The Little Saint of Georgetown Prep
2004, Revised November 5, 2011
He was smaller than his 15-year-old students, yet the first sight of this little old Jesuit inspired more fear in underclassmen (and even other teachers when they first met him) than any tough-guy yeller on a faculty could.
Slight and frail-looking Rev. James A.P. Byrne’s deadpan scowl and sudden, silent and creepy way of appearing gave newcomers the impression that he placed little value on human life and possessed unimaginable powers of destruction that he could unleashed on misbehaving or non-performing students. All the old fellow would probably have to do, one thought, was point, nod his head and a boy who was vexing him would be annihilated.
As a freshman, I hoped that I would never be in any of that mean-looking guy’s classes. When the sophomore schedule issued in September indicated that I was indeed assigned to Byrne’s Second-Year Latin, my heart sank. I credited the Neal Conway luck (which had manifested its pattern even in my childhood) and resigned myself to dying young.
For the first month or so, as he took us into ever-more irregular verbs and toward the bewildering (for me) metric verse, Fr. Byrne continued to give the impression that he was a cold-blooded killer. Then one day, he, with wagging finger, gave us a little advice, “Be prepared. Be prepared. That’s the way to be! You can’t go wrong as you go along if you are prepared.”
Ah! A killer with a sense of humor! Great!
You can tell where I’m going with this. Fr. Byrne wasn’t a killer at all. He was the sweetest, kindest saint with a lowercase “s” if not a capital “S.” Never as a sophomore in 1977 did I imagine that he would, twenty years later, unexpectedly appear to concelebrate my father's funeral Mass.
Second-Year Latin was no fun. Any knowledge with which I came away from it had "made a bloody entrance" to use Father Byrne's expression. But I also had him for Junior English, by which time classmates and I who had once feared him were doing imitations of his mannerisms.
He would have none of the typical 1970s high-school literature fare. In other classes, we did read 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New Word and Lord of the Flies (but A Separate Peace instead of Catcher in the Rye). Fr. Byrne, however, introduced us to authors such as H.L. Mencken, who was just made for cynical 16-year-olds. He assigned each student an obscure book to read and report to the class on. Mine was Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey.
During that year of Junior English Fr.'s mother died at age 104. Oftentimes he struggled to conduct class with a strain in his voice and tears offstage in his eyes. Occasionally a certain passage that he read aloud would also bring him close to weeping. This was a man who was as far from a scourge as you could get.
The boys who boarded at the school knew the truth before the dayhops did. It was Fr. Byrne, graduate of Harvard at age 19, holder of several degrees in Classics and Literature, who tended them when they were sick, made them hot chocolate and handed out the letters from home. The ratty old jacket that he wore was the one in which he did manual labor as a Jesuit novice.
Unlike some contemporary priests who skirt poverty, humility and even chastity, Fr. Byrne never thought he was too good for the corporal works that being in persona Christi entails.