Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

March 18, 2011


February 7 was a milestone birthday - ninety years of age! I give thanks to the Almighty God for these lively years of life in a world of some dark clouds but an abundance of sparkling stars. I give thanks for sixty-five years as a priest of New York. It has been a fascinating journey with a multitude of enriching relationships, beginning with Harry Theodore Byrne and Marie Whelen. Dad is remembered for his buck and wing dance, his songs from Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore", and from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", "I had as lief not live, as live to be in awe of such a thing as I myself." There was on the daily breakfast table, a box of corn flakes with a graphic of a slender woman, labeled "The Sweetheart of the Corn". I took it as an icon of my mother.

Brothers Bill and Jeb followed me at two years intervals, and then Mary, five years later. She was born in St. Elizabth's Hospital. On a visit to see the new family member, I recall, seeing out the window, the George Washington Bridge, then in construction. It was 1930. Mary died in 2003 in Calvary Hospital. By her side then, I could see out the window the Throgg's Neck Bridge. Bridges as metaphors at the beginning and the end of her life!

Great experiences at Murray Avenue School and Mamaroneck Junior High School and then at Iona Prep, lunchtime visits to the Blessed Sacrament. As altar boy at St. Augustine's, the tulip tree outside the sacristy window is a fragrent memory. So, too, sacristan Sister Jean Imelda! As a boy, I delighted in the high Masses, afloat in incense smoke, and the funeral Masses, three priests in solemn paces. Dignity, solemnity, reverence, then the jaw-dropping "Dies irae" with its soaring "tuba mirens spargens sonem per sepuchra regionem". And as the body is led down the aisle, "In paradisum deducant te angeli". Monday evenings with the Miraculous Medal devotion, its incense smoke, the "Tantum ergo sacramentum" and the direct sense of adoration were compelling, indeed. The only dark clouds in these early years relate to the Sacrament of Penance. Our parish priests were exemplary. Their example led me to this vocation. But they and most confessors in those early years were not helpful to boys as they experienced puberty. Ordinary experiences of a boy's developing sexuality incurred a sense of sin towards what was thoroughly natural. Confessors with a Jansenistic fear of sex reinforced that sense of sin by giving absolution and failing to point out the lack of any sinful quality in these normal functions. Silly advice was sometimes given. "Take cold showers; read spiritual books." Hey, padre,that don't work.

During the years of Cathedral College and St. Joseph's Seminary, we lived in a context of Catholic intellectual coherence. We heard Fulton Sheen's Catholic Hour on Sunday radio. In our reading we encountered G.K. Chesterton, Martin Cyril D'Arcy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Courtney Murray, and an array of French intellectuals: Jacques Maritan,Francois Mauriac, and Leon Bloy. Seminary experience was fruitful as to theology and liturgy. The strong statues of Peter and Paul in the chapel delivered a message, that was unforgivably lost when the statutes were taken away and a Madame Tausad's-like wax-work images were installed and the colorful scenes within the apse were painted over with blank white, yes, blank white.

First indications of leadership failure came to us seminarians from the performance of two professors,one sadly incompetent, the other, I believe, certifiably afflicted with a personality disorder. Complete failure on the part of leadership was evident in the lack of evaluation, no effort to seek student reaction, and no professional decision-making to explore reasons for terminating them. Aside from these two, our seminary professors were splendid.

Twenty years service in the NY Chancery followed three years of graduate study in Canon Law at Catholic University. Each of these chapters would require too much computer ink and blog space, as also would my years as pastor at St. Joseph's, E. 87th St. and Epiphany at E. 22nd St. On retirement at 75 in 1996, I served as Weekend Associate at St. Ann's, Ossining, a remarkably happy tour with a great congregation and pastor.

Now, in retirement, I have been working as a canon lawyer with priests accused of sexual abuse of minors. My earlier happier vision of our Church has become highly critical. My last post (February 28) described the unjust dismissal of an extern priest from ministry by a bishop, who also defamed him. And no appeal! This case, other examples, and a wide knowledge of the sex abuse crisis has lead to my views as to the causes of the crisis and the reforms of church structure that are needed. In my next blog post, I shall attempt to describe these.