Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent begins with services of light in Christ Church Cathedral

The first candle on the Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral was lit this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Advent began in Christ Church Cathedral this morning [Sunday 2 December 2012] with the Cathedral Eucharist for the First Sunday if Advent, sung by the Cathedral Choir, at 11 .a.m., and, later in the evening, the Advent Procession at 5 p.m.

The Cathedral Eucharist this morning was celebrated by the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and the preacher was the Revd Celia Grace Kenny, a Presbyterian Minister of the Church of Scotland. She was ordained in Saint Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, has served on the Board of World Mission in the Hungarian Reformed Seminary in Chuj, and has been a postgraduate student in the Irish School of Ecumenics. The setting was William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices.
I served at the Eucharist as Deacon, reading the Gospel (Luke 21: 25-36), assisting at the administration of Holy Communion, and lighting the first of the candles on the Advent Wreath immediately before the Gospel reading.

The Advent Wreath has four candles – three violet and one pink – around a central white candle.

The four candles in a ring are lit one-by-one on each of the four Sundays of Advent. This morning’s violet candle reminds us of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The second candle next Sunday is reminder of the Prophets of the Old Testament. The third candle is pink and reminds us on the Third Sunday of Advent or Gaudate Sunday, is a reminder of Saint John the Baptist, who calls us to prepare for the coming of Christ. The fourth candle recalls the Blessed Virgin Mary. The central, white candle is lit on Christmas Day to mark the celebration of the Incarnation.

As I lit the first candle on the Advent Wreath this morning, the choir sang:

Blessed are you, Sovereign Lord, God of our ancestors, to you be praise and glory for ever! You called the patriarchs to live by the light of faith and to journey in the hope of your promised fulfilment. May we be obedient to your call and be ready and watchful to receive your Christ, a lamp to our feet and a light to our path; for you are our light and our salvation.

The sung response was:

Blessed by God for ever.

Candles in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the Advent Procession this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

This evening, the Advent Procession begin with the cathedral in darkness and then move to light as candles were lit one-by-one in the procession, in the congregation, and then throughout the cathedral.

There were traditional Advent carols, biddings, collects and readings and prayers, working our way through the Advent themes, from the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11: 1-5), Looking for the Light (I Thessalonians 5: 1-11), the Witness of the Prophets (Malachi 4), John the Baptist (Malachi 3: 1-6), the Year of the Lord’s Favour (Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3), Mary’s Response to God (Luke 1: 39-46 with the canticle Magnificat, to the Four Last Things (Revelation 22: 1-7).

The collects and prayers were lead by Archbishop Michael Jackson, and I was asked to read the Fourth Reading (Malachi 3: 1-6).

The Advent season continues in Christ Church Cathedral in the coming weeks, including the Sung Eucharist each Sunday, the Cathedral Choir Concert (Thursday 13 December), the Service of Five Lessons and Carols (Sunday 16 December), the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols (Monday 17 December), the Midnight Eucharist at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and the Festival Eucharist at 11 a.m. on Christmas Day.

A week in Tuscany with Verdi and in the vineyards

The vines, groves and terraces that have given Tuscany the name ‘Chiantishire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

As summer was turning to autumn, I spent a week in the historic towns and vineyards in the heart of Tuscany, which has affectionately become known to many people in England as “Chiantishire.”

Tony Blair has spent holidays in “Chiantishire,” Prince Charles was once interested in buying a palazzo near Siena with a private chapel, vineyards and a price tag of £1.3 million, and Antonio Banderas, Sting, Bryan Ferry, Sir John Mortimer, Richard Gere, Mary Wesley and Dame Muriel Spark all have homes there too.

A T-shirt explains why many tourists see Tuscany as ‘Chiantishire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During that week in Tuscany, I stayed in Montecatini Terme, a spa town with a population of 21,000 and dating from the belle époque. The celebrities who once came to Montecatini included the composers Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Gioacchini Rossini.

