Former students of Catholic secondary schools associate the name of Bishop Lyons with debating and public speaking competitions. The Bishop Lyons Shield has long been contested annually by Catholic high schools in the Christchurch Diocese.
But what about the bishop himself? Although an interesting character, it seems little is known of him today. Photographic portraits are of little use in revealing his true nature. Round, horn-rimmed spectacles dominate an enigmatic visage. He appears youthful, and rightly so – he was 41 when appointed bishop.
Bishop Lyons [Photographic Collection #92]
Melbourne-born Patrick Francis Lyons, Bishop of Christchurch from 1944 to 1950, was every bit an Australian. Hand-written reminiscences of him, penned by insider Monsignor Tom Liddy, are stored in the Christchurch Diocesan Archives. They reveal Bishop Lyons as committed but ambitious, a stickler for detail but with a caring attitude towards the troubled and unfortunate, unpopular with some people but comfortable with those who talked straight – the way Australians do!
The bishop used to remark how he loved visiting the West Coast because there he was closest to Australia. He was delighted to pick up some Australian radio stations on The Coast.
Liddy points out that Bishop Lyons longed to return to the land of his birth, even to the extent of lobbying Sydney’s Cardinal Gilroy for a position in his archdiocese.
The cardinal at last relented. He appointed Lyons as one of two auxiliary bishops of Sydney. And so the six-year term as Bishop of Christchurch ended. Not that Wellington’s Archbishop Peter McKeefry or Auckland’s Bishop James Liston would have minded. Liddy claims that Lyons had already “fallen from grace” with these senior New Zealand church figures, and with The Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate to Australasia, Archbishop Paul Marella.
Leaving a Christian Brothers’ high school in Melbourne, the young Lyons studied for the priesthood in seminaries at Springwood and Manly. He must have shown promise because, at the tender age of 20, he was sent to Rome where he completed a Doctor of Divinity degree. He was ordained in Rome in 1927.
Returning to Australia Lyons served in several parishes in Victoria. The talents he demonstrated led to appointments in the late-1930s as Cathedral Administrator, secretary to Archbishop Mannix, Chancellor of the Melbourne Archdiocese and Vicar-General.
If Lyons’ progress thus far was rapid, his next step was more complicated. The death of Bishop Matthew Brodie of Christchurch meant the remaining New Zealand bishops had to select a successor. The bishops chose Monsignor Ormond, but he suffered a breakdown, so his appointment could not proceed. At this point The Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate to Australasia, who was then Archbishop Panico, stepped in. He knew and valued Lyons, who was by then a Monsignor, and recommended him to the Holy Father for appointment as Bishop of Christchurch. Monsignor Lyons was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Mannix on 2nd July, 1944.
Liddy writes that he believed Archbishop Panico was aware that Lyons “was very attached to his own country”. He assured Lyons he would not have to stay long in New Zealand. However, Panico was soon after transferred to Peru. This shift caused Lyons to become “desperate about his return to Australia”. He then began to “make approaches” through Cardinal Gilroy.
The new Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Marella, visited New Zealand shortly after taking up the position. According to Liddy, Marella “made it very clear to Lyons that he was persona-non-grata”. Liddy gives no reason for the antipathy that clearly existed between Lyons and Marella. Whatever the cause of Marella’s dislike for Lyons, a later event may indicate that it lasted as long as Lyons was in New Zealand. As Lyons prepared to leave Christchurch he drew up a list of issues for the incoming bishop, Father Edward Joyce, to address. One item related to a Canterbury student at Holy Cross College seminary in Mosgiel. The college rector had “more than once” recommended this “very talented and completely satisfactory student” for advanced studies in Rome. He urged Lyons to put the case to Marella, as Apostolic Delegate.
The case was duly made – and just as duly dismissed. Marella said no vacancy existed for a New Zealand student in either the 1948-49 or 1950-51 year. However, Lyons subsequently learned a Wellington student was now heading for study in Rome. Lyons admitted his “regret” at this outcome.
The student who missed out was eventually ordained and served in the Christchurch Diocese. Recommended again for study in Rome, he was accepted. He was Father Basil Meeking, later to become Bishop of Christchurch.
Bishop Lyons showed strength of character to persevere in this difficult atmosphere. But the question remains: what sort of man was he? Liddy’s descriptions offer only ambiguity.
“Bishop Lyons was at heart a simple, not over-intelligent but kind person. At a personal level he could be most concerned,” Liddy writes. Then he quotes the view of a well-placed source whom he believed to be Cathedral Administrator Monsignor Frank Finlay.
“I imagine that Bishop Lyons, having lived in the shadow of Archbishop Mannix for so long, tried in his own view to model himself on the Mannix model, a sort of prince bishop, but he had neither the punctuality nor the standing of Mannix,” the unnamed source remarked. Mannix was a towering figure for many years in Australian church and political affairs.
Instances of kindness show a different side to Bishop Lyons. Standing out is his acceptance of the position of legal guardian to a little girl. The background to this case is blurred. Information in the archives shows a married couple in Melbourne had separated. The mother was granted custody of their “infant daughter”. Her ex-husband’s position regarding the child is unstated. The mother, being Catholic, asked Fr Lyons to become her daughter’s guardian, to oversee her education and spiritual development. Lyons agreed and court authorities endorsed the arrangement. But then the girl’s grandparents, claiming the mother was unfit for the responsibilities of parenthood, unlawfully abducted the child and took her with them to live in Auckland.
