Bishop Knox of Down. However, he had to wait another 10 years before he was ordained priest by Archbishop Trench in 1870, seven years after Whately’s death.

Social and school history

The register of Benson’s school reads like a potted social history of the Church of Ireland middle class in late Victorian Rathmines and Rathgar

The register of Benson’s school reads like a potted social history of the Church of Ireland middle class in late Victorian Rathmines and Rathgar, with an interesting collection of pupils from other parts of Dublin and further afield. When the school opened its doors in 1858, the first boy to enrol was the future eminent eye surgeon, Sir Henry Swanzy.

Bishop John Curtis, an old boy of Rathmines and a missionary bishop in China

In all, 2,190 boys attended Rathmines School. They included great sportsmen who were distinguished at tennis, cricket, rugby, hockey and soccer. The great missionaries from Rathmines School included four who worked in China with what is now the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission: John Curtis, a missionary bishop who was also an Irish international soccer player, William P.W. Williams, who became Principal of Trinity College Fuzhou, founded 100 years ago in 1907, Samuel Synge, a missionary doctor-priest, and Thomas de Clare Studdert.

Among the missionaries who went to South Africa there were two especially colourful old boys: George Dundas Carleton entered Rathmines in 1886. Later he joined the Society of the Sacred Mission, one of the leading Anglican religious orders, and from 1915 to 1923 he worked in South Africa, where he became Archdeacon of Mooderport. He became entangled in a bitter dispute with his society in Kelham and left the order, but continued to work in England with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and the Anglo-Catholic Congress. His schoolfriend, James Robinson Fowler, who enrolled in Rathmines the same year, also joined the Kelham Fathers, was professed with the name Alexander Nevski, and worked as a missionary in South Africa until his death in Cape Town in 1952.

Other famous pupils included the artist Walter Osborne; the writer and painter George Russell, better known as “AE”; the church historian Henry Patton, who was editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette before becoming Archdeacon and then Bishop of Killaloe; Henry Swanzy, who gave his name to Mount Swanzy, Canada; Newport White, Regius Professor of Divinity at TCD; Charles Osborne, biographer of the Portsmouth slum priest, Father Dolling; and George Tyrrell, who became a Roman Catholic in 1879, went on to become a distinguished Jesuit, but fell fowl of the Vatican for his “modernist” theology.

Archbishop Bernard: taught science in Benson’s school in Rathmines

Benson’s staff included John Henry Bernard, a science teacher who became Dean of Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin, Archbishop of Dublin, and Provost of TCD; James Campbell, a classics teacher who became Lord Chancellor of Ireland and chairman of the first Senate in the Irish Free State, and was better known as Lord Glenavy; and, briefly, John Baptist Crozier, later Archbishop of Armagh.

‘On my mind and heart’

Benson later recalled the “memorable names” among his pupils who left impressions “on my mind and heart,” including Newport White, Carleton, Osborne and Tyrrell. His pupils included at least 12 future bishops, including missionary bishops in New Zealand and China, two bishops of Killaloe – Charles Dowse (whose father was Dean of Ferns), and Henry Patton – and three successive bishops of Tuam, including John Harden, who was Headmaster of Kilkenny College and of The King’s Hospital, Dublin, before becoming Bishop of Tuam.

While he was headmaster of Rathmines, Benson recalled, he preached in over 160 churches, and he served as curate in six or seven parishes. He was ordained deacon as curate to the Revd Dr William de Burgh, the first incumbent of Saint John’s, Sandymount, built as part of the Anglo-Catholic revival.

Benson then worked at Saint Audeon’s in Dublin’s city centre, and in Sandford Parish, Ranelagh, where he lived. He was ordained priest in 1870 as curate in Sandford to William Pakenham Walsh, a former Dublin secretary of the Church Mission Society and a future Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin. He worked briefly in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, with Henry Irwin, father of both “Father Pat” Irwin, a pioneering missionary in British Columbia, and of Edmund Irwin, a missionary in Southern Africa for eleven years before returning to Dublin as one of Benson’s successors as curate in Sandymount.

Later, Benson was curate in Saint Bride’s in the city centre, with the controversial ritualist William Carroll from Bannow, Co Wexford. He was back at Sandford once again in 1873.

Elm Park in Ranelagh, home to the Benson family and Rathmines boarders

In 1885, Benson was appointed to Saint Thomas’s, Mulhuddart, Co Dublin, but he continued to run Rathmines School, making the 11-mile journey to Mulhuddart every Sunday and on the occasional weekday from his home at Elm Park in Ranelagh, which was also home to the boarders at Rathmines School.

