Fr Des Byrne: priest and catechist extraordinary

Fr Des Byrne: priest and catechist extraordinary

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

This is the homily given by Bishop Peter Elliott at the Pontifical Requiem Mass for Fr Des Byrne, the remarkable Melbourne parish priest who died early in April.

Desmond Grayem Byrne was born into a strong Catholic family on 11 December 1926. He was educated at Our Lady of Victories' school, Camberwell, and Saint Kevin's College, Toorak, before entering Corpus Christi College, Werribee, in 1945.

He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Daniel Mannix in 1952.

These appointments followed: assistant priest at Healesville, West Brunswick, Geelong North, Ormond, then chaplain to the Repatriation Hospital, Heidelberg.

Finally in 1970 he became parish priest of Oak Park.

His priesthood may be set out in four different ways: his work as a pastor, as a catechist, as a man of prayer and his spiritual ministry to young people.

1. The priest as father and pastor

The record of Father Des Byrne's pastoral work was crowned by those thirty-two years of ministry as the parish priest of Saint Francis de Sales, Oak Park.

Here he soon came to know his flock well. Combining priestly priorities and administrative practicality, Father Des was ably supported by the late Msgr John Murphy, who faithfully assisted him at Oak Park.

He was known for his visitation of the sick and elderly, using skills derived from his experience at the Repatriation Hospital.

Someone recently described Father Des as a "traditionalist". Whatever that might mean, such an appellation does not accurately describe him.

He was firmly committed to the Second Vatican Council, but he always interpreted the Council documents as the popes required, that is, through a "hermeneutic of continuity".

The new church he built in Oak Park not long after he arrived was in line with the Council's liturgical reforms.

Yet he was traditional in the sense of valuing living tradition and passing on the fullness of the faith as taught by the Magisterium of the Church.

His friends, priests and lay faithful, were well aware of his deep concern about orthodoxy, and the word was often on his lips.

But he did not understand orthodoxy in a mechanical way, like getting your sums right. Rather he saw the faith as something we should live each day, always centred on a relationship with Jesus the Christ.

In that perspective he understood fidelity to the teachings of the Church.

In the Gospel of this Mass, it is Martha the practical sister who comes out to meet Jesus Christ when she and Mary were mourning their brother Lazarus.

It is Martha who makes that act of faith in Jesus, "the one who was to come into this world". Fr Des firmly believed in this crucified Lord, the historical Jesus of Nazareth whose physical resurrection we celebrate at Easter.

2. The priest as a catechist

Father Des is remembered here and overseas as a priest who taught the faith. He exemplified the ministry of a priest as catechist, both in his church and by being completely at home in the classrooms of the parish school.

He could break great truths down into simple terms for children and make the faith attractive. However, such were the nature of the times that only three years after arriving in Oak Park he was suddenly embroiled in controversy.

In March 1973 he expressed his views on how religion should be taught from the pulpit and the ovation of the Oak Park congregation was reported in The Advocate.

Looking back in these more tranquil times, we can see more clearly the events that subsequently unfolded as a collision between sincere people with different approaches.

But that painful era cannot be erased from the history of the Church of Melbourne.

Nevertheless, while Father Des was a fearless man, his dialogue with ecclesial authorities was polite and respectful, even when he strongly disagreed with policy and practice.

He was always a gentleman. I can also testify that in these last months of his life he was able to let go of the memories of a contestation now over 30 years past, finding a prayerful peace.

However, Father Des did not lock himself in controversy nor did he let anger or hurt take over.

He only intensified his pastoral commitment to be a better priest catechist, striving to provide something more, not only by preaching and working in the classrooms, but by teaching the faith, for example in a series of challenging evening lectures with intriguing titles such as: The Trinity - (3 into 1 won't go), Easter - did he really rise?, One True Church - what of Ecumenism? and An Infallible Pope - who does he think he is?

In May 1991 Father Des took the further step of extending his catechesis to young people who had left school. He founded the Confraternity of Saint Michael the Archangel.

With a "Church militant" title, this ever-growing youth circle met at Oak Park every Wednesday night. The evening commenced with a rather original and topical meditation on a mystery of the rosary, followed by systematic catechesis and socialising, with Father always available for confessions.

It was all so simple and direct, and that is why it worked. He provided faith formation for over 200 young men and women.

Father Des was deeply devoted to Saint John Paul II and he understood and promoted the key themes of the papal reform program.

He welcomed the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and worked his way through it.

His clear and systematic catechesis extended to apologetics, especially a vigorous critique of fundamentalism, explanations of heresies and how Catholic scholars responded in terms of theology and philosophy.

In his teaching he passionately promoted the pro-life cause and was a generous donor to the pro-life struggle.

All questions the young people raised were treated with respect. To cover technical areas he welcomed expert apologists from the United States, such as Charles Coulombe and Patrick Madrid.

The debate he hosted between Patrick Madrid and a Protestant minister Rev Roland Ward went on for six hours and Mr Ward later commented on the kindness and hospitality he received from Father Des. Not surprisingly he was a major customer of the John XXIII Cooperative book shop.

3. The priest as a man of prayer

We come to the heart of priesthood. The secret of Fr Des' energy as pastor and teacher was prayer. Every day of his life was shaped by prayer.

He was a fine example of the generations of priests formed so well by the Jesuit fathers at Werribee.

On into retirement, even as health declined, he maintained regular daily Mass and his pattern of prayer and meditation. He showed a most reverent and humble approach to the celebration of Holy Mass and Eucharistic adoration and he had a deep personal devotion to Our Lady.

Like Saint John XXIII and Pope Francis, he would say the whole rosary daily.

While I was working in Rome, he invited me to come over to a hotel and meet a group of pilgrims he had just accompanied to Medjugorje.

After I met the pilgrims, one of whom was rather "over the top", I expressed some surprise at his involvement in this pilgrimage.

He smiled and quietly said that, while he was doubtful about the phenomena, he was very happy to accompany and support these good people who prayed and loved Our Lady, adding that during the pilgrimage he heard many confessions.

4. The priest as spiritual pastor of the youth

His priestly spirituality and his care for young people came together in his concern for their souls.

While he formed the minds of young Catholics in sound faith and morals, Father Des knew that this project was of little use without a strong spiritual foundation of prayer and sacramental practice.

The youth retreats at Chestnut Hill were legendary. There are memories of him hearing confessions until 1 am, only to be beaten, to his chagrin, by Msgr Kevin Toomey who heard confessions until 2 am.

Recognising young people's need for the communal and personal experiences of a lived faith, Father Des Byrne was the trailblazer of World Youth Day long before it became fashionable.

Through the confraternity, he organised and accompanied the first Melbourne group to go to Denver, Colorado, in 1993. His fourth World Youth Day pilgrimage was to Toronto in 2002, the year he retired.

After retirement, he continued the ecumenical openness that had characterised his ministry in Oak Park, for example by preaching at the Traditional Anglican Parish of Saint Mary the Virgin in South Caulfield.

With an ever alert mind, he took up studies in bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Independently caring for himself in the well-maintained flat on Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn, Father Des kept up his pastoral interests through supplying in parishes and especially by contact with his young people who were beginning to have an impact on the wider Church.

As they grew older, he saw the members of his confraternity following specific vocations in marriage, priesthood and the religious life, and confraternity families became the core of the Catholic home school movement.

What then shall be his epitaph? Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, was designed by the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren. It is here that we find his famous epitaph, "If you seek his monument, look around you."

Today as I look around this beautiful church, I apply that epitaph to Father Des, but I do not gaze at cold stones; rather I see people.

I see living stones of flesh and blood, men and women who build up and renew the Body of Jesus Christ, who form the living Temple for this Eucharistic Sacrifice we are about to offer for Father Des Byrne.

Brothers and sisters, spiritual sons and daughters of a tireless and faithful priest, you are his epitaph. "If you seek his monument, look around you."

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