Grateful to have had over 60 years as a missionary priest!
Des Byrne C.S.Sp.
As my 90th birthday fast approaches and as I continue to minister in a parish in West Dublin, I want to share the gratitude that fills my heart for the life that I have lived so far as a Spiritan (Holy Ghost) missionary priest.
From Baltinglass in the shadow of the Wicklow mountains where believing in God and His goodness was as normal as having one’s breakfast, I had my faith well-nurtured both at home and in the community. It was no problem then to believe and to head off to the seminary when the time came. And when, after sixteen years of priesthood, my faith began to waver and I was thinking of other paths, it was with my family and local community that I found that precious gift of faith and vocation once again. And it all happened so simply – while ‘making daisy chains’ in the meadow with my mother and my nieces! My first prayer then is one of gratitude to God and my family for the faith that has sustained me over these years.
It was more by accident than by design that I initially got involved with the Spiritans, where I would receive my education and formation and endless opportunities to exercise my vocation. Great confrères and friends along the way, and peace of mind – and hope – in my end years!
I am most grateful for my years in Nigeria. Soon after arrival there in the 1950s, I was drafted into the seminary to teach Philosophy. Little did we then realize that we were on the verge of fantastic developments or that the Church would blossom all over Nigeria. We were enjoying the fruits of the labours of the early missionaries and catechists! And what a great group of seminarians we had at the time; most went on to give great leadership to the rapidly expanding Church, taking up the cudgels so well after missionaries from Ireland were expelled at the end of the civil war.
Being also involved in school chaplaincy led to an interest in young people’s faith-development. This eventually led a group of us to introduce the Young Christian Student (YCS) Movement to Nigeria. This was my first taste of lay people’s role in our Church – an interest that has coloured my life ever since. I am so grateful for the inspiring young people who emerged, many going on to responsible roles in government or in the UN. It was also through the YCS that I first realized the crucial role of women in our Church, a blessing that continues to inspire.
The Nigerian Bishops decided to set up a national coordinating service in Lagos for the Church in post-independence Nigeria. As part of a group set up to get the project off the ground and led by Bishop Edmond Fitzgibbon, an Irish Kiltegan missionary, I was given great freedom and encouragement in developing new ways of missionary activity especially in the development of the place of lay people in the Church. I was able to meet and work with many inspirational people both Nigerian and foreign. I look back with deep gratitude for those heady years!
Things changed radically with the civil war. I became part of a Church team, under the Nigerian Red Cross, that got involved with relief and support for the people in ‘liberated areas’ of the former Biafra. We also helped to re-establish the Church in areas abandoned early in the war and we welcomed back Spiritans forced to leave when the war began. Again, I am so grateful to have been associated with so many inspiring and generous people, men and women, Spiritan and lay.
Finally, I am so grateful to have lived in the Vatican II Church with all its openness and hope, and for the enduring friendships made throughout my ministry. The song goes on! Thank you, Lord!