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.

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