Remembering Mgr William Steele

Fr Billy Steele was a key Roman Catholic figure in English ecumenism from the 1980s onwards.

We give thanks for the life and service of Mgr William Steele who died on 3 August 2022.

For sixty years it was the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 which inspired the ministry of a priest who came to be known almost universally as Fr Billy Steele. Promoting church unity was a key theme throughout Fr Billy’s life.

From Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Most Rev Bernard Longley

Mgr Steele’s contribution at national and international level to the unity of the Church bore abiding fruit and those of us who had the joy of working with him on the National Committee for Christian Unity will remember his wise insights and his great ability at building ecumenical friendships which have continued to serve the Church in England and Wales.  His contribution to the work of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) is remembered by colleagues past and present with affection and immense gratitude.

From Clive Barrett, West Yorkshire County Ecumenical Officer, 2007-2016

Quite simply, Mgr William Steele was the best priest I have ever known – and that is from an Anglican. Although I briefly came across him in Wakefield in the 1980s, our relationship took off when, as West Yorkshire County Ecumenical Officer, I moved to Hinsley Hall, where Billy was based, in 2007.

Although by then retired, he had responsibility for the early morning Mass for staff, in the Hinsley Hall chapel. Usually he would preside, though some days he stood aside to give the altar to other retired priests.

In that context, his ecumenical past was not immediately to the fore. He was simply but profoundly priest to a small community, presiding at the daily Mass, feeding his people with word and sacrament. As well as his warm welcome, he conveyed the fundamental significance of both Eucharist and Scripture. He was always thoroughly prepared, intertwining the Old Testament lection with the call to repentance, every day delivering a beautifully wise and well-prepared homily on the Gospel, even when only two or three people were there to hear him. It was an immense privilege to sit at his feet and absorb his wisdom, his sharp intellect, his spirituality; a wonderful way to start the working day. He was a huge influence on my own Anglican priestly ministry. In many inadequate ways I have tried to emulate his model of presiding, often thinking, “How would Billy do this?” His ministry was the rock on which I tried to build my own.

His longing for unity came from confidence in his own faith, a secure faith that could reach out, hands outstretched, without fear or insecurity. Accordingly, he had a broad understanding of Christian experience and traditions, not confined to his own Church. He welcomed me into that chapel congregation, invited me to read the lesson, often, indeed, to give the homily, he prayed for unity, but there was never any suggestion that I might inappropriately receive the sacrament – instead, I always valued receiving the Lord’s blessing through his hands, with the daily reminder for both of us that there was still reconciling work to be done.

A humble man, he only occasionally let slip how significant a role he himself had played in that ecumenical work of reconciliation. The formation of Churches Together? He was there. Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission? Billy was there. He claimed to have been overawed by high-powered theologians, but he was part of the process by merit, intellectually and spiritually.

Mgr. William Steele will rightly be remembered for his major contribution to the ecumenical movement in this country, for being the gentle channel through which the Roman Catholic Church engaged with other Churches at a national level. For me, though, he was the priest at morning Mass, transcending denominational divides as he communicated welcome, wisdom and wonder.

Requiem Mass for Mgr William Steele conducted by Bishop Marcus Stock

From the Diocese of Leeds

William James Steele was born on 29 October 1930. Having completed his National Service in the army and graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in English, in 1954 he embarked on his studies for the priesthood at the ‘Venerabile’, the English College in Rome, and at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Following his ordination, Fr Steele returned to the Diocese in 1960 and began a priestly ministry that was to encompass three distinct but overlapping elements: pastoral, academic and ecumenical. Today he will be remembered in those places where he resided and shared in the spiritual and community life of the parish: Our Lady of Good Counsel, Leeds (1960-61), Holy Name, Leeds (1961-64), Leeds Cathedral (1985-86), Ss Peter and Paul, Sandal, where he was Parish Priest from 1986-88, and St Mary’s, Bradford, where he lived from 1988 until 1997.

In 1988 Bishop David Konstant appointed Mgr. Steele as the full-time Diocesan Ecumenical Officer, a role he occupied for the next sixteen years. In 1993 Bishop Konstant created the Vicariate for Unity and Mgr Steele became the Episcopal Vicar, responsible for the co-ordination and encouragement of inter-church and inter-faith activity in the Diocese. He retired from the role in 2004.

This aspect of Mgr Steele’s ministry was founded on the ground-breaking work of the Second Vatican Council and its Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (Restoration of Unity), promulgated by Pope St Paul VI in 1964. For his work in promoting ecumenical dialogue from the late 1980s until the early 2000s, Mgr. Steele was held in high esteem, locally, nationally and internationally. In addition to his responsibilities in Yorkshire, he served on the English Anglican – Roman Catholic Committee, the English and Welsh Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Christian Unity and as a member of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

Mgr Steele was a distinguished priest, and a gentle man of high intellect; he was a wise counsellor and dear friend to many. He was also a fine preacher whose homilies were always learned, but humane and expressed with a clarity that made them a joy to hear. As a gifted communicator, his homilies had the ability to make a profound impression on his listeners, even when he spoke for just a few minutes.

In 2003 Mgr Steele published a pamphlet entitled Ecumenism for Catholics, in which he reflected on the developments in inter-church dialogue over the previous half-century. He wrote that the growth in friendly relations and the development of ecumenical life in this period was ‘a precious gift from God.’ He argued that true Christian Unity was beyond human powers to bring about, ‘and can only be by the graciousness of God.’ He concluded that ‘it is because of the abiding graciousness of God that we must never lose hope. That would indeed be a betrayal. God is always greater, and his gifts can always surprise us.’

Through his own long life and in his priesthood of more than sixty years, Fr Billy was a man who, day by day, gave us an insight into ‘the graciousness of God.’

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.

Watch the Requiem Mass for Mgr Steele held at Leeds Cathedral on Friday 9 September 2022.