Reboot: A revised homily for April 15, 2012, 2nd Sunday of Easter

You never know how the Holy Spirit will work.  After posting this weekend’s homily, I got a number of comments from people who said that the man I’d used as a springboard for a reflection on conversion and mercy had, in fact, renounced his conversion.  (I couldn’t find any evidence of this from Googling, but it sounded credible.)  Shortly after that, I stumbled on this stirring account of one of the priests on the Titanic.  Deeply moved, I wondered if there was a way to tie it in to this Sunday’s scripture.  The result — a revised version of this week’s homily — is below.  I wrote it Saturday afternoon and delivered it Saturday night.  I also recorded it.  Click the green arrow below for the audio.  Dcn. G.

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Every year on the Sunday after Easter, the greatest celebration of faith, we encounter the gospel’s greatest story of doubt:  the story of Thomas, who demands proof before he will believe.

We live in an age when there are many Thomases – doubters and disbelievers. Some end up in search of answers, and it can change their lives in profound ways.  This is the story of one of them.

His name was Roussel Byles.    He was born in England in 1870, and grew up the son of a Congregationalist minister.  Roussel went on to Oxford, where he studied mathematics, history and theology.  While at Oxford, he converted to the Church of England.  He was thinking of becoming an Anglican priest – but continued to question and seek answers that the Anglican faith could not answer.

During this time, his older brother William decided to convert to Catholicism.   Not long after, despite desperate pleadings from his mother, Roussel himself joined the Catholic Church.  He took at his baptism the name of the most famous doubter in history, Thomas.

In time Thomas Byles felt himself called to the priesthood.  He studied in Rome, and was ordained in 1902.

His brother William, meantime, moved to New York to run a business.  There, William fell in love with a young woman from Brooklyn.  He invited his priest brother, now Father Thomas Byles, to preside at the wedding, at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn.  Father Byles happily accepted.  His family arranged for him to travel to America in April of 1912, just a few days after Easter.

He was booked on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Exactly 100 years ago, Sunday, April 14th, 1912, Fr. Byles celebrated Mass.  It was “Low Sunday” for the first Sunday after Easter.  He read the exact same readings we just heard, and those who were on board said he preached a homily about using prayer as your life vest, and the sacraments to save your soul in a spiritual shipwreck.

That night, he was walking the upper deck, wearing his topcoat, and praying his breviary, when the Titanic struck that fateful iceberg.

Fr. Byles remained on the ship, hearing confessions, offering prayers.  Twice, he was offered a seat on a lifeboat and he refused.  People gathered around him and he blessed them and gave general absolution.  He went into third class, where the servants and working class people were staying.  Many were Catholic.  He heard confessions and offered blessings.  He led those on board in reciting the rosary.  People on the lifeboats later said they could hear his voice calling out the prayers, and people of every language answering back.  Loudest of all, they could hear the desperate pleas: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and the hour of our death, Amen…”

Shortly after 2 a.m., the ship slipped into the Atlantic and disappeared.  Some 1500 people perished.  One of them was Father Byles.  His body was never recovered.

In Brooklyn, William Byles and his fiancée went ahead with their wedding, a low Mass presided over by another priest, a friend of the bride.  After the ceremony, they changed into clothes for mourning, and returned to the same church for a requiem Mass.

A year later, William and his wife traveled to Rome and were granted a private audience with Pope Pius X, who had heard the story of Father Byles.  He told William his brother was a martyr for the faith.

This Sunday, as we hear again the story of a Thomas who doubted, remember this story of a Thomas who sought and believed.

And remember this: God never gives up on those who earnestly seek Him.

In the gospel, after the apostle Thomas adamantly, even angrily, expressed his doubt, Christ didn’t dismiss him.  He didn’t write him off.

Christ came back.

He gave Thomas another chance, and offered him the gift of faith – and Thomas, overwhelmed and awed, accepted.

When we least expect it, Christ will break through locked doors of the human heart. He will find us, in our fear and uncertainty.  He understands our misgivings, our hurts, our weaknesses.  He knows only too well the human condition.  As the apostle Thomas discovered: he has the wounds to show for it.

And he wants to give us another opportunity.

That, too, is part of the message of this weekend.  This is a time for seizing second chances.