This presented problems for Lyons, by now Bishop of Christchurch. Anxious to carry out his duties as guardian, he had first to find the child and her grandparents. This was difficult as the grandparents were infrequent churchgoers. However he tracked them down through the help of various priests in Auckland. At Lyons’ urging, Auckland priests made occasional visits to check on the child’s welfare and reported back to Lyons. Their reports show the girl was at last attending Sunday Mass regularly, was doing well at a Catholic school and was a happy child.
Another instance of the bishop’s kindness was a donation of £2000 from his personal funds to the Christchurch Diocese. Such an amount would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today. When Lyons left Christchurch, Bishop Joyce paid back part of his donation, saying he would remit the remainder when possible. However, Lyons insisted the money was a gift and not a loan.
Lyons’ considerable eloquence could not mask his compassion. In a letter to all parishes he calls for generous donations to the Peter’s pence collection as World War II neared its end in 1945, to support Pope Pius XII’s donations of funds to help the rebuild of war-torn Europe.
“And now, with the coming of peace in Europe, the Holy Father in his paternal charity is in the vanguard of those who are trying to restore life and hope in the broken cities, towns and villages of Europe. We in New Zealand, who have so far been lightly touched by the horrors of the war, must surely feel that we should be more generous than ever with our contributions to the Vicar of Christ,” the bishop wrote.
Closer to home, Lyons’ kindness can be sensed in his letters to people who had approached him for help in matters material and spiritual. They received full and considerate replies, showing the bishop to be a caring pastor of his flock. In his letters generally, Lyons wrote in meticulous and elegant English.
To illustrate the extremes he encountered, one man wrote to Lyons seeking contacts in Australia who could arrange importation of an apple coring gadget that he had invented. Another was a lapsed Catholic, now claiming to be atheist, who had a yearning to return to the Church but just couldn’t take the step in faith.
On the other hand, some of Lyons’ letters to his own priests contain acerbic and dogmatic responses to their queries and reports. And yet, his granting of dispensation from abstinence for Boxing Day in 1947, “owing to difficulties that may arise in keeping the law”, surely is a sign of his humanity.
Lyon’s curt manner and sometimes excessive attention to trivial matters did cause resentment among his clergy. This led to approaches being made to the Apostolic Delegate, who sent a senior Australian priest on an Apostolic Visitation to assess the problem. The result was a recommendation that Lyons be shifted from Christchurch.
Liddy writes that Bishop Lyons’ attitude towards the Marist Fathers was “far from cordial”, though he had “a soft spot” for a few who were true gentlemen, direct and honest.
Lyons’ difficulty with the Marists grew from his philosophical opposition to a religious order being allowed to run parishes within the diocese. His lack of cordiality might have extended to the Marists running St Bede’s College. In a departing message to incoming Bishop Joyce, Lyons urged his successor to keep an eye on the primary classes (Years 7and 8) which then ran at the college.
A schools’ inspector from the Department of Education had visited St Bede’s and tabled a damning report on these classes. The inspector added that he would not hesitate to close them down if improvements were not made.
Reading the report, Lyons must have taken a dim view of standards at St Bede’s. Could there have been a glint in his eye at getting this one across those mischievous Marists?
Lyons did not shirk from confrontation. When other priests and bishops hesitated to tackle the publishers and promoters of an attractive two-volume religious book that harshly and erringly criticised the Catholic Church, Lyons relished the opportunity.
The offenders were senior members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Australia. They had used trickery to obtain a positive reference from a highly placed Catholic priest to publicise the book.
Adopting a “leave-it-to-me approach”, Lyons assured his bishop colleagues he would handle the case and leave the culprits feeling most uncomfortable. He summoned the Adventists to his Christchurch office. They came and presented their arguments, which Lyons promptly rejected. There followed a thorough dressing-down from the bishop, with threats of legal action.
Lyons won that battle. Given the animosity that existed between him and some of the other bishops, we may imagine he savoured his success.
How the Adventists must have wilted before Lyons’ presence. His power with words rings out in an article he wrote for publication in the Star-Sun newspaper on 18th March, 1948. In this article the bishop delivers a devastating denunciation of Communism.
The Communist threat was beginning to cast a menacing shadow over much of the Northern Hemisphere, plunging it into the so-called Cold War. Lyons damned the revolutionary movement for its murderous denial of human rights and hostility towards all religion. It is stirring stuff.
Indeed, Lyons’ ability with words may explain in part his impatience with Archbishop McKeefry. He describes how the tedium of a speech by the archbishop put some people to sleep, while others started conversations among themselves.
More profound reasons for the mutual dislike between Lyons and the North Island bishops have proved hard to find, though rumours persist of his distaste for a northern “old-boys club”.
I fancy Lyons, unlike McKeefry, would not have countenanced people talking or sleeping while he was speaking to them. But neither would many people have wanted to tune out from his masterful management of words.
One might conclude that the power of Bishop Lyons’ language shows the aptness of his name being linked with secondary schools’ debating and public speaking contests.
Post-script: On April 5, 1950 +Lyons was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney and on October 11, 1956 he became Coadjutor Bishop of Sale, becoming Bishop of that diocese on June 16, 1957. He died on August 13, 1967
Thank you to the author, Michael Crean
Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Archives References: 2018.19 Papers of Bishop Lyons ; Unaccessioned Photographic collection