Mike and Sue Conway travelled to Oxford to meet with Bishop-Elect Robert Byrne to talk about his new role, his spirituality and the new challenges he faces as a bishop.
We met with Fr Robert at the Oratory in Oxford. A warm and homely man, it is hard not to be struck by his kindness, hospitality, gentleness and goodness. On our arrival he set about making us a much welcomed cup of tea after our 4 hour trek down from Stoke on Trent (a lorry had overturned on the M6 which doubled our journey time to see our new bishop).
We asked him how he heard the news about being made a bishop. There is perhaps a sense or understanding that such momentous news might be in the offing, or he was in the running and knew it was coming. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It clearly came out of the blue; he was not expecting it. He explains, ‘On Sunday March 9 I had just finished lunch and went back to my room for twenty winks before Vespers.’ Just as he was about to lay his head down for his siesta, a text message came in from the Apostolic Nunciature in Wimbledon saying: ‘I am sorry to bother you on a Sunday afternoon but would you please contact the Nunciature immediately.’
Fr Byrne is an advisor to the Bishops’ Conference on ecumenism and he thought the text it might be to do with that. He phoned immediately and the secretary there said: ‘The Nuncio would like to see you, can you come to London tomorrow (March 10).’ He said, ‘I can’t do tomorrow because my parents are visiting from Manchester.’ The secretary said that it was very important and that should he come, so he said that he would be there. He knew then, of course, that something was up!
He travelled by train to London and hopped in a taxi over to Wimbeldon. He was shown into the drawing room and the Nuncio came in and asked him to sit down. He then presented him with a letter which informed him that he had been appointed by Pope Francis to be the new auxiliary bishop of Birmingham. He was stunned and wasn’t sure how to react. He said to the Nuncio, ‘Do you want to know now?’ Reassuringly the Nuncio said, ‘You will make a very good bishop, say yes!’
As a priest he had never said no when asked to do something and never put himself forward or asked for a position. ‘For me this is one of the ways God reveals his will for our lives through our religious superiors and of course the Pope is the ultimate religious superior.’ The Nuncio invited Fr Robert to pray in the chapel, ‘I prayed in the chapel and just thought ‘‘Oh dear, God give me strength’’.’
Fr Robert grew up in a devout and close knit Catholic family in Manchester. His parents handed on the faith to him and his brother and he has wanted to be a priest since he was the tender age of 5. His uncle is a priest of the Salford diocese and Fr Robert was educated at St Bede’s College. Interestingly, the same school that Archbishop Dwyer and Bishop Philip Pargeter, who is to be one of the co-consecrators on the day of his episcopal ordination, went to. He went to King’s College London and studied divinity and after graduation worked for a time as an insurance clerk in Manchester. He entered the Birmingham Oratory a few years later in 1980 and never looked back, attracted by the witness of family, community and fellowship and by the faithful example of many of the priests who lived there.
Fr Byrne’s spiritual life is very much rooted in the vision of the Oratorians which is grounded, in the first instance, in the spirituality of St Philip Neri who first taught a lay spirituality of making saints in their homes. (St Francis de Sales, himself an Oritorian for a time, came along later and ‘organised’ the spirituality, as outlined in his book The Devout Life.) This is very much how Fr Byrne thinks – the call to be holy is for us all whether we be a bishop, priest, deacon or lay person.
Fr Byrne spoke about his new role as a Bishop, ‘I think the first duty of a bishop is to proclaim the gospel and to support the faith of all and especially to be a voice for the poor and those who have no one to speak for them.
‘Another important part of a bishop’s ministry is to ‘care for the carers’. Caring for the clergy and being a spiritual father to them is a great privilege and one which I intend to take seriously. Of course, a bishop is a father to everyone but in a special way for the priests and deacons. Every priest needs to feel he has a friend in the bishop and that is the kind of bishop I want to be – I want to help them and encourage them in their vocation.
‘My motto will be Soli Deo, (God Alone) because it is God and our relationship with him that is at the heart of any Christian vocation. In the end only God matters and this simple fact is at the heart of the New Evangelization. Christ can and does change our lives and God’s people are called to share this life-giving and liberating faith with all.
‘What I learned from my ecumencial work is an ability to listen and respect the views of those who have a different outlook. It also helped me to see the lively and deeply personal faith of other Christians. Their often deep personal conviction of Jesus as their personal saviour is something from which Catholics can learn.’
I end the interview by asking Fr Byrne what he would want readers of Catholic Today to do for him. He responded, ‘Please pray for me and support me, as I will pray and support you. I have a real sense of being entrusted with a great responsibility to serve God’s people as a bishop and I promise to give myself wholeheartedly and completely to this wonderful diocese and to work with all my strength to build up God’s kingdom.’