I was staying at the Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore, where Rossini was a guest in 1852, and where Verdi, who lived from 1882 to 1900. Verdi is remembered with such pride in the hotel that his portrait still hangs in the lobby and is used to decorate the wrappings and packaging on the hotel soap, bath cream, shampoo – even the shower caps.

Fine art in Florence

The Duomo of Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio seen from the terraces of the Uffizi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Montecatini Terme was a perfect base for visiting Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and San Gimignano. This was my second visit to Florence, but a day never does justice to the city, and an afternoon in the Uffizi only gave an appetising taste of one of the greatest art galleries in the world.

My walking tour of Florence began at the 11th century Baptistry in Piazza di San Giovanni, with its east door decorated with gilded bass bronze reliefs and the “Gate of Paradise.” The Baptistry was part of the complex of the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome of the duomo is the city’s iconic landmark and stands alongside the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Coliseum in Rome as one of Italy’s three most photographed sites.

A copy of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria ... the most photographed image in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The civic heart of mediaeval and Renaissance Florence is the Piazza della Signoria, with its sculptures, statues, fountains, the Loggia del Lanzi built by the Swiss bodyguards of Cosimo I de Medici, and the Palazzo Vecchio, which was the centre of Florentine political intrigue in the high Middle Ages.

The most photographed image in the square is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, although the original is now housed safely away from weather and human hands in the Accadmemia.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence straddles the Arno at its narrowest point (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Another popular sight in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, which has straddled the River Arno at its narrowest point since the year 972. But there are hidden delights in the side streets, such as the palazzo where Leonardo da Vinci lived while he was working in Florence.

The basilica in the Piazza di Santa Croce is the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. In front of it is the statue of Dante and a wide open square used once for burning heretics and still used once a year for the calcio storico, the local version of rough-and-tumble mediaeval football.

Popular reproductions of great works of art in Uffizi on sale in in the Piazza di Santa Croce (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After lunch we spent an afternoon in the Uffizi. But how can one summarise an afternoon in the Uffizi? Fra Angelico. Giotto. Botticelli. Piero della Francesca. Raphael. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. A week in Tuscany, a month in Tuscany, could never do justice to one room in the Uffizi.

Leaning towers and city walls

The Tower of Pisa ... still leaning after all those years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Everyone who comes to Pisa wants to be photographed in a pose as though they are pushing the Leaning Tower back into place. But few stop to think about why the tower was built and why it tilts, and fewer still go on to admire the Cathedral and the Baptistry that share the same green piece of land.

The entrance through the old city walls brings visitors straight in front of the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) or Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), the wide, walled, partly-paved and partly-grassed area at the heart of the city with the “Leaning Tower.”

The tower was built originally as the campanile or bell tower for cathedral. Building work began in 1173, but five years later, as work reached the third-floor level, the weak subsoil and poor foundations caused the tower to start tilting. The building was left alone for a century, the subsoil stabilised and the building was saved from collapsing.

Building work resumed in 1272, and the upper floors were added, with one side taller than the other. The seventh and final floor was added in 1319. But by then the building was leaning one degree, or 80 cm from vertical. Today, the tower is leaning by about four degrees.

The Baptistry, Duomo and Belfry ... a complete ecclesiastical and architectural collection in Pisa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The true heart of the piazza, however, is the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built in 1064 by Buscheto. Pisa’s most famous son, Galileo Galilei, is said to have formulated his theory about the movement of a pendulum by watching the swinging of the sanctuary lamp hanging in the cathedral nave.

In front of the west doors of the cathedral, the Baptistry dates from 1153 and was completed in the 14th century. It is the largest baptistry in Italy, and is even a few centimetres higher than the Leaning Tower. The Baptistry is also known for its acoustics, and as visitors we were treated to a short singing demonstration of the inbuilt sound system.

The narrow streets of Lucca ... a compact and attractive town that has remained intact (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Pisa’s neighbouring rival, Lucca, is the birthplace of Puccini. Lucca was saved from bombing during World War II, leaving intact the walls, tiny squares, narrow streets and alleyways, with their fountains, their statues of Garibaldi, and the city’s mediaeval churches, including the Church of San Michele and the duomo or Cattedrale di San Martino.