The last intake of students at Rathmines School included the Revd Robert Richard Neill, grandfather of Archbishop John Neill of Dublin, and the Revd Evelyn Charles Hodges, Rector of Rathmines, Principal of the Church of Ireland Training College in Kildare Place, and Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe.

Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan ... Charles Benson was Rector from 1903 until his death in 1919 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Shortly after Benson’s wife died in 1899, he decided to close his school, despite its success and fame. Four years later, in 1903, at the age of 67, he became Rector of Saint George’s, Balbriggan, Co Dublin. Although Benson abandoned his plans to write a book entitled Forty Years a Schoolmaster, a paper he read in 1912, at the age of 76, to the Louth Clerical Union provides many insights into the story of Rathmines School. He was still the Rector of Balbriggan when he died at the age of 82 in 1919 in Bedford House, Church Street, now a private nursing home.

His former pupils erected a memorial to Benson in the south aisle in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. It describes Rathmines as “one of the largest and most successful private schools in Ireland during the XIXth century.” And, in a tribute to Benson, they said: “Few teachers have been more stimulating and inspiring than this servant of God, who taught and acted on his motto, Ora et Labora.”

Continuity in ministry

Benson’s home communion set was inherited by his son, Canon William Fitzgerald Benson. The younger Benson entered his father’s school in 1886, alongside Archdeacon Carleton and Father Alexander Nevski Fowler. He was an assistant master at Rathmines School for three years until it closed. He then worked as an organist in Saint Audeon’s, where his father had briefly been curate, before being ordained in England. He returned to Ireland in 1905 as curate of Tramore, Co Waterford, and after a brief period as an army chaplain, he served as curate-in-charge of Offerlane, Co Laois, now part of Mountrath Union in the Diocese of Ossory; curate of Kilnamanagh, Co Wexford, and Rector of Templeshanbo, Co Wexford, both in the Diocese of Ferns; and finally Rector of Castletown (Killabban) and Mayo, on the borders of Laois and Carlow. He became a canon of both Leighlin and Ossory in 1944, and was Chancellor of Leighlin when he retired to live in Dublin in 1954.

Canon Benson gave the home communion set to his only son, also Canon William Fitzgerald Benson. Bill Benson graduated from TCD in 1935, but it was not until 1953 that he was ordained for Maryborough (Portlaoise) in the Diocese of Ossory. In 1956, he became Rector of Clonegal, Co Carlow, in the Diocese of Ferns, now united with Bunclody.

From Bill Benson, the communion set passed to Noel Willoughby, who was Rector of Delgany and Glenageary and Archdeacon of Dublin before becoming Bishop of Cashel and Ossory. He died in Wexford in 2005 and is buried at Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. Noel Willoughby passed on the chalice and patten to his close friend, Canon Norman Ruddock.

Three of the six holders of the Home Communion Set at the 1798 commemorations in Wexford, from left: Norman Ruddock, Patrick Comerford and Bishop Noel Willoughby

At the end of the list of owners of this treasured home communion set, Norman Ruddock added my name and penned these words: “When using this cup and chalice, I hope you will be reminded of the Communion of Saints, over which time and distance have no meaning.”

At the end of his book, The Rambling Rector, he wrote: “As I come to the end … I’m thinking of a host of saints who have enriched my life … I’ve suddenly realised that Spring, Summer and Autumn have passed and that I’ve reached the Winter of content. ‘The best is yet to be’.” Norrie died in Wexford on 6 November 2006, and was buried in Killurin Churchyard on the banks of the Slaney. He too has taken his place among the Communion of Saints.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Walking the beaches and harbours of Skerries and Balbriggan

Cleaning up on the beach in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It was a long working weekend. The students on the NSM course, leading to Non-Stipendiary Ministry, and on the part-time MTh course, were in for the weekend, and Sunday morning was a real joy, preaching at the Sung Eucharist.

After a Sunday buffet lunch, I headed off to Skerries for a walk on the beach. And this was a wonderful afternoon for a walk on the beach. Although we had the first cloud for days, the sea was calm, with the waves merely lapping and kissing the beach, in contrast to the strong rollers that I saw coming into the shore in Bray on Thursday afternoon.

The water was clear and clean and a few sailing boats and trawlers could be seen out on the sea. But the main activity was on the beach, where scores of people had volunteered for the beach cleaning afternoon.

This was an inspired initiative, sponsored by the Skerries News but with whole-hearted support from the community. Families – adults and children – took part enthusiastically, not only on the sandy beaches, but on the rocks, up around Red Island, in the Harbour, and north on the shore out towards Balbriggan.

