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

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

May 10, 2012


The NY Times recently ran an opinion piece "The Flight of Conversation", decrying the substitution of electrical and digital impulses instead of the human voice from a human face. It made me think: What were some of the noteworthy conversations in which I participated?
1. With Jim Colbert, Iona Prep '38 classmate: On an autumn day in one of our high school years, we listened to long playing 33 records, discussed G.K.Chesterton, Graham Greene, Romano Guardini. Chesterton's poem about Don Juan of Austria stirred up our interest with its martial atmosphere and the satisfaction we felt at the turning back of the Muslims. This turned our attention to how North Africa, Constantinople, and Spain were conquered by Muslim armies.

We, enthusiastic Catholic young men, were humbled by Greene's depiction of the "whisky priest" in his "The Power and the Glory". We then discussed other portrayals of the conflict between good and evil. From "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoyevsky, I brought up the scene where one brother says, "How awful the man who begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends up with the ideal of Sodom". The other brother responds, "Even more terrible is the man who ends up with the ideal of Sodom, while still in his heart is the ideal of the Madonna, strong and vibrant”. The conversation was lively and coherent.

For later in life, the conversations I had with Jim Colbert, MD over the years furnished food for thought and more words, perhaps with modifications and additions.

2. With Ms. Ilah McDermott, elderly, yes, elderly, parishioner of St. Thomas More parish, in whose parish house I was in residence for my twenty years as an official in the Archdiocesan Chancery. Ilah, a devout Catholic, lived around the corner from the church with her mother and daughter. She was the proprietress of Wakefield Young Books, on the gold coast of Madison Avenue in the East 60s. Early in life, she had run a book shop on a Cunard ocean liner. At a stop-over in Tel Aviv, she fell in love with a British Marine captain. They married and lived happily for a while. Then he contracted tuberculosis and turned bitter against life, Ilah, and God. Despite all that, Ilah had a fund of happy stories and was a stimulus to listeners to respond in kind.

In her travels, Ilah had met one Meg Campbell, a Methodist, who decided to become a Catholic. Ilah turned her over to me. After instructions, I received her into our Church. This was convenient as she was in New York on vacation from her home on the Isle of Canna in the Inner Hebrides, off the West Coast of Scotland.

I was their guest on Canna on two occasions. Meg’s husband, John Campbell, the Laird of Canna, was a Catholic and knowledgeable about the history of the Hebrides. Meg was an expert on the flora and fauna of the islands. On a visit, I had discovered, in the mansion’s library, a diary of Father Allan McDonald, pastor of the nearby Isle of Eriskay (Check him out in Google). From the diary, I passed on stories to Ilah and Meg, (the Laird knew them all) of sick calls across turbulent seas, taking a devastated widower back to the rectory on Eriskay, and Father Allan’s organizing the fishermen and pressuring the English government to build a breakwater, providing a safe harbor for the fishermen.

One of the best stories: Father Allan bringing Holy Communion to a pair of elderly sisters. Fog and pelting rain were inappropriate accompaniments to the coming of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. On arrival at the sisters’ cottage, Father Allan saw that their cow had been brought into the parlor to protect it from the storm. It appeared to be sick. After Holy Communion, one of the ladies offered a cup of tea to Father Allan. “Would you like some milk for your tea?” The diary reads: “I looked at the sick cow and said, ‘No. I’ll have it plain’”. Nights of conversations at Canna linger long in memory.

3. A classic non-conversation: As a graduate student at Catholic University, I was crossing the campus one evening in the late forties and fell in step with Monsignor Joe Fenton. F “What are you reading these days?” HB “Theological Studies, an article by John Courtney Murray, SJ.” F “Oh, that stuff. Right on the edge of heresy.” HB “Murray is very much aware of the old Catholic view that the Church should dominate the state, where possible. But that just doesn’t work in a democracy like ours.” F “Who says so? And if you are serious and reject that centuries old tradition, well, you’re a heretic yourself.” HB “Good evening, Doctor Fenton. Sorry we did not have time for a conversation.” There had been no conversation. Two decades later in Vatican Council Two, Doctor Fenton and Cardinal Ottaviani. Both opposed most of the advances made by the Council. John Courtney Murray, SJ, initially barred from the Council, was chosen by Cardinal Spellman to be his theological advisor. Murray was the architect of the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. He was a significant figure in persuading the Council Fathers to adopt this Declaration. His conversation proved fruitful.

I have been intrigued by searching through my memory and finding speeches and personalities that have remained in place over the years. I shall try to continue this chain of memories in future blog posts. What makes a conversation memorable? What turns words into a conversation?