By Robert Finnigan
On 25 January 1959, Pope St John XXIII announced that he was calling an Ecumenical Council, which would eventually convene at the Vatican in the autumn of 1962. Exactly nine months after the announcement, on 25 October 1959, Fr William Steele was ordained for the Diocese of Leeds, in Rome at the Church of the Sacred Heart in the Piazza Navona.
Thereafter there would be a constant thread running between these two events, as for sixty years it was the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which inspired the ministry of a priest who came to be known almost universally as Fr Billy Steele.
William James Steele was born on 29th 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 ‘Venerable’, the English College in Rome, and at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Following his ordination, Fr Steele returned to the Diocese of Leeds 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.
As a priest, Fr Steele was also always a teacher. He was so in a professional sense, joining the staff of St Kevin’s School in Leeds in 1960 and moving to the newly opened St Thomas Aquinas Grammar School, Leeds the following year, where he remained until 1964.
In that year, he began a long association with the seminary at Ushaw College in County Durham. He was appointed in 1964 as a lecturer in Theology, a post he held until 1968 when Bishop Gordon Wheeler asked him to join the leadership team at Wood Hall, the Diocesan Pastoral and Ecumenical Centre near Wetherby, which had been established the previous year. In 1969, Fr Steele returned to Cambridge for further studies, a precursor to his re-joining the lecturing staff at Ushaw in 1972.
In 1980, Fr Steele returned to his Roman alma mater and joined the staff of the English College as Spiritual Director. In 1985, he was appointed a Prelate of Honour by Pope St John Paul II, and in the same year he left the College and came back to take up parochial office in the Diocese of Leeds.
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).
Following his retirement in 2004, Mgr Steele lived in Headingley, first at ‘Ashlea’ in the grounds of Hinsley Hall, until in 2016 he moved into Mount St Joseph’s Home, where he was cared for by the Little Sisters of the Poor. In 2019, friends and family gathered to celebrate his Diamond Jubilee of Ordination and in the following year he marked his ninetieth birthday.
His health deteriorated during the first half of 2022 and, at the end of July, he was admitted to hospital in Leeds where he died on the afternoon of Wednesday 3rd August, aged ninety-one.
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 had 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.’
May he rest in peace.