Around the rocks on Red Island, the water was so clean and clear, seals were bobbing up and down in the water, a few teenagers were daring to put their lower limbs into the sea water.

A low-flying plane over Red Island in Skerries ... the only plane in Irish airspace this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

And as the clouds began to break up and the sky began to turn to blue, I wondered was I only person in my circle who managed to catch a plane in Dublin this weekend?

Not that I caught I flight … but I managed to catch a photograph of a low-flying plane hovering over Red Island. I wondered was this one of the few planes that managed to take to the air in northern Europe this weekend.

Out on the rocks, a heron was safely browsing and searching in the clear sea water. Back on the pier in the harbour, the same heron flew overhead, and landed on one of the trawlers that was there for the weekend. Within seconds, a second heron had joined the harbour fleet, waiting for food and fish.

The trawlers in Skerries Harbour this afternoon were a reminder of this morning’s Gospel reading (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As a I looked at the trawlers – out in the safe, calm waters or ties up in the harbour – I thought once again of this morning’s Gospel reading and how the disciples caught nothing in their nets until they listened to Christ, and then caught more than they could have ever imagined.

Cleaning up the beaches of Skerries brought out a strong community feeling this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

I returned to the beach, where it was a surprise and a real delight to meet Facebook friends Emily and David Diebold. They have been the main movers and shakers behind the Skerries News for some years. Because of the clear vision of people like Emily and David, the beaches in Skerries and the waters around it are clear and clean … and because of them, there is a strong sense of community in Skerries too.

After picking up the Sunday papers in Gerry’s, I dropped into my favourite café in Skerries, the Olive, for the best espresso in Ireland and a small snack. And then it was on to Balbriggan. I went to school close by in Gormanston. But I haven’t stopped in Balbriggan for a few years ... not since I preached in Saint George’s Church a few years ago.

John Macneill described the Balbriggan viaduct as the single most important piece of work on the Dublin-Drogheda railway line (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This afternoon as I stood before it I was stunned by the majesty and beauty of the Balbriggan Viaduct, which was built in 1844. Sir John Macneill, who designed this marvellous work of engineering, described the viaduct as the single most important piece of work on the Dublin-Drogheda railway line. It has 11 bridges, and needed special permission from the British Admiralty for its construction because it involved considerable land reclamation: at the time, the water in the harbour at Balbriggan went back as far as the junction of High Street and Quay Street.

Macneill made such an impact on Irish life at the time that he was knighted on the platform of Amiens Street Station by the Viceroy, Earl de Grey, on 24 May 1844, prior to the departure of the first Dublin to Drogheda train.

The Victorian lifeboat station beneath the railway viaduct in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Underneath the viaduct, the Victorian lifeboat station, with its half-hipped roof, is an impressive building despite abject neglect. Surely it must have great potential.

Clear blue skies over the beach in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I walked onto the beach, and had my second beach walk of the day. And then I found myself walking the two piers of Balbriggan Harbour.

The Georgian lighthouse at the end of the pier in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The harbour dates back to 1763, when a new pier was built by the local landlord, George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, known locally as Baron Hamilton. The second pier forming an inner harbour was built between 1826 and 1829, with some of the costs being funded by the Marquess of Lansdowne and by Hamilton’s son, the Revd George Hamilton, who was the proprietor of the village and keeper of lighthouse– an interesting pursuit for a priest of the Church of Ireland.

A lighthouse like this in Chania or Rethymnon in Crete would be a tourist attraction. On islands like Zakytnhos or Kephallonia it would be a boutique hotel or a restaurant. Why is a charming feature like this, with a captivating legacy, left without function or attention?

Looking back at the beach in Balbriggan from the lighthouse at the end of the pier (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

After walking across the viaduct – an experience I had never expected – and walking along the pebbly shore to the south of the harbour, I climbed up the hill to Saint George’s Square, and turned back into Church Street to visit Saint George’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Balbriggan, which dates from 1813, when the Revd George Hamilton – the lighthouse keeper – granted land to build a church and provided funds to pay for a curate.

The tower, and a curious inscription above the door of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

When the church building was completed in 1816 it was described as “a handsome edifice with a square embattled tower.” However, the church accidentally burned down in 1835, and another new church was built in the 1830s.

