31 December 2013

How long into the New Year should
Santa and the ‘Fairy Tree’ last for?

The sun sets on 2013 behind the tall bare trees in Marlay Park late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Harold Wilson once said in the 1960s: “A week in politics is a long time back.”

It became an oft-quoted adage among journalists and politicians, and was developed as theme in the political-comedy television series, Yes Minister:

Sir Humphrey: In a week’s time this whole thing will have blown over and in a year’s time we’ll have a safe and successful factory on Merseyside.

Jim Hacker: A week is a long time in politics.

Sir Humphrey: And a year is a short time in Government.

As the year comes to an end, I realised this afternoon how short a year can be in the life of a family.

After lunch in Howard’s Way in Rathgar, some family members gathered together this afternoon. At one stage there were four generations of the family in one room in the house in Grosvenor Road.

My grandfather could say his grandfather, who was born in 1775, was born a year before the American Revolution and could remember the 1798 Rising in Co Wexford. Will my sister’s grandsons remember to say their grandmother’s grandfather could say that his grandfather’s ...?

Grosvenor Road has fine examples of Victorian architecture in its terraced houses and its villas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Outside on Grosvenor Road, I stopped to admire the villas and terraced houses, which are fine examples of Victorian architecture, with houses designed and built by Edward Henry Carson (father of Sir Edward Carson), George Palmer Beater, and the brothers James and William Beckett – William Beckett was the grandfather of Samuel Beckett.

Grosvenor Road Baptist Church ... an interesting example of Gothic revival architecture that is unusual for Baptists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Grosvenor Road Baptist Church stands on the corner of Grosvenor Road, Grosvenor Place and Kenilworth Road. It is attributed to Carson, and was built as Rathmines Baptist Church. It is an interesting example of Gothic architecture in the middle of Victorian suburban Rathmines and Rathgar.

The church was built as Rathmines Baptist Church in the 1870s by English Baptists. It was used for a while by the Plymouth Brethren, and returned to use as a Baptist church in 1942. The choice of Gothic is unusual for Baptists in the 1870s. The main entrance to the church has an interesting arrangement of arches, with an attractive towered façade.

As the afternoon came to a close – but before the sun set on 2013 – two of us went for a walk in Marlay Park. Through the tall bare limbs and branches of the trees, the orange glaze left by the setting sun was lighting up the blue winter sky.

The ‘Fairy Tree’ and ‘Fairy Castle’ in the forest in Marlay Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In among the tall trees and by the banks of the babbling brooks and the small footbridges, we came across the “Fairy Tree” which has become one of the sights of Marlay Park in recent years, and has been the crowning glory of the bird project at Saint Michael’s House, Templeogue, since 2010.

The bird project involved installing a purpose built “Fairy Castle” on a tree in the forest in Marlay Park. This five-towered castle, built in special weatherproof material, is designed as a nesting and roosting site for small birds and insects.

But the “Fairy Tree,” with its turrets and towers, crenellations and battlements, secret doors and Gothic windows, is also designed to keep the imagination of young children alive, as they wander through the forest and then are surprised to find the small fairy door at the base of the 300-year-old beech tree.

A secret gothic window on the ‘Fairy Castle’ in the ‘Fairy Tree’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I came home with an unusual Christmas present – a Chocolate Santa with a best before date of 30 April 2014. Santa has a best-by date that expires before next Christmas? If a Fairy Tree can survive in a 300-year-old tree, surely Santa can last until at least next Christmas?

Have a wonderful and a blessed 2014.

Why does Santa have a best before date of 30 April 2014? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Goodbye to 2013 (Part 2) and my top
ten personal stories of the year

Goodbye to 2013 ... sunset on Stowe Pool in Lichfield ...

... and hello to 2014 ... sunrise on a flight to Greece (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I began my reflection on the passing year yesterday morning [30 December 2013] by reviewing what I think were the ten main religious stories of the year.

This morning, I want to look back at ten of my own stories of the passing year.

1, Being a small part of Greek journalism

EnetEnglish ... an online news service from Eleftherotypia

For many years, I was a regular reader of The Athens News, once Greece’s oldest and only English-language newspaper. After 49 years as a daily newspaper, The Athens News became a weekly newspaper in 2001, and it was a pleasure to be a guest contributor, reviewing the exhibition Byzantium 330-1453 a few years ago.

However, with the collapse of the Greek economy and increasing competition, The Athens News fell on hard times, it folded for last time on 5 October 2012, and the website was finally taken down in March this year.

Some of the former journalists with The Athens News have faithfully maintained the Facebook page, others have been involved in setting up a new English-language newspaper, Athens Views, which hit the newsstands and the kiosks or periptera across Greece on 2 August this year.

An exciting development, with immense potential in recent months is EnetEnglish, an independent, online news service focused on Greece. This online service was launched last February and is backed up by a Facebook page that gives access to the main website and can also be followed on Twitter.

EnetEnglish has provided unrivalled news coverage of the arrest of the leading members of the Neonazi hate gang, Golden Dawn, which poses as a political party. With its comprehensive and analytical news reports and features, photographs and cartoons, backed up by an up-to-minute blog roll, it is unmatched by any other Greek news site.

EnetEnglish is a division of one of my favourite Greek newspapers, Eleftherotypia (Ελευθεροτυπία), a national daily with sympathies on the left in Greek politics. It was founded in 1975, a year after the collapse of the colonels’ regime and the restoration of democracy in Greece.

It faced severe financial problems two years ago, when only four editions were published in 2011, and the newspaper filed for bankruptcy that December. But Eleftherotypia and its internet site, Enet, were relaunched at the beginning of this year.

The site supports making Greece’s democracy and economy more transparent, meritocratic and accountable, and the staff include Damian Mac Con Uladh, who is also known in Ireland for his reports and analysis of Greek politics and life in The Irish Times.

During the year, EnetEnglish reposted my blog posting from Rethymnon on the periptero or kiosk that is found on almost every street corner in Greece, and that serves as much more than newsstands. The posting was quickly reposted on websites such as Real Corfu and on the Athens News Facebook page, and has since been shared on countless blogs and Facebook pages on Greece.

One Greek diplomat, now living back in Athens, commented: “From one who knows Greece probably much better than most Greeks, who has an amazing understanding and genuine love for Greece.” We have been good friends for many years, but to read her comments still brought a smile to my face.

It was a true pleasure to be part of EnetEnglish, Eleftherotypia and Greek journalism this year. It was a tiny but positive contribution to life in Greece, which continues to be wracked by economic woes and plagued by a vicious and nasty far-right.

2, Journalism, blogging and freedom of expression

The Graduates’ Memorial Building, Trinity College Dublin … the venue for the debate at ‘the Phil’ about Edward Snowden on 21 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

This year has been the second worst year for jailed journalists, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Around the world, 211 journalists, editors and bloggers are in jail, a figure that is marginally below that the peak figure of 232 last year. Turkey still jails more journalists than any other country – there are 40 journalists in Turkish jails – followed by Iran (35), China (32), Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan.

The list does not include journalists who have been abducted or are missing; for instance, at least 30 journalists are missing in Syria. In all, 52 journalists have died this year doing their work, according to CPJ, but Reporters without Borders puts the figure at 71. They include 21 in Syria, six in Egypt and five in Pakistan. Iraq, the Philippines, Algeria, Russia and Syria are the most deadly places for journalists to work.

Journalists remain among the most powerful weapons against state brutality and oppression, so the death and detention of journalists is more than just a personal tragedy. This is probably difficult to imagine in Britain, where the press is still tainted by phone-hacking scandals.

But the threats to freedom of speech and freedom of expression by journalists, editors and bloggers come not only in the form of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Any country considering offering asylum to Edward Snowden soon drew down the wrath of Washington, which even tried to block the European flight of one Latin American president when it was rumoured that Edward Snowden was on board his plane.