Siena’s saints and horses

The Piazza del Campo in Siena is the venue for the Palio horse race twice a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Siena is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Italy and its centre has been designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco. The Piazza del Campo or central square houses the Palazzo Pubblico or Town Hall and the Torre del Mangia, but it is best known as the venue for the Palio – a horse race held in the centre of Siena twice a year.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Siena’s duomo or cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. Its main façade was completed in 1380, but the duomo is unusual for a cathedral, having an axis running north-south rather than east-west.

The 13th century conflict between Ghibelline Siena and Guelph Florence forms the backdrop for some of Dante’s Commedia. In 1260, Florence besieged Siena and attacked by catapulting dung and dead donkeys into the city. When Siena was devastated by the plague in 1348, two-thirds of the population of 100,000 was wiped out and the city capitulated to Cosimo de Medici of Florence.

The Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana, is closely identified with the life of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), the Dominican mystic, theologian and scholastic philosopher. She worked to bring the exiled papacy back to Rome from Avignon, and tried to reconcile the feuding feudal Italian city-states.

Mediaeval towers and parades

A mediaeval guild parades through the streets of San Gimignano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We had a taste of mediaeval Tuscany when we visited San Gimignano and watched a colourful procession of guild members and drummers make their way up through the narrow streets to in the Piazza Duomo and the cathedral or duomo.

San Gimignano is a walled hill town 50 km north-west of Siena. It is best known for its mediaeval architecture and its 15 towers of different heights that are emblematic of the town and that dominate the surrounding Tuscan countryside for miles around.

The town takes its name from Saint Geminianus, the Bishop of Modena who defended the town from Attila and the Huns. San Gimignano also became a victim of the feuds between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante visited the town as the ambassador of the Guelphs and addressed the town council in the Communal Palace in 1300. But the Black Death wiped out most of the population in 1348, and the survivors were forced to submit to Florence in 1353.

Unexplored and hidden charms

Walking along the Via Dell’Amore or the “Walk of Love,” between Manarola and Riomaggiore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The major tourist cities and the delights of the Tuscan countryside and the vineyards of “Chiantishire” mean Tuscany’s smaller cities remain unexplored and hidden delights. And we did not have to travel far from Montecatini to appreciate them.

Close to Monetecatini, neighbouring Pistoia has mediaeval ramparts and in its centro storico there are piazzas, squares and a maze of side streets to rival those of any other town in Tuscany.

The duomo or Cattedrale di San Zeno has a beautiful Pisan-Romanesque façade and a silver altarpiece that took two centuries to build before it was completed by Brunelleschi. The duomo shares the piazza with the former bishops’ palace, now a museum, and a 14th century octagonal baptistry.

We planned to spend a day by the sea in the coastal town of Viareggio, once Puccini’s favourite resort. When Shelley drowned at Viareggio in 1822 and his body was washed up on the beach, Byron had him cremated on the spot.

But Viareggio proved to be unattractive today, and we spent only an hour or two there. Instead, we spent a day by the sea just north of Tuscany in the Liguria region, visiting the Cinque Terre, a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera.

The area takes its name from five pretty picturesque coastal villages – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – and they still show signs of the devastating torrential rains, floods and mudslides in October 2011.

Part of the charm of this area is the lack of visible corporate or commercial development. There are few roads into the five villages, and instead they are connected by rail and by a walking trail known as the Sentiero Azzuro or “Light Blue Trail.” From Manarola to Riomaggiore the trail is called the Via Dell’Amore, or the “Walk of Love.”

Verdi and vineyards

The vineyard on the slopes at Fattoria il Poggia outside Montecarlo, near Lucca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But there are other delights in Tuscany too, including the vineyards, the olive groves, the food and wine – and the opera. In Montecatini Terme, we spent a balmy evening at a staging of Verdi’s La Traviata in Tettuccio, a popular hot spring bath dating from 1779.

