Springfield’s new bishop on the attacks on the Capitol, healing and transparency in the church
Bishop William D. Byrne was ordained and installed as the 10th bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., on Dec. 14. The youngest of eight children, he is a native of Washington, D.C., and has spent many years in ministry in that area, most recently as pastor of Our Lady of Mercy parish in Potomac, Md. His popular “Five Things” YouTube series recently was developed into a book called Five Things With Father Bill: Hope, Humor, and Help for the Soul (Loyola Press).
I spoke with Bishop Byrne about his hopes for my home diocese of Springfield—to which I recently returned after 12 years in the New York metropolitan area—and the larger church. The interview took place over two phone calls, one on Dec. 23, the other on Jan. 21. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your initial reaction to learning you were going to become a bishop—and a bishop here in Springfield, in particular.
You have to pull your jaw off the floor before you can begin to articulate what to say. It is quite a shock to the system. There is an apostolic feel to the experience: Paul’s in one place and he says, “The Holy Spirit wants me to go to Corinth.” And that’s what it feels like [to be named a bishop]; it’s like the work of the Holy Spirit saying, “Okay, I want you to go to Springfield, Massachusetts, because I love those people and I love you and I want to bring you together.”
I will be honest with you, Western Massachusetts may be loved by God, but it does not get a lot of love from the rest of the state. And so it’s kind of refreshing to hear someone speak in a positive way about the region and feel like you might be happy to be here.
Absolutely. And what I like about it is that it isn’t the Eastern part of the state. It has its own sense of identity in place, and pride about that. That’s one of my favorite things in my initial experience: People are like, “Yeah, we’re not Boston.” I love that about Western Massachusetts.
I’m sure you’ll learn even more about it in your time here. And I know you’re not unfamiliar with Massachusetts, because you went to The College of the Holy Cross [a Jesuit college in Worcester, Mass.]. In your high school years in Maryland, you also went to a Jesuit high school, Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville, Md. So I would be remiss if I were not to ask you about the Jesuit influence on your education and your spirituality.
For my entire priesthood I’ve had the same Jesuit as my spiritual director, and I’ve done the 19th Annotation [form] of the exercises. So I’m very immersed in Ignatian spirituality. I take great consolation from that experience, even as a student at Georgetown Prep and Holy Cross. It’s carried me through my entire priesthood.
I would imagine it also helps you in terms of interpreting Pope Francis’ message.
Absolutely. And to understand [him]. Because he’s helping the church discern the spirits. And I think that sometimes people find that a little disconcerting. But I think it’s exciting.
I would agree. You had a number of your now-fellow bishops show up in support at your ordination. Have any bishops given you any good advice, thus far, for your own time as a bishop?
One really good bit of advice was from Bishop [James F.] Checchio from Metuchen [N.J.]. He said: “When you wash your hands, put your ring in your pocket. Because otherwise you’re going to forget about it and walk away, and then you’re going to spend the rest of the day looking for it.” I’ve already done that about three times, where I’ve gone looking for my ring. The second piece of advice is: Listen and start to know your people and let them know you. This is something I’ve done in every pastoral experience—hear what people have to say. Because the Holy Spirit is speaking to each one of us, not just to me or the priests, but to each one of us in the way that we can hear that allows us to then do God’s will.
The Holy Spirit is speaking to each one of us, not just to me or the priests.
You’re new to the diocese but also new to the experience of being a bishop. Sometimes a relative outsider’s perspective can be useful. Do you have any advice for your fellow bishops?
What I want to do is make sure that the visit of the bishop is an affirmation of the unity of the church and not just a minor celebrity sighting. Because sometimes it can feel like that. And I want to make sure that I am myself, and that the Lord uses who I am, not some episcopal vision of me.
I like that. Five seminarians—all just from your former parish—came to your installation. The Diocese of Springfield, on the other hand, has zero priests in formation and zero applicants. Do you have any strategy for changing that?
I firmly believe that God has not stopped calling men to the priesthood in the Diocese of Springfield. It’s just that maybe our mechanisms of welcoming and finding these guys need improvement. [Note: Bishop Byrne has since announced a new vocations director.] But also I think all of this, whether it be vocation to the priesthood or morale within the diocese, goes back to making sure that that we are perceived as trustworthy, transparent and we communicate the truth. It has to be built on that foundation. We have to be inviting them to something that is joyful and an agent of healing in these four counties [that make up the diocese].