I don’t know the origins of the saying: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not all out to get you.” But Henry Kissinger once said: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.” I suppose it may just help to explain what has been happening to this blog since the end of last month.

Even in my wildest dreams, I cannot imagine this blog becoming a celebrated and celebrity blog. It is of interest to those who want to read my lecture notes, to re-read my sermons or my columns in local diocesan magazines, or to discuss the boring details of the conditions they share with me – Sarcoidosis and severe Vitamin B12 deficiency.

Occasionally a posting sparkles, and then I hear about – an example was that blog posting from Crete on street-corner kiosks. But, for the most part, my blog postings get few online comments, rarely do I attract more than 900 or 1,000 readers a day, and so I feel I know many of my readers well, and know what you enjoy reading.

I resisted putting a counter on this blog because I wanted to write what was meaningful to me … not to write in order to attract readers in greater numbers. It took a long time to reach the half million mark, and a long time again to notice that I had a million readers. I am not feigning modesty or humility when I express gratitude.

But towards the end of the year something funny started to happen.

Last month [21 November 2013], for the first time ever, the number of hits on this blog passed the 2,000 mark, with 2,004 pageviews that day. The following Tuesday, the numbers passed 2,400. A month later, on 22 December, it reached an all time high of 2,710 hits.

Why, I wondered, was the normal number of visitors to this blog more than doubling?

As I reviewed the hits and the source of traffic, the only coincidence I could identify was that this began on the day I was the guest speaker at a debate in the ‘Phil’ in Trinity College Dublin, speaking out for Edward Snowden, for freedom of information and for freedom of the media.

Of course, those speaking against my team tried to assure all present that those of us who have done nothing wrong have no need to fear the snoopers.

But 2,004 pageviews on that one day? And 2,710 a month later?

Even I do not believe – yet – that I can attract or am deserving of such sudden popularity. Too boring, I thought, and so I let it go. I’m not paranoid enough to draw too many conclusions from such a coincidence.

The traffic became furtive. In just over a month, there have been almost 200 anonymous efforts to post comments to my postings that appear to be meaningless but also appear to carry malicious viruses with them.

I cannot imagine how any person or organisation has the time or the staff to post so many anonymous comments on a blog posting from April 2012 on music in a south Dublin parish. Once yes, but over 40 times? None of the comments was relevant, but all appeared to have malware or bots.

Malware is malicious software used to disrupt computer operations, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems.

Bots involve the co-ordination and operation of automated attacks, spamming large amounts of content on the Internet, usually adding advertising links.

None of the seeming advertising that was being posted to my blog today could have had any interest to my readers.

I opened none of the links, thankfully. But while Google and Blogger have blocked all these attempts today, I still received email notices for every effort, with the links that failed to get through.

I am anxious to protect the small number of true readers of this blog, and to ensure that when you access these pages your computer is not infected with bots or malware. I pay careful attention each day to posted comments and delete any that have links to advertising that seems dangerous, malicious, distasteful, or that link to sites that run counter to the values I want to promote and encourage.

In particular, I delete comments and links that are racist, sexist, violent, homophobic, misogynist, pornographic and fascist. If anything slips through, let me know, please. When others are offensive, I can be ruthless.

Some readers have protested to others about how I have shared editorial comments or leaders from The Irish Times, and have said to others they wanted them removed … yet they demand freedom of speech for themselves.

I have resisted adding Captcha or similar software to this site because I want to encourage comments from real readers rather than making it more difficult for them. But I may have to do so sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, I am delighted if this blog attracts more readers, but only if they are real readers. I feel sorry for the poor minions who designed the malware and bots that were intended to attack this site today – and with it, my laptop too.

And if one or two people were also taking offence at my remarks last month about Edward Snowden, or what The Irish Times has to say about women bishops, then they need to reconsider their priorities. And I am delighted that this blog passed the 1,111,111 mark in terms of page views on Sunday [29 December 2013].

3, Beach walks at home

Walking on the beach in Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I continued finding joy in my regular beach walks, at home and abroad, with walks this year on beaches and by the sea in Ardmore, Bettystown, Bray, Carlingford, Donabate, Dugort, Dún Laoghaire, Greystones, Howth, Inishbiggle, Keel, Keem, Kilcoole, Laytown, Malahide, Mulranny, Portmarnock, Portrane, Rush, Skerries, Sutton and Tramore.

There were walks in the Phoenix Park and rambles through the grounds of Kilruddery House, walks along the cliff walk between Bray Head and Greystones, and country walks in Ballinrobe, Cong and Connemara, and Kilmacanogue. There were walks by the River Boyne in Navan, the River Lee in Cork, along the banks of the Dodder in Rathfarnham, the Barrow in Goresbirdge, the Nore in Kilkenny, the Liffey in Dublin, and by the shores of lakes in Cavan and Connemara.

There were visits to castles including Ashtown Castle in the Phoenix Park, Ashford Castle in Connemara, Dublin Castle, Gormanston Castle, Kilkenny Castle, Malahide Castle and Strokestown House, and to interesting archaeological sites at Ardmore, Ballinrobe, Callan, Carlingford, Duleek and Kilcash. I was in Kilkenny about ten times during the year, for book launches, meetings of the USPG/Us boards, the clergy conference, talks with the Moravian church, a cathedral concert, church history field trips and lectures, and family visits.

I was back in Achill twice this year, once for a quick overnight visit in February, and then in May to speak twice at the Heinrich Böll weekend, which was also a celebration of the 70th birthday of the poet John F Deane.

In tiny Holy Trinity Church on the tiny island of Inishbiggle, I spoke of the history of the Church of Ireland community; in Bunacurry, I spoke about the poet as theologian and the theologian as poet.

4, Return visits to England

Back in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I was back in England half a dozen times this year. My Easter retreat in Lichfield Cathedral, where I followed the daily cycle of prayer and liturgy, was good for body and soul, spirit and mind, and was back again later in the year.

I stayed each time in the Hedgehog on Stafford Road, and enjoyed regular walks into the cathedral along Beacon Street, walks in Beacon Park, around Minster Pool and Stowe Pool, and in countryside out along Cross in Hand Lane. There was time to meet friends, for meals and to read.

I had two visits to Cambridge this year. After an absence of a year, it was good to return to the annual summer school at Sidney Sussex College organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. The summer school also included a one-day retreat at Saint John’s Orthodox Monastery near Tolleshunt Knights.

In Cambridge, there was time to visit old friends in Saffron Walden, and for walks to Grantchester and Trumptington, along the Cam and by the boathouses.

I visited theological colleges in Oxford and Nottingham, including Ripon College Cuddesdon, Wycliffe Hall and Saint John’s College, to compare notes with colleagues teaching in the same areas.

While I was at the annual conference of Us (formerly USPG) in High Leigh, I added on time for country walks near Broxbourne and Hoddesdon and along the Lea Valley in Hertfordshire and Essex, and walks around Bishop’s Stortford, photographing the parish church and historical buildings.

I also stayed at the guesthouse attached to the Anglican Communion Office in London while I attended a staff day at the Us (USPG) offices in London.

5, Holidays in Italy and Greece

Back in Rethymnon in August and September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I spent a week in Italy in July, visiting Sorrento, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, Positano, Amalfi, Ravello and Capri, although I never managed to get to Naples.

Later in the summer, I was back in Rethymnon in Crete, staying again in Pepi Studios in the heart of the old city.

There were trips into the olive groves and the mountains above the city, visits to monasteries and churches, visit to exhibitions in Rethymnon and Iraklion, lazy hours by the beach and the pool, and long, lingering , and delightful meals with friends.

