02 July 2002

Goodbye to journalism
is not to stop
bearing witness


Patrick Comerford
explains why he is leaving journalism after more than 30 years to work full-time with the Church of Ireland

When the Rev Stephen Hilliard was leaving The Irish Times to become a full-time minister, the then deputy editor, Ken Gray, joked that he was moving from being a “column of the Times” to being a “pillar of the church”.

Later, when I asked Stephen to define the different challenges of journalism and parochial ministry, I was told: “In many ways they’re the same. We’re supposed to be comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

For over 30 years I have worked as a journalist - including almost three years with the Wexford People and almost 28 years with The Irish Times, the last eight as Foreign Desk Editor. I leave later this month to start a new venture as the Dublin-based regional officer of the Church Mission Society Ireland, the principal mission and development agency in the Church of Ireland.

For 30 or more years as a journalist and writer, I have tried to work at the point where faith meets the major concerns of the world. That work has made me a witness to the great conflicts and disasters of the last century.

I have seen the evil consequences of the Holocaust in museums, memorials and synagogues and at the Anne Frank House. I have met the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the children of Chernobyl. I have been in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East.

I have witnessed the evils of apartheid and racism, seen military occupation, poverty, and the deprivations of famine in Africa and South Asia, and talked and prayed with Sheila Cassidy and victims of torture and violence.

I have family experiences of the social terror left behind by the old regimes in Eastern Europe. I have friends who were tortured and exiled by the colonels in Greece but who have since made major contributions to the arts, diplomacy and politics.

Through those years I have been inspired by the courage of people who refuse to become victims and instead become fearless and articulate witnesses to the truths that good can overcome evil, that there is hope in the face of oppression, that faith is not a mere comfort but can inspire, motivate and provide vision for what can be - for what must be.

It is easy to drop names and say I have been inspired by heroes and friends such as Seán MacBride, Desmond Tutu, Trevor Huddleston, Bruce Kent, Mary Lawlor and Adi Roche.

But there is a vast ocean of silent people who give their time, their energy and their skills every day to campaigns like Amnesty International, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, CND, Christian Aid, the Simon Community, Trócaire, to movements concerned with the environment, globalisation, world debt, caring for refugees and asylum-seekers, to mission societies and, yes, even political parties. When they read newspapers like this, they hope to be informed, inspired and empowered by our news, comment and analysis.

My decision to move has surprised some colleagues and friends. But it is a natural transition for someone who continues to work with people wanting to be informed, inspired and empowered in the face of the major issues confronting the world and threatening our survival, and to bring to those issues the priorities of Christian faith, hope for the future and deep love.

Father Walter Forde has pointed out how people are more reluctant to volunteer their time and talents today. There will always be people like Ciaran Donnelly from Dublin and Paul Murphy from Cork, working without job security in Burundi and Nairobi. But there were not enough volunteers for the Vincent de Paul runs in Dublin last Christmas, and a shortage of volunteers threatens the Sunshine Homes holidays for inner city children.

These are body blows to witness and mission in Ireland. Perhaps we have failed to appreciate and encourage volunteers in the right ways. Perhaps we have failed to define mission in ways that are relevant to people today.

The Anglican Consultative Council has defined the five tasks of mission: to proclaim the good news of the kingdom; to teach, baptise and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform the unjust structures of society; and to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. These are the issues I have been working with for over 30 years.

I will continue to nurture my love for Greece, its people, music, poetry, culture and history. I will continue to engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue. I will continue to teach theology and work on history projects. And, naturally, I will continue to write.

Nadine Gordimer, in her inaugural Andre Deutsch Lecture in London 10 days ago, argued that a writer’s highest calling is to bear witness to the evils of conflicts and injustice. But that is the calling of a priest too. And that is the calling I hope to develop with the Church Mission Society as I seek to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

This ‘Rite and Reason’ column was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 2 July 2002.

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