24 June 2024

A day to reflect on
23 years of priesthood
and a journey that began
in Lichfield 53 years ago

The Chapel and the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs, Lichfield … recalling a journey that continues 53 years later (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of the Birthday of Saint John the Baptist (24 June 2024). I have been back in Lichfield today where, throughout the day, I have been remembering that I was ordained priest 23 years ago on this day, 24 June 2001, and that tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I was ordained deacon 24 years ago (25 June 2000).

I have reflected throughout this day on these 24 years of ordained ministry, giving thanks, praying, reading, thinking, walking and giving thanks.

I was ordained priest 23 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 24 years ago tomorrow, on 25 June 2000.

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)

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 over two ago (31 March 2022) after my stroke that year, and I am still in the process of seeking Permission to Officiate (PTO). But I shall always remain a priest.

As I reflected today on the anniversaries of my ordination, I recalled too how my path to ordination began here in Lichfield 53 years ago when I was a 19-year-old, following very personal and special experiences in the chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield – and in Lichfield Cathedral, both of which I return to constantly.

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, the Rugeley 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 and in Shrewsbury, 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 than prayer or religious life 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, with its Tudor chimney stacks and its Gothic chapel.

I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was late in the 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.

Waiting for the mid-day Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

My first reaction was to make my way on down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into the Cathedral Close and 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 he 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, on that one summer afternoon.

The west front of Lichfield Cathedral this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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 the 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, at the Irish School of Ecumenics and Trinity College Dublin in 1984 and at the Kimmage Mission Institute and Maynooth in 1987. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral 53 years ago was gnawing away in the back of my mind.

Letters of ordination as priest by Archbishop Walton Empey

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 returned to study theology at the Church of Ireland Theological College (CITC, now CITI) in 1999, I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and I was ordained priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

Since then, my ordained ministry has included two years as an NSM curate in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham (2000-2002), while I continued to work as Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times; four years working with mission agencies and as a part-time lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological College (2002-2006); 11 years on the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological College or Institute as Director of Spiritual Formation, college chaplain, and then Lecturer in Anglicanism, Litury, Church History (2006-2017), when I was also an adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin (2011-2017) and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (2008-2017); and five years in west Limerick and north Kerry in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe (now Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe) as priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, Precentor of Saint Mary's Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway, and Director for Education and Training (2017-2022).

That ministry also included school and hospital chaplaincy, membership of the General Synod and various church commissions and committees, mission agency visits to Egypt, China, Hong Kong, Italy, the Vatican, Romania, Hungary and Finland, and six years as a trustee of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). There were additional studies at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and the Institutum Liturgicum, based at the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre in Ealing Abbey and KU Leuven.

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

I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area around Lichfield and Tamworth. The traditions of the chapel in Saint John's Chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal expression of Anglicanism, while 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, all its problems and its promises.

The chapel in Saint John’s Hospital and Lichfield Cathedral remain my twin spiritual homes, and I returned to both again today (24 June 2024).

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. However, I still await PTO in a new diocese and I have found unexpected restrictions on celebrating this meaningful day.

This continues to be trying at a personal level, and I held these emotions and feelings in my heart at the mid-day Eucharist and Evening Prayer in Lichfield Cathedral today, as I knelt in prayer in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital earlier in the day, and at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford yesterday (23 June 2024).

I remembered too how I was in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, on this day last year (24 June 2023) when the Revd Francesca Vernon celebrated her first Mass following her ordination.

It has been a day for walks around Stowe Pool and Minster Pool, through the streets of Lichfield, along Beacon Street, and a walk out into the countryside along Cross in Hand Lane after a pleasant late lunch in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn at the corner of Stafford Road.

When I get home to Stony Stratford later this evening, I shall have a quiet celebration of the Eucharist. This has been a day to remind myself that I remain a priest forever, and to remind myself where theis journey or pilgrimage began 53 years ago.

Saint John the Baptist depicted in a window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

1 comment:

John said...

Very best wishes on your anniversary Patrick. I hope the PTO gets sorted, and I enjoy your blog so much.