A sad piece of graffiti on the east wall of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As I walked around Saint George’s and the churchyard, the Enterprise express between Belfast and Dublin raced past. The grass had been cut, and the church looked loved and cared for. But it was sad to see some of the window panes in the church were broken, there was graffiti on the frame of the church door and on the east wall of the church. Beside the sealed-up entrance to the Hamilton vault, one slogan declares: “God hates us all.” The debris in the churchyard included a discarded fire extinguisher.

A church like this in the heart of a town like this must have a message to the teenagers who were hanging around on the railway line beside it, in the street in front of it, and in the park beside it.

Three searching questions about fame, heaven and success

The Lamb of God on the throne a ceiling fresco in a monastery in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 April 2010: The Third Sunday of Easter

Sung Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Acts 9: 1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5: 11-14; John 21: 1-19


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I want to ask each of us three questions:

1, What is your idea of fame?

When I was a child, just as I was about to become a teenager, I became a keen autograph collector.

My uncle, who was my godfather, bought me an autograph book as a present, and I set about eagerly seeking the autographs of great footballers, pop singers, movie stars – and my first girlfriend and my school friends – in the early 1960s.

The pop stars stopped being No 1 hits just as my taste in music matured. The footballers aged as I became more interested in rugby and cricket. The movie stars’ fame faded as my interests shifted to literature and poetry. My first girlfriend lost interest in me. And I moved town, changed schools in my teens, lost touch with so many of those childhood friends, and I lost that autograph book at the same time.

But I do remember basking in the light of Bobbie Charlton and Brendan Bowyer for a few weeks in my old schoolyard. I suppose I thought of it as a sort of vicarious fame.

And I don’t suppose we stop behaving like that as adults with our own adult versions of autograph-hunting: asking authors to sign books … as if they had given them to us personally; standing in for photographs with the good and the great … not that visitors looking at our photographs at home could ever imagine I am a personal friend of so many Popes or Patriarchs, Poets or Presidents.

When you’re ordained, you will have plenty of photo opportunities that day: photographs with your ordaining bishop … photographs with an archbishop, perhaps.

I still treasure photographs from the days I was ordained deacon and priest. But who will you want to be photographed with, and who will want to be photographed with you?

I remember an escapade from my early 20s where some friends – rising to the challenge of a dare – crashed a wedding. The ushers asked: “Bride’s side or groom’s side?” And the reply was: “Who do you think we look like?”

Who do you think you’ll look most like in your ordination photographs?

The Apostle Paul describes Christ as the image of the invisible God (II Corinthians 4: 4; Colossians 1: 15; c.f. John 1: 18, 12: 45, 14: 9; Hebrews 1: 3). He is an icon or an image of God, and we are called to be an image of Christ.

These words are recalled at the laying on of hands at the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops, when the ordaining bishop speaks of Christ as the image of the Father’s eternal and invisible glory [Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp. 559, 568, 570, 579, 581].

At your ordination you are called to be an image of Christ. You will be asked at your ordination as priests to always set the Good Shepherd before you as the pattern of your calling [Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 565] and to pray and seek to grow into the likeness of Christ [Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 566]. Indeed, the Orthodox tradition speaks of the priest as an icon of Christ.

When people look at you will they see the image of Christ, the likeness of the Lamb, an image of the Good Shepherd?

Will they see Christ’s signature or autograph written across everything you think, say and do?

Will you be happy to give up your own ideas of fame, and instead to call people to be fans of Christ, his autograph-hunters, people who want to bask in his glory?

2, What’s your idea of heaven?

The Adoration of the Lamb from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck … see Revelation 5: 11-14

There are places I go to regularly, that are part of my life story, and that I often think give me a little glimpse of what heaven must be like: the road out from Cappoquin towards the Vee, past my grandmother’s farm; the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, under a star-filled night sky in summer; the banks of the Slaney, between Bunclody and Enniscorthy, or further down as the river flows into Wexford Harbour; the beaches of Skerries and Portrane; the road from Iraklion to Rethymnon in Crete, facing the sun as it sets in the Mediterranean.

But what’s your idea of heaven? … Fishing, Golf, Horses?

Some rectors think a day playing golf is a taste of heaven.

And then, the story is told of one rector who called his horse “Parish Rounds.” When his bishop or archdeacon phoned looking for him, his wife could always say truthfully, “He’s out and about on his Parish Rounds.”

For others, you can’t find them on a day like those days we had last week. A sign outside might as well say: “Gone fishing.”

But is your vision of heaven a selfish one or one that offers hope for others, one that calls others in?

Is it one that invites others to the Heavenly Banquet with the Lamb on his throne, that challenges you to make disciples of all nations, to draw to him myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say Amen to this (Revelation 5: 11-14) … is that what you can call heaven?