I think there is a challenge, not just in Springfield but across the globe, in trusting the church sometimes, particularly in light of sexual abuse by clergy. You’ve met with survivors of sexual abuse in the diocese already. What does that transparency look like in practice?
The crime of abuse against a child is not just one that affects an individual, it affects the family, friends. Like cracks in ice, it spreads if that isn’t healing. So if we say, “Here’s a list of names,” and the person that has hurt you is not on that list, you think, “Okay, well forget it” [meaning it would be easy to dismiss the church entirely]. So I think that is part of transparency: making sure that we have our definitions correct on what is a credible accusation and then we make sure that the names of those who have been accused are released so that we can begin to reach out and heal those who are still being victimized [by past trauma].
Many types of healing are needed now, because of the political climate and the pandemic, to name a few things. How do we go about starting to heal, as a nation, in light of so much division?
I feel like we receive a fire hose of negative information every day. Maybe we evaluate how much time we spend on this information. I feel like the great gifts of our telephones and our computers are tools that are now using us, not tools that we use. If people are receiving a daily dose of fear and worry as their principal diet of information, then we’re going to have this crisis of not just illness but anxiety. I think we could re-evaluate our relationship with our information sources and maybe read a book or the Bible or spend some time in prayer. My prayer time is essential and radical readjustment. I do an hour of a holy hour every day, most of the time in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I can feel that whole sort of reorientation happening as I spend time with Jesus, and not my phone.
I just want to make sure that every constituency feels included.
While pastor of St. Peter’s, you started your time with 750 families at the parish and in your eight years there grew the parish to 1,500 families. I imagine this is at least in part because families felt supported there. What are some things that you think the diocese can do to better support families?
I just want to make sure that every constituency feels included. Often the people that are part of religious education feel like they’re the parish outsiders if they’re not part of that [school] community. Or homeschool families. [I want to] make sure that we’re aware that however you decide to educate your children is your decision, and that’s okay. And we’re here to support the spiritual life of the family in the midst of those decisions. That’s not necessarily directed towards Springfield, specifically, but just in terms of the church in the United States.
At your installation you issued a call to feed one another in spiritual and material poverty. It seemed to be a call for collaboration among priests and lay people and religious. What are some ways that you’ve seen collaboration among these different vocations done well?
Certainly you see it in many of the ecclesial movements, the various groups like Communion and Liberation. And I think that’s a gift to the church, where people can gather around a spirituality, and priests aren’t separated from laity but all of us are working together. That’s the model of an effective parish. One of the tendencies in recent times has been to hire professionals to do certain roles in the church. Whereas, if you listen to what people have to say, then things like youth ministry can be done organically. If you allow the young adults to combine their energies and work together with a priest, amazing things can happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a top-down model of a parish. Rather, if we listen and somebody comes up with an idea, to say, well let’s try that out; and if the Lord’s in it, it’s gonna work, and if it’s not, we’ll try something new.
What’s the one thing that you hope Catholics keep in mind as you begin your time as bishop and as we begin the new year?
To not just get back to normal but to get back to better. It’s the ignatian concept of the magis, meaning “the more.” The Lord is not just calling us to effectiveness, but beyond effectiveness, to let the Spirit work in us. What we need to be doing is to pray and listen to what the Spirit is saying to people and then start to hear what they’re saying, so that we as a church can start setting Western Massachusetts on fire.
Note: The following text reflects our second conversation, held on Jan. 21.
A lot has happened since we last spoke. Let’s start with just your own reaction to the events at the Capitol on January 6.
On a personal level, I found the whole thing heartbreaking because I was pastor of St Peter’s on Capitol Hill, and the House of Representatives sits in that parish. In my parish we had people on both sides of the aisle, but we all sat in the same pews. Personally I thought [the event at the Capitol] was chaos stirred by the evil one in people’s hearts. I think it betrayed a tragic reality in our politics. Even within the last couple decades, you could really disagree with somebody, but you didn’t hate them for their ideas. And now, it’s not just about hating someone’s thoughts. It’s about hating the person. And one side can’t point the finger at the other. It’s something that’s settled into our national dialogue in a tragic way.