Another evening was spent under the full moon in Montecarlo, near Lucca, visiting an olive grove and a vineyard at Fattoria il Poggia. There we saw the olive presses used to press olive oil, tasted wines from the grapes in the vineyard, and dined in the farmyard.

The funicular links Montecatini Terme and Montecatini Alto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On our last day, we took the ten-minute steep journey on the Funicolare up the hill to explore the old town of Montecatini Alto. We were back in Verdi’s Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore before the thunderstorm broke. We knew we were heading home to autumn and winter in Ireland.

Montecatini Alto ... all the charm of a walled, hilltop mediaeval Tuscan town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in December 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

With the Saints through Advent (3): 2 December, Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan ... murdered and martyred 32 years ago on 2 December 1980 in El Salvador

Patrick Comerford

Advent is a time for reminding ourselves of the coming of Christ not just as a vulnerable child who takes on our flesh and our human tragedy at his incarnation. But our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 21: 25-36) reminds us too that Christ is coming again as King, challenging the kings and rulers of this world, and offering something very different to the despots and the dictators of this age.

Today [2 December 2012] is the First Sunday of Advent. But on this day [2 December v2012] I am reminded too of the four US women who were raped and brutally murdered in El Salvador 32 years ago this day, on 2 December 1980. When corpses littered the streets and the number of disappeared was rapidly escalating – when bishops, generals, and government officials demanded neutrality from the Church – these four women, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, had chosen to accompany a people made vulnerable by war and by repression.

These four women lived the virtue of solidarity, not neutrality. They believed poor people were living examples of God’s revelation in history – an opening where the God of hope and possibility was discovered in the midst of suffering and fear.

One of these women, Jean Donovan (1953-1980) – the only one of the four who was not a nun – came from an Irish family, and her time in Cork played a n incalculable role in her decision to become a lay missionary in El Salvador, where she was raped and murdered with her three colleagues by a military death squad.

Jean Donovan was born on 10 April 1953, the daughter of Patricia and Raymond Donovan, and grew up with her brother, Michael Donovan, in Westport, Connecticut. She attended Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, now the University of Mary Washington.

When she was 20, she spent a year as an exchange student at University College Cork, and her faith was deepened through her contact at UCC with Father Michael Crowley, a Cork priest there who had worked as a missionary in Peru for 10 years and before that with poor Hispanic communities in the US.

She left Ireland in 1974, and when she finished a master’s degree in business at Case Western Reserve University she became a management consultant in the Cleveland office of Arthur Andersen, the large accounting firm.

During this time, Jean became engaged to a young doctor, Douglas Cable. But while she was as a volunteer with the Diocese of Cleveland Youth Ministry working with the poor, she decided to join the Diocesan Mission Project in El Salvador. She was completed the lay-missionary training course at Maryknoll in New York and travelled to El Salvador in July 1977.

Jean worked as a lay missionary alongside Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, in a parish in La Libertad, providing help to refugees from El Salvador’s civil war and for the poor. They provided shelter, food, transportation to medical care, and they buried the bodies of the dead left behind by the death squads.

Jean became a follower of Archbishop Óscar Romero, and often went to his Cathedral in San Salvador to hear him preach. She wrote to a friend that his message was convincing her that prayer makes a difference. In gratitude, she baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to Archbishop Romero every Sunday afternoon after his morning Mass.

After he was murdered while saying Mass on 24 March 1980, Jean and Dorothy stood beside his coffin during the night-long vigil before his funeral. During the funeral Mass, government militia threw bombs into the crowd of 30,000 mourners, killing 30 people. Although Jean was terrified, she told herself that if she was killed, she would go straight to God.

“I got your letter,” Jean wrote to a friend afterwards, “and I really appreciate the fact that you said you worry about me. It’s nice to know that people care and they’d like to tell me to come home, as you say. There are lots of times I feel like coming home. But I really do feel strongly that God has sent me here, and wants me to be here, and I’m going to try to do my best to live up to that.”