6, Church-based activities

Christ Church Cathedral Dublin on a cold winter’s day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I preached and celebrated in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. I also preached on Remembrance Day in the chapel of the King’s Hospital, Dublin. I was invited to preach in Annagh Parish Church, Belturbet, Co Cavan; the Chapel of the Mageough Home in Rathmines; Rathgar Methodist Church; Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street; Tullow Parish Church, Carrickmines; and the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, where I preached during the 150th anniversary celebrations on ‘Being an Anglican in a Pluralist World’ and spoke later in the year at The Irish Times annual memorial service.

I was the Chaplain at the Porvoo Consultation in Dublin in April 2004; spoke at the annual conference of Affirming Catholicism Ireland.

I attended ordinations in Belfast and Dublin for the dioceses of Connor, Down and Dromore, Dublin and Glendalough and Meath and Kildare; the installation of the new Dean’s Vicar in Cork; and the institution of a new rector in Rahney.

In Whitechurch parish, Rathfarnham, as part of the centenary commemorations of the 1913 lockout, I spoke with Archbishop Michael Jackson and former Irish Times colleague Padraig Yeates at a seminar recalling the role played by the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn in the formation of the Irish Citizen’s Army.

During Heritage Week in August, I was invited to lecture on Saint Doulagh’s Church, Balgriffin, on Celtic Spirituality, and in Saint Lachtain’s Church, Freshford, Co Kilkenny, on the history and architecture of the church.

With Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland ... celebrating 300 years of Us/USPG/SPG in Ireland (Photograph: Scott Hayes, 2013)

I continue to serve on the boards of Us in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and as a member of the Council of Us in Britain, taking part in the council meeting in High Leigh; visiting the Us offices in London for staff day; attending the meeting of the Us trustees in Dublin, which included a special Choral Evensong in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and dinner in the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral; and bringing Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland and senior Us staff on a walking tour of Dublin.

I renewed my engagement with the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission (DUFEM) during the visit to Dublin of Archbishop Paul Kwong of Hong Kong, meeting him the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where he preached, and attending a special dinner in his honour in Christ Church Deanery in Dublin.

As well as my retreat during Easter Weekend at Lichfield Cathedral, I was at an Ash Wednesday retreat in Manresa House, Clontarf, and spent a day at the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.

I remain a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, a member of the Council for Christian Unity and Dialogue and the Anglican Affairs Working Group, I am a participant in the dialogue between the Church of Ireland the Moravian Church, and I have been asked to chair the Arts Committee at Christ Church Cathedral. I have also been appointed Visiting Lecturer in Anglicanism in the Meter Dei Institute.

7, Publications and broadcasts:

My photograph on the front cover of the Christmas edition of the Lichfield Gazette

It was particularly satisfying to see dissertations I had supervised going to publication this year.

This year I was invited to contribute to the Lichfield Gazette, writing about architecture, the arts and local history. I wrote for the Jesuit journal Studies, and I continue to write each month for the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Leighlin), and I write occasionally for The Irish Times, the Church of Ireland Gazette and in the US for Koinonia, which is published in Kansas, Missouri.

Other publications this year include:

“Josiah Hort (1674?-1751), Bishop of Ferns: ‘A Rake, a Bully, a Pimp, or Spy’ and ‘Bp Judas’,” in the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, No 24 (2012-2013), pp 94-114;

“Comerford Monuments in Callan and the Search for a Family’s Origins,” Chapter 2 (pp 23-39) in Callan 800 (1207-2007) History & Heritage, Companion Volume, ed Joseph Kennedy (Callan: Callan Heritage Society);

“Bale’s Books and Bedell’s Bible: Early Anglican Translations of Word and Liturgy into Irish,” in Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leahy (eds), Treasures of Irish Christianity, Volume II, A People of the Word (Dublin: Veritas), pp 124-128;

“‘Thou my high tower’: The Celtic Revival and Hymn Writers in the Church of Ireland” in Ryan and Leahy (eds), Treasures of Irish Christianity, Volume II, A People of the Word (Dublin: Veritas), pp 203–206.

8, Television and broadcasting work

With Dervla Kirwan on Who do you think you are? ... repeated on television a few times this year

George Hook interviewed me on his radio show following my address as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at Irish CND’s annual Hiroshima Day commemorations in Merrion Square, Dublin.

Vincent Browne invited me to be a panellist with Professor Salvador Ryan and the Revd Corinna Diestelkamp on Episode 4 of Challenging God, ‘Martin Luther – the Protestant Reformation’ (Sunday 25 August).

The episode of Who do you think you are?, in which I helped Dervla Kirwan trace her Jewish ancestry, was shown again on RTÉ two days later on 27 August 2013, and was repeated on other channels around the world.

I also took part in Neal Delamere’s television mixture of history and comedy, There’s Something About Patrick which was shown on RTÉ in March. It was partly filmed in Christ Church Cathedral and in Trinity College Dublin.

9, Ending the year

At Leonard Cohen’s concert in Dublin in September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,2013)

This was a year when I attended concerts by Leonard Cohen in Dublin in September and by Neil Hannon (aka The Divine Comedy) in Kilkenny.

This year also marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Greek poet CP Cavafy in Alexandria on 29 April 1863 and the 80th anniversary of his death on 29 April 1933, and I was invited to speak in the Greek school in Dublin on his life and on his poetry.

This was the year for anniversaries remembering Verdi, Wagner, John F Kennedy, CS Lewis, Benjamin Britten, and Dr Who. This was the year we said farewell to Nelson Mandela, Seamus Deane, Sean Freyne, Margaret Thatcher, Doris Lessing, Colm Murray, Alec Reid, Geza Vermes, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, Marcella Pattyn, John Taverner, Lou Reed, Peter O’Toole, Inez MCormack, Iain Banks, Sean Hogan, Seán Mac Connell and David Coleman.

10, Funny ... or not so funny

Nigel Farage ... a funny or a frightening photograph?

Politically, the funniest photograph of the year might have been one in The Times of the UKIP leader Nigel Farage in front of a microphone at a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party. I say might have been with caution, because it makes one fear the reasons some Tories could even consider extending an invitation to a right-wing leader, who admires Enoch Powell and who has been accused of singing Hitler Youth songs with glee in his younger days ... perhaps into a mic just like this.

At an innocent level it reminded me of a Father Ted episode involving a window that needed cleaning. But even that serves as a reminder of how the Tories need to clean up their act, for it is listening to the likes of Nigel Farage that has raised a storm among their troops about relaxed immigration regulations for Bulgarians and Romanians.

The Old Vicarage at Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But I have decided to end my end-of-year review instead on a seasonal note. The Revd John Galbraith Graham, who died in 2013, was known for many years as Araucaria and for his creative crosswords in the Guardian. His clues often included long anagrams, with his favourite appearing in a Christmas puzzle:

O hark the herald angels sing the boy’s descent which lifted up the world.

It was an anagram for “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground.”

But the best example of his brilliance in clue-setting is:

Poetical scene has surprisingly chaste Lord Archer vegetating (3, 3, 8, 12)

It was a clue to “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” the title of a poem by Rupert Brooke. The anagram was a topical reference to Jeffrey Archer who had become the owner of the vicarage and was lying low there at the time following a sex scandal.

It was a surprisingly good year for Irish cricket and a devastating year for English cricket. Once again, I did not see enough rugby this year, or enough cricket ... apart from a Saturday afternoon in Grantchester.

I am sorry to say it was not goodbye to Sarcoidosis this year, or Goodbye to the join pains and balance problems the come with severe Vitamin B-12 deficiency.

So, it is goodbye to Grantchester, goodbye to the bailout, goodbye to Trapattoni, goodbye to 2013. Have a happy New Year in 2014.

