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What now is the future for the English episcopate? Just when things weren’t looking too hopeful, we get another Ratzingerian appointment. What’s going on?

Is Fr Robert Byrne’s appointment a sign of things to come? How many more orthodox bishops can we now expect?

By on Thursday, 20 March 2014

New Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham Fr Robert Byrne (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

New Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham Fr Robert Byrne (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

What exactly are the prospects for the English Church following our new cardinal’s appointment to the Congregation for Bishops? Rumours have been circulating that Archbishop Mennini, the papal nuncio, is despondent about the possibility of continuing with the Ratzingerian transformation of the English episcopate begun in Shrewsbury and Portsmouth, after Cardinal Nichols, in one of his first contributions to the deliberations of the congregation, made it quite clear that one particular orthodox candidate for the English episcopate (strongly supported by such as Cardinal Pell) would, if appointed, be someone with whom he couldn’t work: after that, coming from the head of the English Church, it wasn’t possible for the other members to vote for him, so he wasn’t appointed after all.

So, things weren’t — apparently — looking good. But now, an episcopal appointment has been announced which may indicate that maybe everything is going to be all right after all: Fr Robert Byrne, founder and first provost of the Oxford Oratory, is to serve as an auxiliary bishop in Birmingham. He will succeed the Birmingham auxilary Bishop Philip Pargeter. This is an important appointment: he will be responsible for most of Birmingham itself (Cathedral, North, South and East), Kidderminster and Worcester (he loves Elgar, and told me he is pleased that his beat will include the Malvern Hills). He will be ordained bishop on Tuesday May 13 at St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, and I shall certainly, God willing, be there.

He was provost of the Oxford Oratory for nearly 20 years, during which the congregation of the Oratory parish of St Aloysius Gonzaga grew from around 200 to around 800, many of them young (at the 11am Latin High Mass, during the Oxford term you need to be there early to be sure of a seat).

To return to what I was saying about the rumours of the cardinal’s vetoing of at least one orthodox episcopal candidate: it is very interesting and even reassuring that the cardinal (who knows Fr Robert very well indeed from his time in Birmingham) didn’t veto him. Now, I know Fr Robert, too, and have done since his early days in Oxford (the days when I myself was freshly received into the Church): and I can assure my readers that he is every bit as kosher as Bishop Davies or Bishop Egan. Do not be put off by the fact that he has for the last few years been something called the national ecumenical officer for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He has been serving his time: this is no ecumaniac. As provost, he installed the usus antiquior at the Oratory as one of the Sunday Masses the minute it was possible to do so (that means that of the four Sunday Masses, one on Saturday evening) half are in Latin; and there is a Mass from the 1962 Missal on all major feast days. He installed a brand of traditionalist Catholicism at St Aloysius which has proved exceptionally attractive to young people. The solemn high Mass on Sunday morning is notable for the number of young families who attend it (you’d think they’d go to the 9.30 family Mass he carefully preserved from the old dispensation, so that everyone would be catered for, but you tend to find more old people at that one).

He seems to me to personify what the Church ought to be far more than it is. He is a builder; he is not in the business of managing decline (as so many of the bishops seems to think it is their business to be). During his time as its provost, the Oratory became a conversion centre, where preparation for reception into the Church has been painstaking and individual (no RCIA here). Vocations to the community have grown. Congregations have grown. The dynamic of all this led in 2010 to the publication of ambitious building plans, made inevitable by the success of the community and parish as what can only be described as a dynamic missionary venture: the campaign to raise the £5 million necessary is called a reaffirmation and renewal campaign, and that really is what it’s all about. The community itself has all lived until now in the parish house, which is one of those enormous Victorian presbyteries with plenty of bedrooms for its many assistant clergy. During the last century the assistant clergy disappeared, and the house emptied. But it is now full again, too full: the building plans include another five study bedrooms, since this community is growing, not declining. They also include a new chapel dedicated to Blessed John Henry Newman, a new baptistery, a cortile linking the chapel and church to the parish centre and, above that, the new library which will house a unique collection of books from Chesterton’s library and an extensive Newman collection.

You might think from all this that Fr Robert is one of those noisy, charismatic types, rather glamorous and showily attractive. But actually he’s very quiet and unassuming, very confident and relaxed in his own faith, but with the gift of appreciating people as they are. This makes him immensely approachable. It also makes him the perfect head of a community. What is remarkable about the Oxford Oratory is the extraordinary variety of gifts and personalities its clergy variously embody, and the happy way in which all their different abilities and personal talents have been understood and made part of the whole. But they have had to fit in; over the years a small handful of prospective Oratorians have been gently eased out when they have proved potentially disruptive. Other communities have failed to do this, with unhappy results.

What you don’t really think about when you talk to Fr Robert is just how much over the years he has actually done and achieved. He just quietly got on with it, and somehow it happened. He’s not a great talker: he just does things, or encourages others to do them. He reminds me of Chaucer’s parish priest: “first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte”. And what he has wrought is an essentially Eucharistic community of priests and people. The liturgy and the continuing sacramental presence of Christ are the fons et origo of everything: the altar and the monstrance are what everything else is built on.

He is leaving it all in good hands. That is perhaps his greatest gift: of making himself dispensable, having inspired others to do and be what has to be done and lived out. In the horrible modern jargon it’s called being an “enabler”. He will be just the kind of bishop the Church needs. But how many more such will there be now?