Teenagers' priest was a leading light of youth crusade


FR SIMON O'BYRNE:FR SIMON O’Byrne OFM, who has died aged 83, was a leading light of the Catholic Youth Crusade which, in the 1960s, attracted crowds of up to 20,000 to rallies at Knock Shrine.

Known as the “teenagers’ priest”, he was a staunch upholder of traditional Catholic values and stern opponent of the permissive society. His ambitions, as he stated in Who’s Who, were to achieve “the character training of all Irish youth according to Christian principles in a united Ireland” along with the “eradication of all forms of atheism”. In 1971, he said the “war in the six counties is basically a spiritual one . . . it has many unrecorded acts of heroic endeavour to mark it in history”.

Born in Timahoe, Co Laois, in 1928, he was the fourth of 11 children of Richard O’Byrne, a schoolteacher, and his wife Margaret (née Ramsbottom). Educated locally and at Portlaoise CBS, he graduated with an arts degree from University College Galway in 1950. Having entered the Franciscan Order in 1947 after a one-year novitiate, he studied at the Gregorian University, Rome, where he was awarded a doctorate in 1953. He remained in Rome to pursue further studies at the Antonianum University.

Addressing the National Youth Day gathering at Knock in 1963 he said that teenagers should be prepared for emigration so that they would be neither surprised nor overcome by the “technique of modern immorality” they would encounter in England.

In 1969, addressing almost 20,000 young people, he said that “so-called youth clubs that had nothing to offer but tin-can culture, dimmed lights and financial interests” must go. There was an urgent need for a Catholic code of behaviour to be enforced on commercial halls and ballrooms.

That year also, in Limerick, he said only young people could “save the national spirit from dishonourable extinction”. He warned of undue emphasis being placed on entry to the European Community without provisions for retaining the distinct features of nationality.

He subsequently returned to this theme with warnings about the dangers of the secular State.

At Knock in 1970 he accused advocates of the permissive society of promoting, in the name of liberation, “immodest dress, fornication, selfishness, drug-pushing, pornography, excessive eating and drinking, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, criminal assault and wanton destruction”.

He was not entirely satisfied with how the Catholic Church conducted itself. He said that many priests and religious projected such a “strange, gloomy image of the priestly life” that they deterred many people from embracing it.

He also recommended placing more emphasis on service to people rather than on institutions.

In 1982, he warned that the introduction of divorce would be a “corruption of Christianity”. Strongly opposed to abortion, in 1983 he spoke in favour of the pro-life constitutional amendment from the pulpit at City Quay Church, Dublin.

In 1987, he disagreed with calls for greater consultation with diocesan priests in the selection of the Archbishop of Dublin; Irish Catholics should trust Rome to choose their bishops, he stated.

During his ministry, he was attached to the Franciscan Friary, Limerick, and Merchants Quay, Dublin, where he ran the Adam and Eve counselling centre.

He led religious retreats at secondary schools throughout Ireland and accompanied pilgrimages to Lourdes. Involved in promoting vocations to the priesthood, he also worked towards reducing drug and alcohol abuse among young people. He was a member of the Irish Theological Association, International Christian Conference and the World Federation of Catholic Youth.

His publications include Fundamentals of Counselling (1979), Civil Divorce for Catholics: Why Not? (1982) and Living in hope with Our Lady (2000). His interests included theology, philosophy, sociology, poetry, Gaelic football and “everything Irish”.

He enjoyed classical and popular music, gardening and DIY. He is survived by his Franciscan brethren, sister Peggy Gordon-Russell, brothers Fr John Bosco OFM, Brendan, Richard, Pat and Desmond.

Fr Simon (John Gerard) O’Byrne: born August 27th, 1928; died October 3rd, 2011