Art for Christmas (7): ‘Carols’
by Nikiphoros Lytras

‘Τα κάλαντα’ (‘Carols’), Νικηφόρος Λύτρας (Nikiphoros Lytras)

Patrick Comerford

The most acclaimed picture by a Greek painter depicting the Christmas tradition of singing carols is Carols by the 19th-century Greek painter Nikiphoros Lytras, who is regarded as the “Founder and Patriarch” of modern Greek art. This painting is simple in its austerely and is in sensitive manner, heavy with symbolism and with disarming sincerity. It is one of the major works of art depicting Greek life, customs and traditions.

Nikiphoros Lytras (Νικηφόρος Λύτρας, 1832-1904) was born in 1832 in Pyrgos on the Greek island of Tinos, the son of a popular marble sculptor. At the age of 18, he went to Athens to train at the School of Arts, where he studied painting with Ludwing Thierch and Raffaelo Ceccoli. In 1855-1856, he assisted Thiersch in the decoration of the Saviour’s Russian Orthodox Church in Athens.

After Lytras graduated in 1856, he began teaching a course in Elementary Writing. In 1860, he won a Greek government scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Munich, where studied under Karl von Piloty. He was accepted into Piloty’s class after passing the German professor’s stringent requirements. As Piloty’s student, Lytras focused on the history of painting, and his subjects were inspired by Greek mythology and history.

Lytras’s scholarship was danger of coming to an abrupt end in 1862 with the Greek coup that overthrew King Otto. However, after a coup in 1862, King Otto was sent into exile the scholarship came to an end for Lytras, but the Greek Ambassador in Vienna, Simon Sinas, continued to take care of his expenses of his studies.

In the summer of 1865, Lytras met the Greek painter Nikolaos Ghyzis (Νικολάου Γύζη, 1842-1901), in Munich. Ghyzis was also born in Tinos, and together they visited and studied many great European masterpieces.

Later that year, Lytras returned to Greece, and in 1866 he was appointed a professor at the School of Arts in the Technical University in Athens, a position he held until his death. Many of his students, including Georgios Iakovidis (1853-1932), Periklis Pantazis (1849-1888) and Georgios Roilos (1867-1928), became distinguished artists.

In 1873 and for four years he travelled to Smyrna and Asia Minor, Munich and Egypt with his friend Nikolaos Ghyzis.

After his return to Greece, he gave most of his attention to scenes from Greek everyday life and to portrait painting, reflecting the ideology of the ruling class of the time. His most famous portrait is of the royal couple, Otto and Amalia and his best-known landscape is a depiction of the region of Lavrio.

His travels in Minor Asia and Egypt enriched his paintings with dark-skinned children and other elements of Anatolia.

In 1879, he married Irene Kyriakidi, the daughter of a trader in Smyrna, and they had six children, including the actor Lysandros Lytras (1885-1921) and the successful painters Nikolaos Lytras (1883-1927) and Perikles Lytras (1888-1940).

In later life, he founded the ‘Art Group,’ which later exhibited in Paris in 1919 and whose members included the engraver Demetrios Galanis, a friend of Derain, Braque and Picasso and a member of the French Academy.

In the last period of his life, Lytras painted many scenes about aging, loneliness and the fear of death. He was decorated with the Greek Golden Cross of Saviour. After a short illness brought about by inhaling the toxic fumes from the chemicals substances in the colours he used for painting, Nikiphoros Lytras died at the age of 72 on 13 June 1904 in Athens.

He was succeeded at his post by one of his students, Georgios Iakovidis. His son Nikolaos Lytras followed in his footsteps, studying in Munich and heading the School of Art in Athens.

This morning’s painting is in oil on canvas and measures 90 × 59 cm (35.4 × 23.2 in), and the signature in the bottom left reads: ‘Ν. Λυτρασ’. It was painted in 1872 and is now in a private collection.

Greek Christmas carols or calanda are a very old custom that remains practically unchanged to this day. Children, in groups of two or more, still go from house to house singing carols, usually accompanied by the triangle or guitars, accordions or harmonicas, knocking on each door and asking: “Shall we say them?”

If the homeowner answers yes, the children sing the carols for several minutes before finishing with the wish: “And for the next year, many happy returns.” In the past, homeowners gave the children holiday sweets and pastries, but today they usually give them some money.

The carols are sung on Christmas Eve, today, New Year’s Eve, and on 5 January, the Eve of Epiphany, and they are different for each holiday.

The word calanda stems from the Latin calenda, which means “the beginning of the month.”

Greek New Year’s Eve Carol:

First of the month and first of the year
My tall rosemary
Let our good year begin
Church with the holy throne

It is the beginning when Christ
Holy and spiritual
Will walk on earth
And cheer us up

Saint Basil is on his way
And will not deign on us
From Kesaria
You’re a Lady milady.


30 December 2013

A bright mid-winter sunset
on the beach at Donabate

A bright winter sunset at Balcarrick Beach in Donabate this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

One of the basic instincts in northern Europe in the mid-winter is to keep alive the hope for light pouring back into the world.

It explains the midwinter calculations that made Newgrange a monument not just to those buried in the chamber but to the importance of hope for light in the darkness of northern Europe. It explains why people festoon their houses with such glaring and gaudy but seasonal lights at this time of the year. It explains why people count the extra minutes and moments of sunlight in the afternoon as December moves towards an end.

This afternoon, two of us were on our way to Portrane when we realised the afternoon was turning to evening. We decided to take a detour at Donabate and catch the sunset on Balcarrick Beach.

Clear blue pools beneath the setting sun in Donabate this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The tide was out, and under the low, setting sun, the sand seemed to stretch for miles, and slow setting sun was orange – for all the world like a falling Christingle orange – casting a glow all around.

Here and there, just below the Martello Tower and the ramp down unto the beach, small pools of water were catching the sunlight in clear blue bowls, as clear as the blue pools in the calcified terraces of Pamukkale in south-west Turkey.

By the time we walked back up the ramp beside the Martello Tower, the sun had set in south west, but there was still a warm orange glow in the blue sky.

‘Heaven cannot hold him / Nor earth sustain …’ heaven and earth came together at sunset in Donabate this afternoon (Phoograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The weather was bleak and cold, but no snow had fallen, and still I recalled Christina Rossetti’s words:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim Thronged the air –
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him –
Give my heart.

The waves on the beach in Donabate at dusk this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Goodbye to 2013 (Part 1) and my top
ten religious news stories of the year

Goodbye to 2013 ... sunset in the Phoenix Park last Saturday...

... and hello to 2014 ... sunrise above the lawn outside my study (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post Religion editorial team identified its own choice of the Top 10 religion stories of the year. So, to introduce my review of the past year [2013], I have chosen my own Top 10 religion stories of 2013.

1, The election of Pope Francis:

A lighter style for a new Pope and a new Archbishop ... Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis in the Vatican

In less than a year, Pope Francis has become the most talked about person on Facebook, on Twitter and on the Internet, and Time Magazine has named him as the Person of the Year. At the age of 85, Pope Benedict XVI resigned as pope on 28 February, an unprecedented decision for a living Pope for 600 years.

After half a century in which the advances of Vatican II were steadily eroded by Pope after Pope and by the curia, Pope Francis has stamped the Papacy with his own mark. He demonstrated his priorities by washing the feet of Muslim and women prisoners on Maundy Thursday. He was received enthusiastically at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. And since then he has been outspoken in expressing his views on atheists, gays, and the economic system:

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

This Pope is showing genuine humanity, warmth and empathy for people with disabilities and children. He cold calls people in need, and he lives a humble lifestyle. He is challenging the old guard and the cold-hearted, and has done more than anybody else this year to restore confidence in the Church as a whole.