3, What do you mean by success?

The disciples that Sunday morning aren’t very successful, are they? (John 21: 3). So unsuccessful are they that they are willing to take advice from someone they don’t even recognise (verse 4 ff).

The disciples are at the Sea of Galilee or Sea of Tiberias, back at their old jobs as fishermen. Not just the inner cabinet of Peter, James and John, but Thomas, who had initially doubted the stories of the Resurrection (see John 20: 24-29), Nathanael, who once wondered whether anything good could come from Nazareth (see John 1: 46), and two others who are unnamed … how about that for fame, lasting recognition and success?

They’re back on the same shore where there was once so many fish, so much bread left over after feeding the multitude, that they filled 12 baskets (John 6: 1-13). There’s not so much fish around this time, at first. But then John tells us that after Jesus arrives 153 fish were caught that morning (verse 11).

This number is probably a symbol meaning a complete number. The number 153 is divisible by the sum of its own digits, and it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of cubes of its digits, since 153 = 13 + 53 + 33. Aristotle is said to have taught that there were 153 different species of fish in the Mediterranean.

Whatever they say, the disciples must have thought they had managed the perfect catch that morning.

But the perfect catch was Jesus. When they came ashore once again he invites them to share bread and fish, to dine with the Risen Lord (21: 12-13).

To eat with the Risen Lord and to invite others to the Heavenly Banquet, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say Amen before the Throne of God … now that’s what I call success (Revelation 5: 11-14).

Christ’s three questions

On the shore after daybreak, Christ breaks bread with the disciples and asks three searching questions of Peter

Those are my three questions. But Jesus has three questions that he puts to Peter this morning. They appear a little confused or repetitive in most English translations, but the difference is clear in the original Greek.

In his first two questions to Peter, Christ uses the verb ἀγαπάω (agapáo).

CS Lewis talks in one of his books of The Four Loves:

The first, στοργή (storgé), is the affection of familiarity; the second is φιλία (philía), the strong bond between close friends; the third, ἔρως (eros), he identifies not with eroticism but with the word we use when we say we are in love with someone; and the fourth love is ἀγάπη (agápe), the love that takes no account of my own interests, that loves no matter what happens – it is the greatest of loves, it reflects the love of God.

Perhaps, the first time, Christ asks: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than you and your friends love one another but the way God loves you?” (John 21: 15).

But Peter is either evasive or misses the point, and answers with a different verb: φιλέω (phileo): “I’m fond of you, I like you like a brother, I agree with you. I’m OK, you’re OK” (verse 15).

“OK,” says Christ, “feed the little ones the Good Shepherd welcomes into the fold” (verse 15).

Then a second time, we can imagine him asking more simply: “Simon son of John, do you love me the way God loves you?” (verse 16).

But Peter once again misses the point, and answers with the verb φιλέω (phileo): “I’m fond of you, I like you like a brother, I agree with you. I’m OK, you’re OK” (verse 16).

“OK,” says Jesus, “look after those in the flock the Good Shepherd tends” (verse 16).

But then he asks a third question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (verse 17).

Our English translations say Peter was upset, felt hurt, when Jesus asked him a third time. We might be tempted to think it’s because he was asked the same question repetitively, three times, that his answer wasn’t listened to the first or second time round.

But this third time, Jesus asks a different question, using Peter’s verb φιλέω (phileo), as if to ask: “OK Peter, do you love me as your brother?” (verse 17).

This time around, Peter replies using the same word Jesus uses in his third question. But, more importantly, he confesses Jesus as Lord (verse 17), as Lord of everything. This confession of faith comes the third time round from the disciple who earlier denied Jesus three times (see chapter 18). And Christ then asks him to feed the whole flock, all the sheep of the Good Shepherd, lambs, ewes, lost ones, found ones, the whole lot (21: 17).

The disciples don’t recognise Jesus as he stands on the beach just after daybreak (verse 4). Paul fails to recognise Christ – even when he falls from his horse he calls out: “Who are you?” (Acts 9: 5). But despite their initial blindness, their initial failings, their initial denials, God continues to call them.

And so too with us. God calls us in all our unworthiness to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep, not just the little ones, not just the big ones.

Do you love him enough, as he loves you, to see this as enough fame to bask in?

Do you love him enough to see this as how to decide whether your ministry is successful?

Do you love him enough to see this as the benchmark against which you mark how you relate to the myriads and myriads, the thousands and thousands, to all living life?

And so may all we think say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Lamb of God … a stained glass window in a church in Cambridge

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in the institute chapel on Sunday 18 April 2010