New Massachusetts Bishop Noted for Humor and Social Media Savvy
Bishop-elect William Byrne says the greatest preparation for becoming a bishop has been his service as a pastor.
At the news conference where he was introduced as the 10th bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, Bishop-elect William Byrne talked about the many serious challenges the diocese faced, but, when it came to himself, he adopted a lighter tone.
He noted that he had received the call about the appointment on Oct. 2, the Feast of the Guardian Angels. “I thought to myself, the Holy Father is naming me a bishop? My guardian angel must be asleep right now. Until I realized that guardian angels don’t sleep,” Bishop-elect Byrne said. “So, in fact, what I was receiving was a profound gift.”
Bishop Byrne, 56, is known for his humor at his parish, Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, Maryland, where he has served as pastor for the last six years.
“He has got an incredible sense of humor,” said Karen Robertson, a parishioner and administrator at the parish school. “If he wants to he can make a joke out of every other sentence.”
In an interview with the Register, Bishop-elect Byrne, who will be formally installed Dec. 14 at St. Michael’s Cathedral, attributed his humor to a sense of gratitude.
“If you live life out of gratitude you start to realize that everything is gift and you don’t take yourself nearly as seriously,” he said.
Bishop-elect Byrne credits the influence of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her “little way.”
“You can’t help but be little before God when you realize that He is the Father who has given us everything, including his only Son,” he said.
Besides his humor, Bishop-elect Byrne is also known for his ability to illuminate the Scriptures in his homilies. “He’s very on point every Sunday,” Robertson said.
“I’m a firm believer in giving people a message to take away that they can that they can work on for that day — that if you’re trying to overload the message then you’re going to lose people,” Bishop Byrne said. “I believe in precision — shooting one arrow, not 50.”
He has taught homiletics at the North American College for nine years and also led workshops on preaching from Seattle to New Jersey.
Videos and New Book
Bishop-elect Byrne’s skills as a communicator have also led to a new book, Five Things with Father Bill: Hope, Humor, and Help for the Soul, which was released by Loyola Press this October.
The book is based on a column he has in his local diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard, and a companion YouTube video series, “5 Things with Fr. Bill Byrne,” in which he shares a mix of everyday advice and theological insight on a wide range of topics spanning good manners to guardian angels. In one video aimed at men, Bishop-elect Byrne rues the trend of wearing hats indoors.
“Baseball caps inside. When did that become okay? I’m bald and I don’t wear a baseball cap inside. You know what? A gentleman removes his hat.”
Many of the videos dive deeper into theology. In onehe explains that purgatory is a place to let go of grievances and anger at others, noting that heaven is a “no-grudge zone.”
Bishop-elect Byrne is no stranger to the camera. When he was a child, he made a murder mystery video featuring clips of family members, recalled his older sister, Sister Deirdre Byrne, of the Little Worker of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. “He was trying to make it a mystery but it was pretty funny,” she said.
Bishop-elect Byrne’s gregariousness and contagious joy were also on display in his childhood years.
“He was very gregarious,” Sister Deirdre, who spoke at the Republican National Convention this past summer, said. “People loved being around him because he was always a lot of fun.”
One Christmas morning, the mother of one of his friends called asking if he could come over because the house was too quiet, she said. “They needed someone to perk up the Christmas mood over there.” His mother ended up declining the invitation on his behalf.
Bishop-elect Byrne, is the fifth of eight children born to Mary and William Draper Byrne, a surgeon. He and his siblings grew up in McLean, Virginia, and attended the Mater Dei School in Potomac up until the eighth grade and then attended Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville, Maryland.
Bishop-elect Byrne has stayed in touch with friends from both schools. One is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom then-Father Byrne was texting during his confirmation hearings, saying he was praying for him and reminding him that everything was in God’s hands, according to Sister Deirdre.
As a priest in the Washington, D.C, area, Bishop-elect Byrne has also rubbed elbows with other political figures, including former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was a member of a prayer group that then-Father Byrne led when he was the pastor at St. Peter’s parish on Capitol Hill. He is also close to Attorney General Bill Barr, celebrating weddings and baptisms for the family.
During his tenure at St. Peter’s from 2007 to 2015, then-Father Byrne also served as the secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, a position that he has said prepared him for his work as bishop.