I do see that happening.
Some would say the church’s fight for religious liberty is just discrimination dressed up in another way, so that any idea or thought that we have is by its very nature flawed, and that we must be discriminators. That’s the implication of that type of rhetoric. And how can you have a discussion, if someone is disqualified from the very outset?
Do you worry that members of our church or church leaders have contributed to this kind of rhetoric and conversation, through either online dialogue or through actions or inaction?
I would have to say that there is no group in society that stands innocent, that is not being drawn into this. I wouldn’t single out the church or members of the church or portions of the church. If you go out into the blogosphere and such, there are people who in the name of the church are using the same type of rhetoric, which is not based in the love of Christ.
There’s been a lot of conversation asking what do we do now? But also a lot of people pointing out that in order for the healing and unity to happen, there must be some kind of atonement or accountability. And this is not unlike the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. We move forward, but first we have to acknowledge that we’ve done something wrong. In what way can our country learn from the church in this?
The human person is created in the image and likeness of God but is wounded by sin and lives in a sinful world. Christ came to pull us out of the muck and wash us with the waters of baptism to say: This isn’t normal. This isn’t right. This is woundedness, and I’m healing you.
Even if we aspire for the same goals in different ways, it doesn’t mean that our differences should turn to disgust, rather than to dialogue. The church is going through a process, and has been through the last 20 years, of publicly facing our own sinfulness in a way that I think no other group has been called upon to do, with regard to the child abuse crisis.
I do believe that the church should be held to the highest possible scrutiny.
Do you mean that in a good way?
I do believe that the church should be held to the highest possible scrutiny. And that because of who and what we are, that’s a good thing, because it forces us to live in the way we’re supposed to be living. When a newspaper breaks a terrible story, they’re not necessarily our friends but they’re certainly not our enemies. The way of the disciple is the way of acknowledging our need for Christ and our own sinfulness. When I hold up the host and say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” that means all of us aren’t worthy to receive you. Not, “Oh, I’m ready to receive you but Gladys isn’t.” But I think in our national dialogue we act like there are people who are not worthy, by virtue of their political or faith beliefs. That’s a very dangerous place for us as a culture. A tragedy in a place where plurality is one of our most beautiful qualities.
You can see that even in some of the conversation around President Biden, this idea that someone can say that person is or is not Catholic. But no matter what their beliefs, you can’t remove the sacrament of baptism from somebody.
I always thought it was powerful when Pope Francis was asked early on in his pontificate to describe himself. And he said, I am a sinner in need of Christ’s mercy. If we all start out in that position, then we can build ladders and bridges to help each other elevate ourselves. As Christ says, when one member of the body fails, the whole body is failing—not to single out one person.
Sometimes you need to call out someone. Jesus says that if somebody isn’t doing the right thing, eventually you might have to bring it to the church. So it’s not to say, “You do your thing, we do our thing.” That’s where the role of prayer and prudential judgment on behalf of all Catholics, but also especially, in a particular way, the shepherds of the church is so important.
And not even the shepherds of the church always agree. We saw some of that disagreement publicly in recent days around what sort of statements to put out as the bishops relate to the new administration. What are your hopes for how you and your fellow bishops will relate to each other and to the president over the next four years?
I’ve only been a bishop for a month, so it would be hubris for me to tell my brother bishops what they should be doing with this little experience, but I would hope that people, through seeing us, realize the truth of the Gospel that we’re preaching. In a way I think our credibility is not just found in our words but actually in our people, in our realization that we feed more people than anyone else, that we educate all these children, not just because they’re Catholic but because we are. So I do think that there is a power in that, in our holy father’s message to be a poor church for the poor; and the more authentically and credibly we live that, the easier it is for people to hear these messages, which run contrary to a culture, which in its woundedness does not know the Lord.
Do you have any hopes for the next four years for what might come from working with the new presidential administration?
I’m so new to this, but I hope that the president’s profession of faith creates a space where a true dialogue can happen. That we can use that as a place to enter into so that we can advance the issues we both believe [in] and maybe even bring conversion of hearts on those issues where people disagree with the church. My hope is that the faith of his baptism creates a place where the faith of our baptism can meet, and we can work together as disciples.
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