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)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
46, Monday 24 June 2024,
the Birth of Saint John the Baptist

The icon of the ‘Mystical Supper’ above the Royal Doors in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the Fourth Sunday after Trinity yesterday (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024), and today is Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. The Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June) is one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Church Calendar.

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. I am hoping to mark those anniversaries later today by being present at the mid-day Eucharist and Evening Prayer in Lichfield Cathedral and visiting the chapel in Saint John's Chapel, Lichfield. During the day, I may go for some walks around Lichfield, and may even get to visit Comberford.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

An icon of the Mystical Supper above the Royal Doors and the feasts tier with 12 icons of the liturgical year in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

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

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors 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.

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 9: The Mystical Supper, Ο Δείπνος ο Μυστικός:

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

Immediately above the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and between these 12 icons is the icon of the Mystical Supper or Last Supper.

The icon of the Mystical Supper, Ο Δείπνος ο Μυστικός ( O Mystikos Dypnos) or Ο μυστικός δείπνος, or the Last Supper, is seen in the royal doors of the iconostasis in most Orthodox churches. It is in front of this icon where people come to receive the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy. The Mystery of the Eucharist is celebrated beyond the icon and royal doors, on the Altar or the Throne.

This icon is also commonly found in the dining rooms of Orthodox families. There are various versions of this icon with different iconographic traditions and interpretations.

The icon depicts the last meal of Christ and his disciples in the Upper Room before his passion, death and resurrection. The scriptural references for this icon are: Matthew 26: 17-30; Mark 14: 12-26; Luke 22: 7-38; John 13: 1-30.

Christ is the central figure in the icon, and he is sitting prominently at the centre of the table. His size is also usually larger than that of the disciples to accentuate his importance. He is the only one usually shown with a halo, as the Holy Spirit has not yet descended on the disciples yet, though in this icon all the disciples, except Judas, have halos.

As always, Christ is wearing blue on the outside to symbolise his human nature, and red on the inside, to symbolise his divinity.

The chalice or cup is on the table or sometimes held by Christ. In this icon, Christ is holding a scroll in his left hand, representing the New Covenant. The Paschal lamb, the main component of the Passover meal, is absent from the table. Instead, Christ is the Paschal lamb and he seals the New Covenant with his body and blood.

The background in this icon usually – though not in this instance – depicts a symmetrical building with a central dome behind Christ, to help accentuate and differentiate him from the disciples, with a red canopy hanging on top of the building to symbolise that the event took place indoors.

Symbolically this also alludes to the secrecy of the Holy Mystery. Spiritually, this upper room is the raised intellect illumined by the divine light of mystical knowledge, which is usually indicated by the lit candles found on the table or, in this case, in front of the table.

The table is not straight all around: it is usually curved at the top and straight at the bottom; this symbolises that the table is round, without end, to symbolise the eternal heavenly communion in the Kingdom of God.

On the table are food, drink, and eating utensils, in different variations depending on the icon. Nevertheless, there are always pieces of bread in front of each disciple.

Saint John the Beloved Disciple or the Evangelist is seated next to Christ, on his left-hand side. As the youngest of the disciples, he is shown without a beard. In some version of the icon, he receives a piece of the shared bread in his left hand. He is usually bent over, leaning on Christ’s chest (see John 13: 23-26). Tradition says Saint John received the grace of theology when he leaned his head on Christ’s heart.

Saint Peter is sitting on Christ’s right-hand side. Saint Philip and Saint Thomas, the youngest two of the disciples – we can tell they are young because they have no beards – are always placed at the two lower outside edges of the table, furthest from Christ.

Judas Iscariot is usually placed on the left side of the table, leaning forward to dip his piece of bread in the common dipping bowl at the centre of the table (see Matthew 26: 20-25). Besides indicating his hidden greediness, this also shows how Christ identified who would betray him. I am familiar with other icons in which Judas is missing from the scene.

The table is usually filled with utensils, flagons of wine, herbs and some bread in front of the disciples, with Christ blessing the bread and wine with his right hand to mystically offer them as his body and blood (see Luke 22: 18-20).

This icon is quite different from Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. This meal is not the end of the story, nor is it the last supper. Three days later, on Easter Day, Christ shares a meal with the disciples by the shore, and an evening meal with two disciples in Emmaus.

Christ tells his disciples to continue to offer this sacrifice of bread and wine, which is his Body and Blood of Christ, and teaches them to celebrate this until they feast together once again in his Kingdom.

In the Orthodox Church, this event was never called a Last Supper, and instead calls it the Mystikos Deipnos or Mystical Supper. It is not simply associated with the tragedy of the crucifixion, as the title Last Supper implies, but instead focuses on the mystical transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

An icon of the Mystical Supper or the Last Supper in a shop window on Eth Antistaseos street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 24 June 2024, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Anglican support and advocacy for exiled people in Northern France.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a programme update by Bradon Muilenburg, Anglican Refugee Support Lead in Northern France, the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Monday 24 June 2024, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist) invites us to pray:

O Lord Jesus, we pray that the unjust structures of society will be transformed. Give us the courage to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.


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,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

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 Birth of Saint the Baptist (see Luke 1: 57-66) … an icon from the Monastery of Anopolis in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

The Last Supper … an icon in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

An icon of the Mystical Supper or the Last Supper in a shop window in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.