Throughout this time, Jean stayed in touch with her friend Father Michael Crowley in Cork. “Things now are so much worse, it’s unbelievable,” she wrote him in May 1980. “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured and hacked to death. Two were young men and one was an older man. The man had been in a government death squad, had a fight with them and quit. So that’s probably why they got him. We had done a mission out there recently and they were coming to the celebrations. Everything is really hitting so close now.”

That summer, Jean’s two closest friends were assassinated after they took her to a movie and walked her home. Their violent deaths devastated her.

In September, she took a six-week holiday. She first flew to Miami to see her parents, then to London to meet her boyfriend, then to Ireland for the wedding of a friend, then to Maryknoll in New York, then to Cleveland and Miami again.

Back in El Salvador, she started again to pick up the bodies, console the grieving, and lead the poor in prayer. In the weeks that followed, Jean wrote a friend: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave ... Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favour the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

On the afternoon of 2 December 1980, Jean and Dorothy collected up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, at the airport after they had arrived from a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were under followed by a National Guardsman, who phoned his commander for orders. Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plainclothes and continued to stake out the airport.

The five members of the National Guard stopped the car they were driving after they left the airport. The three women sisters were taken to an isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers.

At about 10 p.m. that night, three hours after the four women had left the airport, local people saw the white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machinegun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van was found later that night, on fire at the side of the airport road.

The bodies of the four women were found early the next morning, Wednesday 3 December 1980. The local people who found their bodies were told by a local judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. But four men who took part in the burial told their parish priest, and later that day news of the murders reached the local bishop and the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White.

The shallow grave was exhumed on Thursday 4 December, in front of 15 reporters, several missionaries, and the US ambassador. Jean Donovan’s body was the first to be removed.

The four El Salvador martyrs ... murdered 32 years ago

A Mass of the Resurrection was said by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas. On Saturday, 6 December, Jean’s body was flown back for burial to her parents in Sarasota, Florida. The US State Department later charged Patricia and Raymond Donovan $3,500 for the return of their daughter’s body.

When news of the murders broke in the US, public outrage forced the US government to put pressure on the El Salvador regime for an investigation. The earliest investigations were condemned as a whitewash. Eventually, the UN appointed a Truth Commission to investigate who gave the orders, who knew about it, and who covered it up.

Several low-level guardsmen were convicted, and two generals were sued by the women’s families in the US federal civil courts for their command responsibility at the time of the murders.

In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in El Salvador that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behaviour. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned for pardons. The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become the Minister of Defence in the government of José Napoleón Duarte.

Jean Donovan is the main subject of a 1982 documentary Roses in December, which won the Interfilm Award at the International Film Festival in Mannheim-Heidelberg in 1982. Her story has also been the subject of television movies and plays.

The Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University is designed to encourage and support students who want to deepen their understanding of social justice issues through a summer community-based learning experience. The Fellowship provides $1,500 in grant funding to recipients.

Jean’s friend and biographer Father John Dear said some years ago: “In these dark times, Jean and the church women inspire us to stand up in solidarity with the victims of our government and its wars, regardless of the consequences to ourselves, and to give our lives so that some day, the killing will stop.”

Jean Donovan’s death had a great impact on Christians in Ireland and the US, and on many people of all faiths. She lived in solidarity with the poor and died among those who were persecuted. Her life is an example of what one person can do to change the world. Like people who have been waiting in hope through long Advents of violence and repression, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan model for us the hopeful attitude that we also are invited to adopt in this season of Advent.

An icon of Jean Donovan by Father William McNichols


The Northumbria Community includes Jean Donovan in its calendar of saints and provides this prayer from ‘The Way of the Cross’ no. 5 in Celtic Daily Prayer:

Lord, you have taught us that we must bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. Sweet Jesus, like Simon of Cyrene, may we carry your cross. May we carry your cross. Amen.


Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-10; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow (3 December): Saint Francis Xavier

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.