Father Des Byrne was a down to earth man so dedicated to his Catholic priesthood that his enthusiasm in preaching the Gospel overflowed into his presentation at our 1996 Eucharistic Convention in a very special way. It would be fair to say that everybody who heard him speak was grateful they made the effort to come along and hear him.
Unfortunately we don’t have a recording of his talk that day but the following article reporting on the celebration of his 60th anniversary of priesthood gives some insight into the special character of the man.
ON SUNDAY 29 July 2012, retired parish priest of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Fr Des Byrne, celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving for his 60 years in the Catholic priesthood, at St Mary Star of the Sea Church, West Melbourne. Fr Byrne was ordained a priest in 1952, by former archbishop of Melbourne Dr Daniel Mannix.
During his homily to a packed congregation, Fr Byrne lamented the fact that some priests in the Church neglect confession and the proper teaching of the Catholic faith, and urged the people to be well informed about these priceless treasures.
Fr Byrne was the parish priest of St Francis De Sales in Oak Park for 33 years, (until his retirement in 2002) and was renowned for his apostolic zeal. In May 1991, he founded the Confraternity of St Michael in the parish, which was attended by hundreds of youths from all over Victoria. Its purpose was to give accurate information about Catholic teaching, which Fr Byrne believed had not been properly transmitted, in the Catholic school system at this time.
Many confraternity members came to join Fr Byrne on this occasion. He claims he married over a hundred couples that came through the group, and that baptisms emanating from them were in the thousands! In addition to this, there were a number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life as well. At this particular time, the Confraternity was one of the few Catholic youth groups in Melbourne, not organized on ethnic lines.
In his homily, Fr Byrne drew a catechesis around Chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel, and decried the lack of belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist. He mentioned how many years ago a 5 year old boy who he had baptized, had asked him permission to receive the Holy Eucharist. After realizing that he could tell the difference between this and ordinary bread, Fr Byrne allowed the child to come to Holy Communion. He said from that day on until now, that once 5 year old boy, now a man married with children, has attended Mass every day, and asked the congregation to draw inspiration from this, in loving the Eucharist.
Fr Byrne was the first person in Melbourne to ever organize a pilgrimage to World Youth Day, taking a large group from the Confraternity to Denver, Colorado in the USA, in 1993. This was before the archdiocese itself started taking groups to the Catholic “Olympic Games”. Since that time Fr Byrne accompanied groups to Paris in 1997, to Rome in the Jubilee Year 2000, and to Toronto in 2002. After this time, Fr Byrne had certainly set the record for the priest in Victoria who has attended the most World Youth Days. During the Jubilee Year, the then Archbishop George Pell made a rule for the priests accompanying the pilgrimage (which was particularly large that year), “When a priest is invited to give a sermon, the timing of the homily is to be restricted. Fr Des Byrne goes for his life!” which underscores the reputation he has had for some time, for delivering inspiring homilies.
At St Mary’s, Fr Byrne encouraged the laity there, not to be slack in regard to appreciating the value of the teachings of the Church, and said that everyone should have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He said that when it came out, he was told this was only to be for bishops, and reminded them of what is said in the introduction that it is addressed to all the faithful. Fr Byrne said just by using a search term like contraception of eucharist, one could find the unequivocal Catholic position. In addition to this, he talked about the essentials of frequent confession and communion, and devotion to Our Lady.
It seemed the 85 year old priest, had lost none of the momentum that drove him in previous decades, to proclaim the Catholic faith boldly. Afterwards, many of his friends joined him in the crypt of St Mary’s, for a cup of tea, included parishioners from Oak Park, members of the Confraternity of St Michael, as well as admirers, who loved his fearless presentations of Catholicism.
Thank God for a life lived serving Him, so faithfully. There was no doubt among those who attended, that slower as he might now be, his interest in Catholic subjects has not in any way diminished.