This Sunday, we mark Divine Mercy Sunday, when we embrace the power and beauty of God’s forgiveness – when we strive, more than ever, to let Him break through the locked doors of our hearts.

It is a time for fulfilling the promise of the Resurrection, the glorious hope of Easter.

Christ has left the tomb.

If we choose to, so can we.

We can step out of the tomb of selfishness and sin.  We can feel the healing light of God’s care. We can take that second chance.

God’s mercy, Divine Mercy, assures it.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation enables it.

We can be made new.

Fr. Thomas Byles spent the last hours of his life making that possible for hundreds of people during one of the darkest tragedies of the last century.  On a cold and terrifying night, he remained first and foremost a priest, offering to those who needed it the light of Christ.

It is a light offered to all of us.

As we gather around the table of the Lord, and prepare to receive Him in the Eucharist, pray to let that light into our hearts.  Let us welcome Jesus into our own locked upper room, and ask him to break through all the barriers that might be keeping Him out of our lives, so that we might say, with the apostle who doubted yet came to believe:

“My Lord and my God.”

Thank you, St. Petersburg!
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  1. naturgesetz says:

    Magnificent homily.

  2. Mark Greta says:

    Deacon, I have a deep love of Mercy Sunday given to me by Pope John Paul II the great. Every year marks an anniversary of his death in 2005 on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday and of his beatification on that same Mercy Sunday. Our sermon at our mass this Saturday was around John Paul II and Sister Faustina their gift to the Church of Divine Mercy Sunday.

    Reading your homily was another gift of a way to bring that mercy home. I am so blessed to be part of such a wonderful faith. This past evening, I spent time reading the writings of Mother Theresa and of her love for St Therese of Liseux. I will add Father Byles to my list of those I remember for his courage and love of others. We Catholics need to tell our wonderful story more completely and more often in today’s world. Too many of us do not know or have forgotten our gift.

  3. Liz Perri says:

    So funny, I just went to a Titanic themed dance last night. So appropriate for the Anniversary.

  4. I absolutely loved your homily!

  5. Thank you for sharing this story. A convert to Catholicism, Father Byles has an amazing story. His story is what inspired a young, Catholic brother and sister team to create Titanic Heroes. Cady (14) and Benjamin (12) Crosby have created an organization dedicated to spreading the true legacy of the RMS Titanic “women and children first.” Cady has written a children’s book on Father Byles and his amazing story. Check them out at or visit them on Facebook.

  6. A moving homily, indeed. I’ve often said my Dad was the greatest preacher I’ve ever heard–I’m one of the kids of the Pastoral Provision–but this is up there. Dad died almost two months ago. I miss him more than I can say.
    But this jumped out at me for another reason. “My Lord and my God.” My Mom always said this, when the Sacrament was raised over the Celebrant’s head at Mass. I never put it together until now. What did she struggle with? What would a priest’s wife have to bear that would allow doubt or fear to creep in? I wish I had known to ask. She doesn’t know me any more, dementia has stolen her from me. But I take comfort in our Lord’s loving Wisdom. And this wonderful homily.

  7. Regina Faighes says:

    This homily gave me goose bumps! It is your best one ever!!! God bless you, Deacon Greg. And thank you for your wonderful homilies!

  8. Deacon Greg — I have always been fascinated by the Titanic’s stories and always amazed there are still ones I don’t know about. (It’s one of the reasons why I still refuse to see the current movie version — the REAL stories are so much more profound than made-up ones).

    Thank you for putting it altogether with your perspective on Father Byles’ story — a priest doing what a shepherd is supposed to do when the wolves approach — be the gate of safety for the sheep. One always hopes that a Christian would be ‘up to the task’ of wherever and whatever is asked of us. I love it that he was reading his breviary when the ship struck the iceberg. Matins is the first prayer after the midnight hour (although I usually don’t get around to it until after 6am). A history note: I only have the 1962 Roman/English Breviary, but perhaps the readings were the same — in which the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles is told the questions of the believers to Jesus Post-Resurrection: They therefore who had come together began to ask Him, saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” But He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me to Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth.”
    As I read your homily today, I couldn’t help but wonder if these words resonated deeply with Father Blyes as he was — even to the end — able to be a witness to our Lord –surrounded by those from many nations.

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