2, The new Archbishop of Canterbury

In February, I wrote about Archbishop Justin Welby’s Irish roots, which led to a number of radio interviews

Archbishop Rowan Williams stood down as Archbishop of Canterbury on 31 December 2012 and became Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, on 1 January 2013. Already 10 Downing Street had announced on the appointment of Justin Welby as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He was formally elected on 10 January at a ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral, he legally took office on 4 February at a ceremony in Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, and he was enthroned in Canterbury on 21 March.

The new archbishop favours the consecration of women as bishops, and has described last year’s vote in the General Synod rejecting legislation on women bishops as a “very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters.”

At his first press conference, he spoke out strongly against homophobia and stated that he is “always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us.” He has also said: “I know I need to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully.”

In July, he spoke out against the payday lending companies, and pledged that the Church of England would support credit unions as society needs to “provide an alternative” to the “very, very costly forms of finance” that payday lending companies create.

We first met when he was the Dean of Liverpool, and I was delighted to uncover Archbishop Welby’s Irish ancestors. His close kinship with Lord Edward Fitzgerald and other leading families in Co Kildare received attention from the religious and secular media, and I was interviewed about this on a number of radio interviews.

3, The consecration of Bishop Pat Storey

I was present in Christ Church Cathedral for the consecration of Bishop Pat Storey as Bishop of Meath and Kildare

Near the end of the year, the Most Revd Pat Storey was consecrated Bishop of Meath and Kildare, and it was true pleasure to be at her consecration in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. She is the first woman bishop in the Church of Ireland and the first woman bishop in any one of the four Anglican churches in these islands.

Earlier in the year, Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya (61) visited the Church of Ireland at the invitation of Us, the mission agency formerly known as USPG. She preached in Saint Michan’s Church, Dublin, and I brought her on a walking tour of Dublin. She is the first woman to become an Anglican bishop in Southern Africa, and at the end of last year was consecrated Bishop of Swaziland, a small impoverished, conservative, land-locked kingdom.

In the US in September, the Revd Elizabeth Eaton became the first woman elected as the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which been ordaining women since 1970. The ELCA has four million members and is in full communion with the Episcopal Church (TEC).

In an interview before her election, Bishop Eaton said: “We’re church first, church for the sake of the world. Of course worship is primary and the thing we do. But if we’re just having our little conclaves and our own little congregations and say, ‘Well, too bad about everyone outside,’ we are completely missing the point.”

A month later, the Lutheran Church of Sweden elected its first woman Archbishop. The German-born Antje Jackelen has been the Bishop of Lund since 2007, and the Church of Sweden has been ordaining women priests for 50 years.

In November, Dr Agnes Abuom became the first woman and the first African to be elected moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. Dr Abuom is an Anglican from Kenya, and was installed as moderator during the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. She was the Africa president for the WCC from 1999 to 2006.

Earlier in the year, the Dalai Lama said in Australia that the next Dalai Lama could very well be a woman. Speaking about how the world needs more compassionate leaders today, he said that “biologically, females have more potential … females have more sensitivity about others’ well being.” As a result, he said, “if the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Needless to say, his remarks sparked a debate on whether such comments reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and to what extent women really are more compassionate than men. Stereotypes of women as nurturing, empathetic, more consensus-driven leaders, after all, can hurt women when they engage in the more authoritative behaviour that has become a stereotype of male leaders.

Apart from obituaries in the Economist and the Daily Telegraph, little media attention was paid to the death in April at the age of 92 of Marcella Pattyn, the last of the Beguines ... is that going to put an end to singing Cole Porter’s song Begin the Beguine?

Meanwhile, as we rejoice in Ireland at the choice of Bishop Pat Storey, we should think prayerfully about Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson, who had been the Bishop-elect of Meath and Kildare, and pray for him, his family and for his continuing ministry which has been blessed and a blessing to the whole Church in the past.

4, The death of Nelson Mandela

President Mandela in Dublin when he received an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin

The death of Nelson Mandela is probably the political and social news story of the year. But we should also think of this as a religious news story too. Nelson Mandela, more than many other political leaders, embodied the Christian values of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, endurance and tolerance, and in many of his activities his name was linked with that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I took part in the services in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, as we realised that Nelson Mandela was dying, and in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, after his death. We should remember that he had been a lifelong Methodist. His Christian faith was described in the Church Times by the Revd Harry Wiggett, who was his prison chaplain on Robben Island. Under the headline ‘He shone with the light of Christ,’ he wrote:

“On every occasion that I visited Pollsmoor Prison to celebrate the Eucharist, a warder had to be present to keep an eye on me and to hear every word that I said, to be sure that I was not passing on or receiving any politically inflammatory messages.

“On [one] particular occasion, when I reached the Peace, Nelson gently stopped me and went over to the young warder on watch. ‘Brand,’ he asked, ‘are you a Christian?’ ‘Yes,’ the warder, Christo Brand, responded. ‘Well then, you must take off your cap, and join us round this table. You cannot sit apart. This is holy communion, and we must share and receive it together.’

“To my utter astonishment, Brand meekly removed his cap, and, joining the circle, received holy communion.

“I was deeply humbled because I, the priest, had not thought of doing that.

“To appreciate the significance of this incredible act of inclusive love, one needs to be aware not only of its spiritual, but also of its political significance. The fact that Christo Brand was white, and that he had responded to an invitation from a black, and so naturally, was deeply moving. Brand had political power, but submitted to the power of the Spirit working through Nelson, the prisoner.

“In Christo Brand’s Dutch Reformed Church, blacks and whites were not allowed to worship together. Nelson had Christo joining us in worship. Our Sanctus must truly have gladdened the Trinitarian heart that morning. That is the Nelson Mandela I know and love and pray for. That is the spiritual Nelson Mandela who, through his loving and living of life, and seeing all in the image of God, belonging to one another, that has brought hope not only to those of this multi-faceted nation, but also to millions throughout the world.

“He truly shone with the light of Christ.”

Other notable Christians who died this year included: Professor Sean Freyne, a well-loved colleague in Trinity College Dublin who also taught and lectured in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute over the years; Father Alec Reid, the Redemptorist priest who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland; Geza Vermes, the Jewish theologian who helped Christians understand Jesus as a Jew; Jerome Murphy O’Connor, the Cork-born theologian who understood Jerusalem more than most; and the composer John Tavener, who died at 69, and who helped spread a love of Orthodox liturgical music among Anglicans and others.

At the Festal Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Christmas Eve, the choir sang as a Christmas Acclamation during the administration of Holy Communion words adapted by John Tavener from the Orthodox Great Compline for Christmas Eve:

God is with us. Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. The people that dwell in the shadow of death upon them the light has shined. For unto us a child is born! For unto us a son is given! And the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful! Counsellor! The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth. God is with us. Christ is born! Christ is born! Christ is born!

In his last years, Tavener lived in constant pain, and a few months before his death he told the Guardian’s Tom Service in a his last major interview: “Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got.”

5, The continuing tensions in Islamic world:

The Halawa sisters and their brother Ibrahim Halawa ... Irish citizens detained in Cairo

The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the attack on the shopping centre Nairobi, the attack on the Boston Marathon, and the continuing violence in Nigeria are sad examples of how Militant Islam continued to shape or mis-shape Western images of Islam throughout the year.

But this year also saw Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who survived a murder attack by the Taliban last year, address the UN General Assembly in July, accept the Tipperary Peace Prize in August, and come close to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. She has a strong faith that defies those who tried to murder her, and she declares: “Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.”

This teenager is a living embodiment of the fact that Islam is not always a threat to non-Muslims, and that there are multiple expressions of Islam across the globe. All of us are rightly horrified by the attacks on Christians in many countries with Muslim majorities. But we should not forget that more Muslims are killed by Muslims on a day-by-day basis, whether we are talking about violence in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia or Nigeria.

