Thursday, 24 June 2021

Opening the doors to
priestly ministry and
a journey of 50 years

Saint John the Baptist as a child with his mother Saint Elizabeth … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Dingle, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 24 June 2021

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist

11 a.m.: The Festal Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

The Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 7-13; Luke 1: 57-66, 80.

Saint John the Baptist (right) with the Virgin Mary and Christ in a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield … the births of these three alone are celebrated in the Church Calendar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Saint John the Baptist, in many ways, is the bridge between the old and the new, between the stories of the Prophets and the Gospel stories.

Most saints are commemorated in the Church Calendar on days that are supposed to be the anniversaries of their death.

Three feasts alone commemorate the birth of Biblical figures: the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June), the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September), and the Incarnation of Christ, or Christmas Day (25 December).

Saint Luke’s Gospel takes a full chapter before the evangelist gets to the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Saint Matthew’s Gospel introduces its account of Christ’s ministry by telling us first the story of Saint John the Baptist. Saint Mark begins his Gospel with the appearance of Saint John the Baptist. And the first person we meet in Saint John’s Gospel is Saint the Baptist.

But Saint Luke is alone in telling the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I was ordained priest 20 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 21 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].

Bishops, in their 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,’ and to ‘search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.’

As I reflect on these anniversaries this morning, I recall too how my path to ordination began 50 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.

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. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon, after a few days in the countryside in Shropshire, 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.

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

My new-found 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 from freelance contributions to the Lichfield Mercury, 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 this day, 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I return to Lichfield regularly, usually two, three or more times a year, and slip into that chapel quietly when I get off the train. That chapel has remained my spiritual home. 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 form 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.

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. But the Covid-19 pandemic brought unexpected restrictions on this meaningful day last year, and I never got back to Lichfield last year either.

It is good to celebrate the beginnings of priestly ministry 20 years ago on this day, and it is good to promptings to priestly ministry heard 50 years ago on a summer afternoon in 1971. And it is good to be reminded this morning that all ministry and all our service to God, like the ministry and message of Saint John the Baptist, begins at an early stage, far earlier than we recognise, that God calls us from birth and even before that.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Letters of ordination as priest by Archbishop Walton Empey

Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (NRSVA):

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61 They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

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

Liturgical colour: White

The Collect of the Day:

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 your Son our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow-citizens with the saints
and the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who are near: (Ephesians 2: 19, 17).

Preface:

In the saints
you have given us an example of godly living,
that, rejoicing in their fellowship,
we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
and with them receive the unfading crown of glory.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament have known
your forgiveness and your life-giving love,
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

God give you the grace
to share the inheritance of Saint John the Baptist and of his saints in glory:

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)

Hymns:

6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise (CD 1)
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding (CD 8)

The entrance to the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs, Lichfield … opening the doors to a journey that has continued for 50 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



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