Father Byrne’s ministry has included service as the parochial vicar at Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville, Maryland, an economically and culturally diverse community. “He’s very comfortable with people at all levels, from the wealthiest to the poorest,” Sister Deirdre said.
Despite having lived most of his life in the D.C. area, Bishop-elect Byrne is no stranger to Massachusetts, either. He attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, which is just under an hour away from Springfield.
Priestly Formation and Ministry
It was in college that he seriously discerned a vocation to the priesthood, according to his sister. While she followed in their father’s footsteps in becoming a surgeon, her brother was influenced by their uncle, Father John Byrne, who was a priest in New York City. She said their uncle’s joy and devotion to his priesthood made an impression on the family.
“I think you can sell people on what you do by how happy you are with what you’re doing,” Sister Deirdre said.
She said her brother’s commitment was evident when he visited her while she was stationed in Korea as a U.S. Army doctor. “He was really spending a lot of time praying then,” she said.
After earning his bachelor degree’s in English, he studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. His preparation for holy orders then took him to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the “Angelicum”) in Rome, from which he holds a bachelor’s degree and a licentiate in sacred theology.
Bishop-elect Byrne is also an avid learner of languages and has studied Spanish, French and Italian. In one of his “Five Things” YouTube videos, he peppers advice for college students staying home with families with Italian phrases. Also, before becoming a priest, he was a Latin teacher at Mater Dei.
As a priest, working with young people has continued to be an important part of his ministry. From 1999 to 2007, he served as the chaplain at the University of Maryland’s Catholic Student Center in College Park, Maryland.
In his news conference, Bishop-elect Byrne says the greatest preparation for being a bishop has been his service as a pastor, learning to listen to people. He said his internet search history was filled with the names of the four counties within his diocese, which encompasses all of western Massachusetts, with a population of 828,667 of whom 199,289 are Catholic.
Preparing to Be a Bishop
Bishop Byrne told the Register that in preparation for his consecration and installation, on Dec. 14 at St. Michael’s Cathedral, he has been praying through the rite of ordination, focusing this line in particular: “The title of bishop is not one of honor but of function, and therefore a bishop should strive to serve rather than to rule.”
“That’s how I see it — to be a father at the service of a family,” Bishop Byrne said, adding that that means accompanying people on their journey to the Lord. “I’ve always said throughout my priesthood, the reason I’m on the planet is to get people closer to Jesus Christ and I don’t see that stopping in my role as a bishop but actually hopefully even increasing.”
“There is great anticipation here in western Massachusetts for the arrival and installation of Bishop-elect William Byrne,” said Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield. “His enthusiasm for sharing our faith and recognized skills as a communicator will be beneficial in his new role as our spiritual shepherd. He has made among his first objectives to minister to his new faith community not from behind a desk but rather from among the people of God, planning to make an initial visit, celebrating a weekend Mass, in all the parishes of the diocese during his first year.”
Robertson noted that when he was a pastor, Bishop-elect Byrne’s genuine love of his parishioners has been evident. She said that will continue as a bishop.
“I think he’s going to be the kind of bishop that his people love,” she said. “Not only will he be a wonderful leader to the priests in … Springfield but he’s going to be a wonderful leader to his parishioners also.”
Facing Challenges With Hope
As bishop, one of his primary tasks will be the ongoing response to the Church’s sex abuse scandals.
“The shameful history of abuse within the Church represents a systematic failure to protect our most vulnerable members, especially our children. It must be acknowledged and atoned for continuously. Each day we must recommit ourselves to doing the work, the ongoing work, of making sure this can never ever happen again,” Bishop-elect Byrne said in his press conference.
Another challenge will be dealing with the repercussions of COVID-19. Bishop-elect Byrne told the Register that what is most needed to cope with the pandemic is hope rooted in faith in the Resurrection.
That message of hope is expressed in the motto he has chosen as bishop — In Spem Vivam (“Into a living hope.”) The motto comes from 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
“Hope means that you recognize that Jesus has already won the victory and we live in the reality of the unfolding of the kingdom of God,” Springfield’s incoming bishop said. “So we have a choice to make each day: Are we going to live in the kingdom of man or in the kingdom of God?”