For example, there has been a surge in sectarian violence in Iraq this year, in which more than 7,000 civilians have been killed – the highest annual number of violent deaths in Iraq for many years. But most of the attacks have targeted Shia civilians and the smaller Sunni population.

According to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Syrian crisis is “feeding terrorism in the region.” The Syrian crisis has poured over the borders of Syria into neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

In Egypt, the largest Arab country, the Arab Spring has turned to an Arab Winter. Following weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets. The Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government were deposed by the same military forces that had once backed the Mubarak regime. The Islamists and those who wanted democracy have both lost, and the military have won once again.

Four Irish citizens, the sisters Somaia (28), Fatima (22) and Omaima Halawa (21), and their brother Ibrahim Halawa (17) were taken detained in August at the height of a protest in Cairo and clashes between security forces and supporters of Mohammed Morsi. The three sisters have since been freed but their brother Ibrahim Halawa is still in prison in the Egyptian capital.

The tensions between Christians and Muslims is also a contributing factor to the destructive civil war in the Central African Republic.

But the patience, courage and hope displayed by Malala Yousafzai, the persistent protests on the streets of Turkey by people who align themselves with neither Islamists not the military, and the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran offer hope that the voices of reason and fresh thinking can rise above the clamour of extremists and the sound of guns and car bombs in the Islamic world.

6, The persecution of Christians in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa:

At least 127 people were killed in the church bombing in Peshawar

Christians continue to suffer attacks and persecution in many countries where there are Muslim majorities. The British Muslim cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, recently warned that a “mass exodus is taking place, on a Biblical scale,” in the Middle East. In some places, she says, “there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct.”

Her words echo growing concerns throughout this year for the safety of Christians, especially in Middle Eastern countries in turmoil, and specifically Egypt and Syria.

On 22 September, 127 people, including 37 children, were killed and 170 people were injured in a bomb attack on All Saints’ Church in Peshawar. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the courtyard of the church as 600 or more people were exchanging greetings on the front lawn Memorial after a service. The church is a former Anglican church and now part of the Church of Pakistan This was the deadliest-ever attack on Pakistan’s small Christian minority, and it horrified even a country as hardened to violence as Pakistan.

On Christmas Day, at least 35 people were killed in two bomb attacks in Christian areas in Baghdad. A car bomb exploded outside Saint John’s Catholic Church in Dora as people were leaving the Christmas Day Mass, killing 24. An earlier bomb in an outdoor market killed 11 people in the mainly Christian al-Athorien district.

Iraq’s ancient Christian community has more than halved in recent years, from an estimated population of 900,000. Churches across the country have been targeted since the fall of Saddam Hussein ten years ago.

7, This Year in Jerusalem

I visited the Irish Jewish Museum in Portobllo with students (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In looking at religious stories of the year, there is a danger of emphasising events in the Christian and Muslim world, at the risk of ignoring the other great monotheistic faiths. In recent weeks, I have had interesting conversations about this very matter with two Sikh taxi drivers in Dublin. And, although I brought a group of students to visit the Jewish Museum in Dublin and celebrated a Seder-style Eucharist during Holy Week, there is a danger also of allowing interesting developments within Judaism to pass without notice.

This year in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall demonstrated an increasing determination to pray as they wish at one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, the Western or Wailing Wall. They have been met with strong and sometimes violent resistance from Ultra-Orthodox male Jews, who have hurled insults, bottles and stone at the women. At first, police arrested the praying women, but since a court decision they have protected them.

In the US, a Pew report on American Jews prompted a debate about the definition of what it means to be a Jew, and the future of Jews in the US. The survey found that 32 per cent of Jews in the US say they have no religion, and 58 per cent of Jews have a non-Jewish spouse.

Jonathan Sacks retired as the British Chief Rabbi on 1 September. He had been Chief Rabbi for 22 years, having succeeded Immanuel Jakobovits, who had previously been Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1949-1958). He has been succeeded as Britain’s Chief Rabbi by the South African-born Ephraim Mirvis, who was also Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1985-1992) in succession to Chief Rabbi David Rosen; before that, he was the Rabbi of the Adelaide Road Synagogue in Dublin (1982-1985). During that time, he was the President of the Irish Council of Christians and Jews (1985-1992) and Chairman of the Irish National Council for Soviet Jewry (1984-1992).

The new chief rabbi is a fan of Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs have a long and cherished link with the Jewish Community ever since the Cable Street riots in the 1930s and the anti-semitic activities of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts. But the new Chief Rabbi’s choice of football team is hardly going to be taken into consideration in the debate about whether it is appropriate for Spurs fans to call themselves the “Yid Army” and to chant: “We’re Tottenham Hotspur, we’ll sing what we want.”

8, ‘Polyester Protestants’

A tie with the logo of the Diocese of Cork on sale in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral .... 100 per cent polyester and made in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I never heard the phrase ‘Polyester Protestants’ until it was used by Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin in a feature in The Irish Times explaining his speech at the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Synod this year.

Both the speech and the term were hotly debated in the diocese, but for some focussing on the phrase avoided debating the substance of what he had to say.

At least the Archbishop challenged us to ask whether sectarianism, prejudice and intolerance had to be faced not only within the diocese but throughout the Church of Ireland.

9, The continuing rise in popularity of Cathedral Liturgy

I spent Easter weekend at Lichfield Cathedral ... there has been a rise in the popularity in cathedral liturgy throughout these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The number of worshippers at cathedrals in the Church of England increased last year, continuing the growing trend seen since the Millennium. Total weekly attendance at the 43 cathedrals in the Church of England grew to 35,800, according to Cathedral Statistics 2012, published in August this year. This amounts to an increase of 35 per cent since 2002.

Along with occasional and special services, the regular worshipping life of cathedrals has proved more popular than ever over the past decade with cathedrals pointing to stronger community links attracting more people.

Easter 2012 saw the highest attendance in the last decade, at 54,700. The attendance at mid-week services grew most, from 8,900 in 2002 to 16,800, while Sunday attendance grew from 17,500 to 19,100.

The numbers of children and young people attending educational events was the highest for 10 years: 306,800 in 2012, compared with 265,100 in 2002. The number of volunteers in cathedrals continued to rise, reaching 15,570, up 30 per cent on the 11,930 in 2002.

Dr Bev Botting, who was involved in the research, says: “Cathedrals continue to flourish as worshipping communities while offering a valuable insight into our nation’s heritage. The statistics show people of all ages are increasingly drawn to cathedrals for worship, to attend educational and civic events, and to volunteer to ensure our cathedrals are open to all those who are drawn to visit and worship in these wonderful buildings.”

The report included three case studies from Liverpool, Ely and Truro.

Liverpool Cathedral is filled to capacity many times during the year. As well as the 400,000 tourists and visitors each year, nearly 100,000 people attended at least one service last year, with Christmas and Easter the busiest times. The innovative youth service “Night of the Living Dead” is an initiative taken by Archbishop Justin Welby when he was the Dean of Liverpool.

Ely Cathedral attracts nearly 10,000 students on education visits with a hugely popular “Holiday Drop In” every Monday and Wednesday during school holidays offering a range of activities including arts, crafts, and storytelling. The cathedral has a week-long business exhibition attracting thousands of people and more than 150 local businesses as exhibitors.

At the end of this year, over 750 people attended the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Ely Cathedral. Reporting on the occasion, Andrew Brown wrote in the Guardian: “It was possible to understand the place of Christianity at the heart of western civilisation.”

Ely Cathedral, which has typical Sunday congregation of 200-300, also hosted a special musical celebration at the end of the year that included the grand final of BBC Two’s The Choir: Sing While You Work.

Truro Cathedral has seen an increase in numbers at services, particularly at Christmas and Easter. Family events include a Cushion Concert with the Choristers, several Free Family Fun Days and an ice skating rink in winter.

