Bishop-elect Byrne known as a priest who reflects ‘the joy of the Gospel’
Oct 15, 2020
People who know Bishop-elect William Byrne, who will become the new bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, say he reflects what Pope Francis has called “the joy of the Gospel” – happily sharing Christ’s love and hope with others.
“Every day, Father Bill lives the joy of the Gospel in his interactions with people, in his attitude, in the joy he has as a priest,” said Stephen Riley, the executive director of Potomac Community Resources, Inc., which since 1994 has been serving teens and adults with developmental differences and provides 35 community-based programs for them.
That agency’s offices are housed at Our Lady of Mercy Parish, and it began its outreach when a concerned group of parents met with Msgr. John Enzler, Mercy’s pastor then who now serves as president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
On Oct. 14, 2020, Pope Francis named then-Father Byrne as the bishop of Springfield, where he will be ordained and installed as a bishop on Dec. 14. Since 2015, Father Byrne has served as the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, and he has continued that parish’s strong support for Potomac Community Resources, serving on its board, volunteering in its programs, and chairing the separate PCR House, Inc., board that owns the James M. Sullivan Memorial House on the campus of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, which was dedicated in October 2019 and is a home for four young women with developmental differences.
“He (the new bishop) is a wonderful friend to PCR, a great advocate for people with developmental differences who promotes inclusion,” Riley said. “When he volunteers at the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program, he does it joyfully and demonstrates great respect for the members as individuals. He demonstrates his recognition of the inherent value of every human life.”
That respite care program operated by Potomac Community Resources serves teens and adults with significant intellectual or developmental differences and complex medical needs, including young women and men who are nonverbal. That five-hour program gives parents and caregivers an extended break, and provides participating PCR members with the chance to take part in art, music and other activities, supported by staff, including clinical social workers and nurses, and volunteers. When Father Byrne volunteers with that program, he smiles and greets the members like old friends and joins them in their activities, sharing laughs with them as he does with his parish and school families.
Father Byrne is also known for his quick wit and mischievous sense of humor, which has led to him often serving as a master of ceremonies for church and community events, including PCR’s recent virtual Patricia Sullivan Benefit Dinner.
At the press conference introducing Springfield’s bishop-elect, it was noted how, in addition to serving as the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy and earlier at St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, Father Byrne also served as the chaplain at the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he helped inspire 14 young men to become priests and five young women to become professed religious.
One of the priests he inspired, Father Kevin Regan, now serves as the vice-rector for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Saint John Paul II Seminary.
“Having known Bishop-Elect Byrne for most of my adult life, he was particularly present to me during college and was an integral part of my vocation to the priesthood,” Father Regan said in an email, adding, “From his hands, I grew in love for the Eucharist, Adoration, Our Lady and the Church, leading me to desire more to serve as a priest. There were many others as well who were supported in their vocations by his spiritual fatherhood.”
Father Regan called Bishop-elect Byrne’s appointment “a great loss for our local Church, but a great gain for his new diocese and the Church universal as the gifts he has will go to keep so many others connected to the heart of Jesus.”
As the chaplain at the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland, Father Byrne combined two of his favorite things – prayer and food – to draw students to Wednesday evening Eucharistic Adoration, followed by meals prepared by some of their moms.
Another priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who was mentored by the bishop-elect, Father Justin Huber, now the pastor of Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Poolesville, Maryland, said in an email, “I began to practice the Catholic faith in a serious way in college at the University of Maryland. I still remember my first encounter with Father Bill at the first Mass I attended at UMD: He made the practice of the Catholic faith seems as normal as breathing air.”
Father Huber remembered a time he was having dinner with “Father Bill” at the University of Maryland, when an alumnus who had recently become an assistant coach at a university called the priest to tell him his team had just won its first game. The priest invited the young man to come right over to the house during their dinner.
“I remember in the midst of the discussion with the young man, Father Bill asked him if he was going to Mass, with the answer being predictable,” Father Huber said, adding that “Father Bill reminded him that it was be good to go to Mass and give God thanks. It was an amazing event -- this young man had just had a major victory in his life, and the first person he called was Father Bill, not his parents or his girlfriend. I thought to myself, ‘that’s the kind of father a priest should be!’”
Susan Timoney -- who now serves as an associate professor of practice in pastoral theology and the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America – studied with then-Father Byrne in Rome before earning her doctorate in sacred theology, and also served as the assistant secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington when Father Byrne led that office.
“Pope Francis says the most attractive face of holiness is joy,” Timoney said, adding, “when you encounter Bishop-elect Byrne, what you see immediately is a joyful priest and a man who loves the Lord.”
Timoney noted that when Father Byrne served as the archdiocese’s secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns, he expanded the archdiocese’s outreach through the Department of Special Needs Ministries to reach out to a larger number of people in the Deaf community, and he helped pastors and parish staff increase their outreach to people experiencing domestic violence in their communities.
“Something that has really struck me (was) he recognized the need to reach out to people on the periphery,” she said, noting another way that Bishop-elect Byrne is living out a key message of Pope Francis.
When Father Byrne was serving as pastor at St. Peter’s Parish on Capitol Hill, Timoney was among his parishioners there, and witnessed firsthand that “he’s a pastor who wants to be near his people.”
She noted how the priest, whom she described as “a man of deep personal prayer,” started a prayer group for moms, who gathered with him for 30 minutes after they dropped their kids off at school there.
“He was present to them,” she said, also noting his work in developing a large marriage preparation program there, and his ability to speak Spanish and support Hispanic ministries.
The jovial priest was also known for walking his late dog Maggie in the neighborhood around the Capitol Hill parish and visiting St. Peter School with his dog, a tradition he has continued at Our Lady of Mercy Parish and School with his new dog, Zélie, which he has said is not only a good way to exercise, but is also a fun way to evangelize people.
At his introductory press conference in Springfield on Oct. 14, Bishop-elect Byrne also showed his serious side, noting the challenges the Church is facing during the pandemic, acknowledging the need for healing and vigilance in the wake of the abuse crisis, and emphasizing the importance of bringing Christ’s hope to people in difficult times.
Timoney believes that Bishop-elect Byrne will “not be afraid to face the tough challenges the Church is facing” and will help restore people’s confidence in Church leadership.
She added, “I was totally delighted when I saw the news, because I think he’s exactly the kind of bishop the Church needs now.”