23 June 2022

21 years in priestly
ministry and my scenic
route to ordination

Patrick Comerford

I was ordained priest 21 years ago tomorrow, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 22 years ago on 25 June 2000.

The Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June) is one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 20-21).

Bishops, in the charge to priests at their ordination, call us to ‘preach the Word and to minister his (God’s) holy sacraments.’ But the bishop also reminds us to be ‘faithful in visiting the sick, in caring for the poor and needy, and in helping the oppressed,’ to ‘promote unity, peace, and love,’ to share ‘in a common witness in the world’ and ‘in Christ’s work of reconciliation,’ to ‘search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.’

These charges remain a sacred commitment for life, even after a priest retires from parish ministry. I retired from full-time ministry almost three months ago (31 March 2022), and I am in process of seeking Permission to Officiate (PTO), I shall always remain a priest.

As I reflect this week on the anniversaries of my ordination, I recall too how my path to ordination began 51 years ago when I was a 19-year-old in Lichfield, following very personal and special experiences in a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield – and in Lichfield Cathedral, both of which I returned to last week.

It was the summer of 1971, and although I was training to be a chartered surveyor with Jones Lang Wootton and the College of Estate Management at Reading University, I was also trying to become a freelance journalist, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury and the Tamworth Herald. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon, after a few days traipsing along Wenlock Edge and through Shropshire, and staying at Wilderhope Manor, I had returned to Lichfield.

I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield, and I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled into that chapel out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of an old church or chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.

I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was late afternoon, so there was no light streaming through the East Window. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.

This is not a normal experience for a young 19-year-old … certainly not for one who is focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.

But it was – and still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my ‘self-defining moment in life.’ It still remains as a lived, living moment.

My first reaction was to make my way on down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into Lichfield Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.

It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-2008), then the Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop at Lambeth. He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.

All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.

With Archbishop Walton Empey at my ordination as priest in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 24 June 2001, and (from left) the Revd Tim Close and the Revd Avril Bennett (Photograph: Valerie Jones, 2001)

However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), which was beginning to unfold at the time. He was then then Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and facing trial when he opened his doors to black protesters who were being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the steps of his cathedral.

My new-found adult faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

While I was working as a journalist, I also completed my degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was gnawing away in the back of my mind.

Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But the traditions of that chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal expression of Anglicanism; and the liturgical traditions of Lichfield Cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.

That bright summer evening left me open to the world, with all its beauty and all its problems.

The chapel in Saint John’s Hospital and Lichfield Cathedral remain my spiritual home, and I returned to both again last week (16-17 June 2022).

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. However, as I await PTO in a new diocese I am finding unexpected restrictions on celebrating this meaningful day tomorrow. This is trying at personal level, and so it was good to visit Lichfield last week and to be reminded that I remain a priest forever.

Letters of ordination as priest by Archbishop Walton Empey

The Collect (the Birth of Saint John the Baptist):

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour,
by the preaching of repentance:
Lead us to repent according to his preaching,
and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Archbishop Walton Empey’s inscription on the Bible he gave to me on my ordination to the priesthood in 2001

1 comment:

AliceT said...

Dear Patrick: This entry really touched me deeply. While I didn't wind up joining the nuns or the clergy, God never gave up on me and reeled me back in at the funeral of my younger brother which was held in the parish we grew up in over in New York. I was very destroyed by my brother's death, but our Lord reached out and held me up ..... there is a large stained glass beside the main altar depicting Jesus coming back to see his disciples in the upper room after He had risen. He kept me focussed on that image through the whole ceremony, He held me up literally and kept me from completely collapsing or turning into a hysterical screeching banshee...I think in olden times that might have been called keening? The Lord really touched me in a super deep way and reeled me back in from then onward. I wound up going to church regularly not just Catholic Church, but also Baptist, Assembly of God, etc. and lots of Bible Study classes too. Eventually I wound up getting baptized by immersion by a Baptist Church here in Naugatuck. So I very much love that you shared with us your experience at age 19 when our dear God reached out to you at that Chapel and reeled out in. So beautiful Wonderfor. So happy for you, and we are so blessed by the work of these years of you being a priest. Hope you get that paperwork cleared up asap. You are very needed out here to be officiating.