The cathedrals of the Church of England came under scrutiny in a new trilogy on BBC Four, Cathedrals, in which Richard Alwyn looked at daily life and music in three cathedrals – Wakefield, Wells and Southwark – and how they attract pilgrims and seek to remain relevant in modern, secular life.

During the year, I took part in services in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Saint Finn Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, and Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, and visited Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, Saint Fethlimidh’s Cathedral, Kilmore, Co Cavan, and the ruins of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Annaghdown, on the eastern shores of Lough Corrib, Co Galway, and Saint Declan’s Cathedral, Ardmore, Co Waterford, as well as cathedrals in Sorrento, Ravello, Amalfi and Capri in Italy, and Rethymnon and Iraklion in Crete.

Of course, I also visited Lichfield Cathedral throughout the year, and spent Easter weekend in retreat there, being refreshed and renewed spiritually as I followed the daily cycle of prayer, reaching its crescendo with the Easter Eucharist.

Perhaps the return to the popularity of cathedral liturgy in the Church of England is beginning to be experienced in the Church of Ireland: 365 people were at of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral this month, 459 attended the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve, and 378 people were at the Festal Eucharist on Christmas morning.

10, The closure of the church in Comberford

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford … closed in October (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

But if we glory in the splendour and majesty of the great Anglican cathedrals, we should not forget the place of small parish churches at the heart of village life. And so my tenth religious story of the year is one of personal idulegence.

At a personal level, I was sad that this year saw the closure of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford and I was sorry not to be present for the final closing service in October.

The small, picturesque Staffordshire church, east of Lichfield and north of Tamworth, was donated to the people of Comberford by Howard Francis Paget (1858-1935) of Elford Hall. The first stone was laid at a special ceremony in 1914 and the building was completed in 1915.

The Paget family’s interest in the area continued for generations. Howard Paget’s daughter, Charlotte Gabrielle Howard Paget, married Joseph Harold Hodgetts, and died in Lichfield in 1979. Their son, the late Harold Patrick Hodgetts, lived nearby at Model Farm in Elford, and Pat Hodgetts was proud that his grandparents had given the church to the village.

A letter written on behalf of members of the congregation and published in the Tamworth Herald said: “It is a great pity that the church is to shut when it is so close to its centenary.”

One resident of Comberford, Dr Joanne Cliffe, told me: “If I had been allowed the challenge I would have made the church a success! We had a growing visible and active presence in the church but the bottom line is they don’t want it and they don’t want to know.”

For many generations, my family continued to regard Comberford as our ancestral home, despite some complicated details in the family tree. My great-grandfather, James Comerford, had a very interesting visit to Comberford and Tamworth at the end of the 19th or in the early 20th century, visiting the Peel family who lived there … he probably had his heart set on consolidating those family links.

I first visited Comberford and Comberford Hall in 1970 and have been back many times since then. I have written before how – when my mind and imagination go wild – I think of how nice it would be to buy back Comberford Hall, and in the past I have dreamt in idle moments of using that grand old house as a retreat centre or as a centre for spirituality and the arts, with the village church close at hand, across the fields at the end of a public right-of-way footpath.

Comberford Hall, with an asking price of £850,000, was back on the market with estate agents Paul Carr, and as I write it appears it has been sold. Meanwhile, the future of the church that has served the village for almost a century is unknown.

Tomorrow: Goodbye to 2013 (Part 2) and my top ten personal stories of the year.

Art for Christmas (6): ‘The Holy
Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian

‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian

Patrick Comerford

The year is drawing to a close and a new year approaches. But this is still the season of Christmas, and my choice of a work of Art for Christmas this morning [30 December 2013] is ‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd’ (ca 1510), by the great Venetian Renaissance painter, Titian.

This early work by Titian in the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, and is part of the Holwell Carr Bequest (1831). It is in oil on canvas, and measures 99.1 cm x 139.1 cm.

Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio, known generally as Titian (ca 1488/1490-1576), was the greatest painter in 16th-century Venice, and the first painter to have a mainly international clientele. During his long career, he experimented with many different styles of painting that reflect the development of art at that time.

Titian was born ca 1488/1490 in Pieve di Cadore, a small town near Belluno at the foot of the Dolomites on the Venetian side of the Alps. The Vecellio family had lived in Cadore since the 14th century. His older brother Francesco was also a painter.

When he was about 10 years old, Titian arrived in Venice, then one of the wealthiest and most prosperous cities in the world. His training as an artist began in the mosaic workshop of Sebastiano Zuccato’s. Later, he worked briefly with Gentile Bellini in his workshop. When Gentile died in 1507, Titian joined the workshop of his brother, Giovanni Bellini, then the most important workshop in Venice.

In 1508-1509, he worked with Giorgione on the decoration of the external walls of the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice. After Giorgione’s death in 1510, and Sebastiano del Piombo’s departure for Rome in 1511, Titian began an independent career in Venice, and found himself without rivals.

In 1511 Titian painted his celebrated frescoes in the ‘Scuola del Santo’ in Padua. He then became famous as a portrait painted and as the painter of many secular subjects.

His skills drew the attention of Italy’s intellectually ambitious political, church and aristocratic leaders, who commissioned him to paint public and religious works. His success in Venice came with his altarpiece for Franciscan Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. His ‘Assunta,’ depicting the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is almost seven metres high and first went on show in 1518. The dynamic, three-tier composition and colour scheme established Titian as the pre-eminent painter north of Rome.

He continued to work in this church until 1526, painting his celebrated Pala Pesaro, an asymmetrical composition that strongly influenced the painting of altarpieces in Venice well into the 18th century.

Meanwhile, in 1516 Titian began his professional relationship with Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and spent time in his castle. The duke wanted Titian to create a private room, the camerino d’alabastro (the alabaster room), decorated with mythological scenes from classical poetry.

The other painters commissioned for this project included Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo and Dosso Dossi. After Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo died, Titian became increasingly involved in the project. Some of the scenes he executed are now in the Prado, Madrid, and the National Gallery, London.

Titian also worked for the court of Mantua. In 1523, he began painting for the future Duke of Mantua, Federico II Gonzaga, a nephew of Alfonso d’Este.

In 1525, he married Cecilia and they had three children, Pompeo, Orazio and Lavinia, before her tragic death in 1530.

That year in Bologna, he met the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and painted full-length, life-size portraits of the Emperor and his son, King Philip II of Spain. He became the principal painter in the imperial court, and was in demand in courts throughout Europe. From 1531, he painted celebrated mythological series of paintings or poesie for Philip. His portrait of Philip II was sent to England and helped secure Philip’s marriage to Queen Mary I.

In 1532, Titian started to work for the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, and his successor, Guidobaldo II. In the 1530s, he was also working for Pope Paul III, but his only visit to Rome was in 1545-1546, when met Michelangelo and was made a citizen of Rome.

Starting from the late 1550s, Titian developed a much freer use of the brush and a less descriptive representation of reality.

In the late 1560s and early 1570s, in his old, age he moved towards abstraction in a style that has been defined as “magic impressionism.” His work at this time included his Pietà, originally designed for his own tomb in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari but now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

He died of the plague on 27 August 1576. He was the only victim of the Venice plague to be given a church burial, and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. His contemporaries referred to him as “The Sun Amidst Small Stars,” recalling the final line of Dante’s Paradiso.

Last year, the National Gallery in London celebrated the recent acquisition of Titian’s Diana and Callisto by hosting an exhibition of this influential work (Titian’s Diana and Callisto, 1 March to 1 July 2012) and a second exhibition of Titian’s The Flight into Egypt (4 April to 19 August 2012).

