Recalling Father Thomas Byles, 'priest and martyr' during new Titanic crisis

On Sunday, April 14th, 1912, Father Thomas Byles celebrated Mass aboard the Titanic, just four days into its historic maiden voyage. It was "Low Sunday," the first Sunday after Easter, and the priest was heading to New York to officiate at the wedding of his brother, William. Those who were on board recalled how 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.

As though he was the captain himself, Father Byles remained on the ship to hear confessions and offer prayers. Twice, he was offered a seat on a lifeboat, but he refused as people gathered around him for blessings and general absolution. He even went below deck, into third class, where the servants and working class people were traveling, many of whom were Catholic.

There, he heard confessions and led those passengers who were doomed to go down with the ship in reciting the Rosary. Survivors who made it out on the lifeboats later said they could hear his voice calling out the prayers, and those left behind answered in a variety of languages. 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 1,500 people perished in the tragedy, and one of them was Father Byles. His body was never recovered.

Days later, in Brooklyn, William Byles and his fiancee went ahead with their wedding, a low Mass presided over by a different 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. The pontiff told William his brother was a martyr for the faith.

While the pope recognized Father Byles as a martyr, it was not until 2015 that a movement would emerge to have Father Byles declared a saint. It was led by Father Graham Smith, who was the pastor of St. Helen's Church at the time, the same parish which Father Byles once served. Father Smith said of Father Byles' heroic sacrifice, "He's an extraordinary man who gave his life for others. We need, in very old parlance, to raise him to the altar, which means that the Vatican will recognize him as a martyr of the Church. We are hoping and praying that he will be recognized as one of the saints within our canon."

While Father Byles' cause for sainthood remains open, it has not advanced very far. There have yet to be any miracles attributed to the Titanic's priest, but he is remembered for his selflessness in the most dire of circumstances.

As the doomed ship Titanic is again in the headlines, we have a chance to recall Father Thomas Byles, who sacrificed his own life in order to remain behind with those doomed to die in the cold waters of the Atlantic, and to invoke his intercession for all those in danger while at sea.


- Deacon Greg Kandra is an award-winning author and journalist, and creator of the blog, "The Deacon's Bench."