18 February 2023

Profiles in Catholicism:
An Interview with Father Patrick Comerford
by Gordon Nary

‘Comforting the Afflicted
and Afflicting the Comfortable’

In the run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17, Patrick Comerford, an Irish-born Anglican priest, writer and theologian, spoke to ‘Profiles in Catholicism’ about his life and his commitment to ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable’

Gordon: Please share with our readers your experience as a journalist and what were some of most memorable articles that you wrote?

Father Patrick: I was training as a chartered surveyor when I began working as a freelance journalist, contributing features to local, provincial newspapers in England. I soon became a staff journalist with the Wexford People group of newspapers in south-east Ireland, and then moved to The Irish Times, the leading daily newspaper in Ireland.

I worked as a journalist for about 30 years, and spent eight years as Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times. I travelled the world, from the Far East to South Africa, the Middle East and North America, but, of course, I had my particular interests, including politics and life in Greece, Christian-Muslim dialogue, and the impact of faith on the lives of people in the public sphere.

Journalists don’t always get it right when we are analysing the present or looking at the future. I left Israel just as the first Intifada was breaking out in 1987, and I left South Africa just days before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

It is dangerous for journalists to become involved in the news they are working with. But I was primarily a desk journalist and page editor, and I became what some people call a campaigning journalist. I was involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, for example, and wrote extensively in the 1980s and 1990s about the ordination of women.

My first book was on the nuclear arms race, and I also wrote a short biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But my faith and my work as a journalist were always interwoven. As a former colleague who was ordained a few years before me told me, journalists and priests have the same task: to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

While I was working with The Irish Times, I returned to college, completed my degrees in theology, trained for ordination, and was ordained deacon (2000) and priest (2001) in the Church of Ireland, a member Church of the Anglican Communion.

Gordon: Tell me a little about your work with Anglican mission agencies, including CMS and USPG?

Father Patrick: I working as a journalist and a part-time, unpaid curate in a suburban parish in Dublin when I was ‘head-hunted’ to join the staff of the Church Mission Society Ireland.

All my adult life I had been a supporter of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). But my four years with CMS gave me opportunities to work with a programme on Christian-Muslim dialogue, and to work in partnership with the churches in Romania and China.

I wrote a short book on cultural and religious diversity in Ireland, and advised the bishops of the Church of Ireland when they were drawing up their guidelines for interfaith dialogue and engagement.

During that time, I also chaired the Association of Mission Societies and the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, and served on the board of the National Bible Society of Ireland. Later, I served on USPG’s boards in Ireland, and I have recently completed six years as a Trustee of USPG.

Gordon: When did you join the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and what are some of your favourite memories when you were there?

Father Patrick: While I was working with CMS, I was a visiting lecturer at what was then the Church of Ireland Theological College, teaching social theology on a BTh programme and on adult education programmes.

I joined the full-time staff of what later became the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in 2006, first as Director of Spiritual Formation, working as the college chaplain. I was there until 2017, teaching Liturgy, Anglicanism, Church History and Patristics on the BTh and MTh degree courses leading to ordination.

I supervised dissertations and research, and also became an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s oldest university.

At the same time, Archbishop John Neill appointed me a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and for ten years I was a member of the cathedral chapter, taking a full part in the life and liturgy of the cathedral.

Like many academics, I was invited to be a visiting lecturer in other, similar colleges and institutes, including the Mater Dei Institute of Education, All Hallows College and Saint Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, which have since become parts of Dublin City, and outside Dublin at Maynooth University, the University of Limerick and Edgehill College Belfast. Of course, I continued to pursue my own educational interests at the same time, taking courses in patristics and Orthodoxy at Cambridge.

Gordon: When did you move to Co Limerick?

Father Patrick: The university expected me to retire after reaching the age of 65, and I wanted to spend a few years in parish ministry before fully retiring. I was considering a move to the Diocese of Lichfield, in the Church of England, when the Bishop of Limerick persuaded me to move to his diocese instead.

I spent five years from 2017 to 2022 as Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in south-west Ireland, a collection of four small parishes in a beautiful rural part of West Limerick and North Kerry.

The parishioners were mainly farmers and involved in small-town businesses. The parishes were on the banks of the River Shannon, and faced onto the west coast of Ireland, in an area known as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ There were four churches, with small but faithful congregations, and the usual rounds of Sunday services, baptisms, weddings and funerals.

I had often told my students that they were preparing not to be bishops or exalted church leaders, but to be ordinary priests with ordinary people in ordinary parishes, and now I was putting this into practice, enjoying the ordinariness of people and places as reflections of the beauty and majesty of God, in whose image and likeness we are created.

Parish ministry was a half-time commitment, and I spent the other half of that time as Director of Ministerial Education, providing resources and continuing ministerial education for priests across the western seaboard of Ireland. In that role, I was also asked to be Canon Precentor of the cathedrals in the diocese, in Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert.

Gordon: Now that you are retired, what you enjoy doing most?

Father Patrick: A stroke at the age of 70 last year brought me to decide to retire from parish ministry earlier than I expected. But as priests we never retire. I am now living in retirement in Milton Keynes, half-way between London and Birmingham, in the Diocese of Oxford.

I am continuing to write for newspapers and magazines and to write chapters for books in theology and history. My latest contributions include chapters for a book on ‘Christmas and the Irish’ and co-authoring a book in Greece on Irish figures involved in the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century.