My choice of painting this morning, The Holy Family with a Shepherd, is an early work by Titian. By the 1520s, gatherings of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and saints in a landscape had become one of the most popular themes in Venetian paintings. But Titian had completed this painting a decade earlier when he was in his early 20s, and it shows the influence of Giovanni Bellini and of Giorgione on the work of Titian.

In this painting, Titian shows only one shepherd in adoration. But the other shepherds can be seen to the right in the distance, hearing the Good News of the Incarnation as they tend their sheep in the fields, by daylight.

In one way, Titian is telling us that the Good News of the Incarnation comes to us both individually and collectively. But as I look at this painting, I also think of those people who have been on their own, or have felt lonely and abandoned at Christmas this year.

How does the Good News of the Incarnation come to you afresh this year? And how do you share it with others?

If you have felt lonely this Christmas or have felt an outsider, Christ comes to you in particular this Christmas and tells you that you are no longer on the margins. If you have felt unloved this Christmas, the coming of Christ tells you that you are truly loved and that you are worth loving.

Tomorrow: ‘Carols’ by Nikiphoros Lytras.

29 December 2013

Art for Christmas (5): ‘Rest on the Flight
into Egypt’ by Luc-Olivier Merson

‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1879), by Luc-Olivier Merson

Patrick Comerford

This morning [29 December 2013] is the First Sunday of Christmas. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 63: 7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2: 10-18; Matthew 2: 13-23.

We have yet to read about the Circumcision and Naming of Christ (1 January 2014) and the Epiphany (6 January 2014), so this morning’s Gospel reading, with its story of Saint Joseph’s dream and the Flight into Egypt, may seem out of sequence.

But for my work of Art for Christmas to meditate on this morning I have chosen ‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1879), by Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), a painting I drew on six years ago to illustrate a sermon in Christ Church Cathedral six years ago [30 December 2007].

This painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is in Oil on Canvas and measures 71.8 cm x 128.3 cm. It was bought in Paris by George Golding Kennedy (1841-1918) of Boston, who bequeathed it to museum in 1918.

The scene Merson depicts is haunting and full of fatigue. An exhausted Saint Joseph is asleep, perhaps suffering from mental and physical exhaustion in his flight from danger with his wife and her baby, stretched out on the desert sands as he tries to doze off.

The Virgin Mary is resting in the arms of the Sphinx, cradling the Christ Child, both unable to sleep because of their plight, because of what they have witnessed.

The Christ Child seems to light up the whole scene but is beginning his life in exile, in homelessness, a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land.

The donkey – that little donkey who becomes a domestic pet in children’s carols – is worn out from the journey from Bethlehem, and scavenges in the dark in the desert soil, seeking what few blades of grass he can find to eat.

By the time the 12 days of Christmas have passed, most of us will be tired of the seven swans a-swimming, the six geese a-laying … and only too happy to get back to work, and to begin looking at the summer holiday brochures.

However, this is not what it is like for the Holy Family in the days after their first Christmas. That first Christmas was not one filled with tedium and boredom. Their first Christmas was the very opposite to our comfortable holiday season in Northern Europe.

This painting by Luc-Olivier Merson reminds us of the stark reality of the hardship and deprivation suffered by a family on the run. Who among us would swap the tedium and boredom of the coming week for that time Mary and Joseph had with the Christ Child?

Harried by Herod’s army, they barely escaped a maniacal plot for mass murder, and ended up in exile where their ancestors had once been slaves, seeking succour and refuge with the Jewish diaspora by the Nile and the Pyramids.

The Flight into Egypt was no bargain package holiday. Rather, it was an ordeal that inspired artists throughout the centuries. It has been painted by Fra Angelico, Giotto, Carpaccio, Durer, Claude Lorrain, Tintoretto, Barbieri, Tiepolo … the great Dutch and Italian masters, indeed most of the great Western artists.

Saint Matthew’s unique account of this event in this morning’s Gospel reading had many resonances for his first readers: it is a powerful restructuring of the story of Joseph forced into exile in Egypt because of the evil plots hatched against him. And the exodus from Egypt in later, safer, days, would point anew towards redemption from slavery and sin and offer the hope of imminent salvation.

Later legends surrounding the Flight into Egypt include the family hiding in a cave and being protected by a spider’s web, the beasts of the desert bowing in homage to the Christ Child, an encounter with two thieves who would be crucified beside Christ on the Cross on Calvary, and palm trees bending in reverence as Mary and Joseph passed by with the Child Jesus.

Legend says that when they found shelter on the banks of Nile the Holy Family lived in an area known as Babylon in Egypt, where there was a long, continuous Jewish presence. Although those stories of flight and exile are unique to Saint Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, they also appear in the Quran, and are part of the way Muslims come to own the story of Jesus within their own religious traditions.

On various visits to Egypt, I was aware that the stories of the flight into Egypt, the refuge, the welcome and the asylum offered to the Holy Family there, are stories shared and definitive for all Egyptians, including Muslims, the large Christian community, and the dwindling but ancient Jewish community.

Many shrines and churches are claimed as places where the family rested or dwelt, none more so than Abu Sergha or the Church of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus, one of the oldest Coptic Churches in Egypt, and the place where many Patriarchs of Alexandria or Coptic Popes were elected.

Every Egyptian today – Jew, Christian and Muslim – identifies with both the Holy Family and those who offered them asylum. But who would we here in Ireland identify with if you and I were hearing this story of mass murder and enforced exile for the first time?

Would I have been among the innkeepers who first refused them a welcome at my inn or hostel in Bethlehem?

Would I have been willing to work with the political apparatus around the Herod of my day, holding onto power and privilege, inspiring fear rather than respect and loyalty, no matter who had to be trampled on, no matter who suffered, no matter how the innocent would be counted among the victims?

Would I have had the courage of the wandering Magi, not only to seek truth, even if it is outside my own area of learning and knowledge, but also willing to take the risks involved in refusing to respect the immoral demands of those holding the reins of power when they are lawful but patently immoral?

When was I last like Joseph, realising that God’s promptings are not idle dreams but that they demand discipleship and action, even if this puts my personal security at risk?

When did I listen to the voice of today’s Rachels, the weeping mothers and widows, whether at a local level it was listening to the grief of someone who has lost a dear family member at Christmas time, or at a global level it was listening to those who are weeping in grief in Syria and the refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq?

The story of Herod’s jealous plot, and of a family fleeing in search of refuge continue to have radical relevance today.

We cannot be open to the plight of the fleeing Holy Family unless we are open to the plight and needs of the families who have come to live among us in Ireland in recent years – whatever their political, social or ethnic backgrounds may be.

We cannot understand the plight of families who saw the hope of future generations sacrificed in the interest of political greed unless we too are willing to stand against political and personal greed today.

We cannot praise the disobedience of the Magi unless we are willing to say regularly that morality in politics must overrule the personal interests, gain and profit of those who hold office.

We cannot rejoice in the welcome the Egyptians gave to Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, unless we are also willing to rejoice in every initiative, every stage in the process of dialogue that brings Jews, Christians and Muslims together in our own country.

We cannot pity the plight of that family in exile unless we can acknowledge the needs of the new families living among us today.

Christmas is the story of the true insider who becomes a real outsider in order that we who in our reality are outsiders may truly become insiders.

A year before his death, the great missionary bishop in Zanzibar, Bishop Frank Weston, declared in 1923: “You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary – but … it is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.”

To paraphrase Bishop Weston, if we cannot realise the presence of Christ among us in the refugee, the asylum seeker, the immigrant and the person of another faith, that Christ who identifies with those who suffer and are persecuted as brothers and sisters, [Hebrews 2: 10-18], how can we be aware of his presence among us in Word or Sacrament?


Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have refreshed us with this heavenly sacrament.
As your Son came to live among us,
grant us grace to live our lives,
united in love and obedience,
as those who long to live with him in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow:The Holy Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian.