On the recent Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, there took place the episcopal consecration of a member of one of the Oratories in England (nota bene: strictly speaking, it is incorrect to speak of ‘the English Oratory’, because while the different Oratorian communities in this country are characterised by obvious similarities and connected through healthy ties of friendship, each house maintains its own autonomy, in obedience to the will of our holy father St Philip. For this reason there are as many ‘congregations’ of the Oratory as there are separate houses). The Oratory father in question was Fr Robert Byrne, who now serves as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
In future histories of the Oratories in England, Fr Byrne’s name will appear in the august company of those Oratorian trailblazers Bl. John Henry Newman and Father Faber, whose new foundations have made such a significant contribution to Catholic life in this realm during the last two centuries. At the request of the Archbishop of Birmingham of the day, Fr Byrne arrived in Oxford from the Birmingham Oratory in 1990, and within three years the Oxford Oratory had been established as an independent Congregation at the church of St Aloysius, with Fr Byrne as its first Provost.
To borrow words from Cardinal Baronius’ prayer to St Philip, each new foundation is established with a certain amount of “labour, anxiety and peril”. The prayer and pastoral sensitivity on which the Oxford Oratory was founded have ensured that it has been a well-loved and much-frequented fountain of apostolic activity since its very beginning. To this day the Oratory fathers in Oxford provide an example to us all of the attraction-powers of a Catholic Faith that is lived with generosity and joy, and transmitted in an unfailing spirit of gentleness and kindness.
Here in London the fathers owe a special debt to the vineyard that Fr Byrne’s right hand planted with such abundant blessings from Our Lady and St Philip. A number of the more recently ordained fathers in our own house all received spiritual sustenance at St Aloysius during their university days. Many of the young men and women who frequent our Call to Youth activities arrive in London with a fire of zeal in their hearts which has been fanned, kindled, and often ignited, under the pastoral care of the Oratory fathers in Oxford.
Please pray for the new bishop. Being plucked from the nest is the cruellest torture that can be inflicted on a son of St Philip. Blessed John Henry Newman, who only accepted his Cardinal’s hat on the condition that he would be dispensed from the requirement to live outside the Birmingham Oratory, shuddered at the idea of an Oratorian having to reside for any substantial length of time outside of his congregation, and St Philip’s disciple Fr Baronius almost pined to death after he was created Protonotary Apostolic and then Cardinal and his position in the Papal Court required his residence outside of the Roman Oratory. From an Oratorian point of view, Fr Byrne has made the hardest sacrifice that is possible for any Oratory father to offer for the good of the Church.
This means that we should bombard Heaven with our intercessions for the new bishop, but save our congratulations for the day when, pray God, we all meet merrily in Heaven. As the awe-inspiring event of his consecration approaches, every bishop-to-be must find himself unsettled by those words of St John Chrysostom: “I do not think there are many among bishops who will be saved, but many more that will perish” (Homily III on Acts 1:12). If the account that a priest must render of himself before the Judgment seat is so much more severe than that of a layman, then the standards required from the successors of those Apostles who shed their blood for the Faith must be on another level altogether. Priests need prayers. Bishops need them more.
Shortly before Fr Byrne’s consecration, a Catholic press agent telephoned the London Oratory asking for the Provost’s ‘take’ on recent episcopal appointments. The courtesy and feminine charm in her voice belied an acerbic sense of humour, which was manifested when out of the blue she asked how the author of this Provost’s letter would feel if he were ever asked to be a bishop. He replied that, while the London fathers are unfailingly supportive of their father superior, and very forgiving of his faults, it would be wholly irresponsible of the talent-spotters responsible for scouting likely candidates for the episcopate ever to think of inflicting him on the good priests and people of a diocese, which would soon be plunged into administrative chaos.
The Provost was also able to reassure his interviewer that, in the unlikely event of such a dreadful request ever being made of him, he would most definitely turn it down. This has nothing at all to do with humility. It is because he knows his character lacks the steel of those pioneering Oratorians who have founded great new houses – a steel that must presumably be an essential component in the backbone of any bishop if he is to preach the Gospel in season and out of season in this difficult age and so avoid the flames of hell. Removed from his nido and separated from the companionship of his brethren at the London Oratory, this Provost would be a broken fellow, rendered useless to Church and society, most probably reduced to scratching a living in tabloid journalism. Mercifully, the rate of consecrations of Oratorians to the episcopate in this country is currently no higher than one a century, so the Provost and the Catholic faithful of England and Wales can breathe easy.
Please pray that God will always bless Bishop Byrne in his new apostolate, and especially in his efforts on behalf of the cause for canonization of Bl. John Henry Newman, which he has promised to promote. Pray, every day, for all of our bishops, that God will keep them, save them and inspire them, so that the Faith may always be taught and fanned to a golden blaze in our land. And pray, of course, for the sons of St Philip who serve the Church in the different Oratories of this country. May we always be faithful to the way that the Apostle of Joy has shown us.