I continue to take an active role in interfaith dialogue, particularly Jewish-Christian dialogue, and in the work of USPG. In recent weeks, I have visited Hungary and Finland, to see at first-hand the work of Anglican churches in Budapest and Helsinki with Ukrainian refugees. These have been moving experiences of how the church can work ecumenically and have an impact on the lives of people in need and in desperation. This is the challenge to continue afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Gordon: Thank you for a fascinating interview and I ask our readers to pray for your health.

This interview with Gordon Nary was published online by ‘Profiles in Catholicism’ in February 2023.

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 18 February 2023

Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni di Pietro da Fiesole), The Annunciation (ca 1440-1445), in the Basilica di San Marco, Florence

Patrick Comerford

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday next week (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Fra Angelico (1395-1455) is named in today [18 February] in the Roman Catholic calendar. Fra Angelico is also the Patron of Artists, and it said he once said: ‘He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.’

During my visit to the Uffizi in Florence some years ago, among the works of Fra Angelico on display were his Coronation of the Virgin (ca 1432), his Altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin, and his life-sized Madonna and Child with twelve Angels.

The National Gallery of Ireland has his Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake (ca 1439-1442), which was bought in 1886. This small panel was part of the predella or lower register of Fra Angelico’s most important altarpiece. Other parts of it are scattered in galleries around the world. The altarpiece was painted for the church of San Marco in Florence, and was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici – whose name is echoed in the profession of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian (medici means ‘physicians’ in Italian).

Fra Angelico was called both Angelico (‘angelic’) and Beato (‘blessed’) because his paintings were of calm, religious subjects and because of his extraordinary personal piety.

He was born Guido di Pietro in Vicchio, Tuscany, in 1395. He entered a Dominican convent in Fiesole in 1418 and he became a friar with the name Giovanni da Fiesole ca 1425. He apparently began his career as an illuminator of missals and other religious books. He began to paint altarpieces and other panels; among his important early works are the Madonna of the Star (1428?-1433, San Marco, Florence) and Christ in Glory surrounded by Saints and Angels (National Gallery, London), which depicts more than 250 distinct figures.

Among other works of that period are two of The Coronation of the Virgin (Uffizi and Louvre, Paris) and The Deposition and The Last Judgment (San Marco). His mature style is first seen in The Madonna of the Linen Weavers (1433, San Marco), which features a border with 12 music-making angels.

In 1436, the Dominicans of Fiesole moved to the Convent of San Marco in Florence, which had recently been rebuilt by Michelozzo. Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s Signoria, had a large cell – later occupied by Savonarola – reserved for his own personal use at the friary so he could retreat from the world.

There, Fra Angelico, sometimes aided by assistants, painted many frescoes for the cloister chapter house and the entrances to the 20 cells on the upper corridors. The most impressive of these are The Crucifixion, Christ as a Pilgrim, and The Transfiguration.

His altarpiece for San Marco (1439) is one of the first representations of what is known as A Sacred Conversation: the Madonna flanked by angels and saints who seem to share a common space.

Pope Eugenius IV summoned Fra Angelico to Rome in 1445 to paint frescoes for the now destroyed Chapel of the Sacrament in the Vatican. In 1447, with his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli, he painted frescoes for the chapel of Pope Nicholas in the Vatican, including Scenes from the Lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence (1447-1449), probably painted from his designs by assistants.

Fra Angelico was the Prior of the Dominican Convent in Fiesole in 1449-1452. He died in the Dominican Convent in Rome on 18 February 1455. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

His epitaph says: ‘When singing my praise, don’t liken my talents to those of Apelles. Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor. The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven. I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.’

Fra Angelico combined the influence of the elegantly decorative Gothic style of Gentile da Fabriano with the more realistic style of Renaissance masters such as the painter Masaccio and the sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti, all of whom worked in Florence.

Fra Angelico was particularly effective in his use of colour to heighten emotion. His skill in creating monumental figures, representing motion, and suggesting deep space through the use of linear perspective, especially in the Roman frescoes mark him as one of the foremost painters of the Renaissance.

He is described by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as having ‘a rare and perfect talent.’ Vasari wrote: ‘But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.’

Legend has it that Fra Angelico almost became a saint. When he was called to Rome in 1445, Pope Eugene IV was in search of a new Archbishop of Florence. He eventually chose the Vicar of San Marco, Antonio Pierozzi. Then, 200 years later, when Pierozzi was proposed for sainthood, it emerged that the pope’s first choice as Archbishop of Florence was Fra Angelico, but that the painter’s humility caused him to decline and instead suggest Pierozzi for the post.

Eventually, after a further two centuries, Fra Angelico was beatified on 3 October 1982 by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the holiness of his life, giving him the title of ‘Blessed’ rather than ‘Saint.’ In 1984, Pope John Paul II declared him patron of Catholic artists.

The Incarnation was one of Fra Angelico’s favourite themes, and he painted over 25 variations of it. His painted meditations, so needed at the time of the early Renaissance, are still necessary today. This Lent, let us remember that God became human to bring us closer to God by way of all things human. God makes all things new by fashioning them into possible vehicles of grace for us, so that by visible realities and concrete concepts, we can arrive at an understanding and a love of higher, invisible realities, all leading to God himself.

‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi (Florence, ca 1440/1460)

Mark 9: 2-13 (NRSVA):

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11 Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ 12 He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’

Peter Preaching, Fra Angelico, ca 1400-1455 (see Acts 11: 4-18)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week has been ‘Bray Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Jo Sadgrove, USPG’s Research and Learning Advisor, who shared the challenges of uncovering USPG’s archives.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Let us give thanks for the vision that inspired USPG. May we, like Thomas Bray, seek to deepen our understanding of the gospel, be attentive to the world and promote the common good.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Last Judgment (ca 1425) by Fra Angelico

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org