Bishop William Byrne, 58, has served as the Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts since 2020. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where he attended Catholic schools, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1994. He served in a variety of parishes and administrative roles in the archdiocese before coming to Springfield. Springfield encompasses the four western counties in Massachusetts and serves 159,000 Catholics with 77 parishes.
CWR: What was your family life like?
Bishop William Byrne: I was the baby of eight children. My father was a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon, and my mother was a mom who took care of running a house with eight kids. We were a typical family growing up.
My parents were faithful Catholics and daily communicants. They were also fun people who laughed a lot. I went to Sunday Mass and attended Catholic schools, including eight years with the Jesuits. My sister became a religious. I had a happy childhood.
CWR: Tell us about your uncle, Fr. John Byrne, and how he influenced you to enter the seminary.
Bishop Byrne: He was my father’s oldest brother. My father was close to him. Having a priest in the family made the idea of going to the seminary much more normal to me. I could be a doctor like dad, or a priest like Uncle John.
My uncle was a Renaissance man. He played semi-pro football, but also loved poetry. He was well-rounded and much beloved in my family. When he died when I was in college, Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, did his funeral. I spoke on behalf of my family at the funeral, and the cardinal later said to me, “We have to sign this guy up for the priesthood!” It had, in fact, been in the back of my mind.
I decided to forgo going straight into the seminary and taught first a couple of years at a Catholic boys school I had attended.
CWR: What was it like growing up in Washington, D.C.?
Bishop Byrne: We knew many people in the neighborhood who worked in government. It was like if you worked in a town where the paper mill was the big business employing many residents. The federal government was our paper mill.
There were some advantages living in D.C., such as in 1979, when Pope John Paul II came to visit. I was in the 8th grade, and we went to cheer him on.
CWR: Later, as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, you had a special ministry to members of Congress.
Bishop Byrne: It began when I met members who were practicing Catholics whom I met at my parish at daily Mass. Members of Congress can lead a lonely life; they leave their families to fly into town on a Monday and fly home on Thursday with many sleeping in their offices. We’d get together, have great conversations, build fellowship and they might ask theological questions. I think our participants found it helpful. Although I stopped leading the group when I left the parish, I still get calls from participants asking how I’m doing.
Being a member of Congress is a challenging job, and people don’t appreciate the sacrifice that being a public servant requires. I admired those in our group for their dedication. And, our members were passionate about defending life and making sure that Catholic social teaching was part of what they were doing. When I left, it gave me a sense of hope, knowing that good people were in our Congress.
CWR: You were a teacher of homiletics to seminarians at Pontifical North American College for nine years. What are some suggestions you’d make to seminarians about how to deliver a good homily?
Bishop Byrne: I recommend the “3 B’s”: Be brief, be sincere, and be seated! I tell seminarians that they’ll have 50+ years to offer their thoughts in homilies, so it is best to leave your congregation with just one idea at a time to mull over. We are trying to preach an experience and relationship with Jesus above all else. Many people don’t know Jesus or about the Church he founded. A good homily feeds the hunger they have to know Him, and prompts them to go and learn more. Whatever the priest says should flow from his relationship with Jesus.
CWR: Tell me about your “Five Things” YouTube series.
Bishop Byrne: It began with a series of columns I wrote for the Washington Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. I compiled these into a book, 5 Things with Father Bill. The idea was to offer a theological reflection that was both approachable and had an impact. How do we find God in everyday life? It is a fun catechesis, and has been well received. More recently I’ve been doing 30 second to one minute spiritual shorts, which people can find on my Instagram page.
CWR: Give me an overview of the Diocese of Springfield.
Bishop Byrne: We’re on the other side of the state from Boston, a place where you can enjoy the beauty of the Berkshire Mountains down to a larger urban center. We have many towns that were once prosperous, with mills or textile factories that employed many, whereas today industry has left and these communities face the real challenges of poverty.
The people are warm and welcoming, and so are our priests. New England has suffered greatly from the clergy abuse crisis, and add to that the COVID shutdowns, so many people are disconnected from the Church. We have a lot of work to do to bring people home.
CWR: When you arrived in Springfield, you had no seminarians, now you have two.
Bishop Byrne: Yes, and we have had several applications for the seminary for next year, so that is promising. I believe that God is not done with western Massachusetts. He loves the people here, and wants them to know His Son. One way is through the priesthood and the Eucharist and the absolution that only the priest can provide.
CWR: Were you distressed when you were first appointed to Springfield and discovered the diocese had no seminarians?
Bishop Byrne: I knew a challenge lay ahead. I also know that wherever I have been assigned that vocations have come. I was a chaplain at the University of Maryland, and now 14 men I knew there are priests. Several of the political staffers I knew on Capitol Hill entered the seminary and are now priests. In my last parish, six men entered the seminary (although one discerned out).
When I came to Springfield, I made myself vocations director and have had two priests help me. So, I have never lost hope. I feel like God is now rewarding the faith of the people by starting to send us quality young men for the seminary.
CWR: Steubenville East meets in Springfield.
Bishop Byrne: Yes. It has been a great gift. They selected Springfield because we are centrally located in New England. They had a very powerful experience last year, with 1,200 kids in attendance on their knees for Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A thousand went to confession. We’re excited they’re coming back next July.
Demographic studies show that our youth and young adult population in Springfield has remained steady. We’ve invested in an excellent youth and young adult minister, and have had an excellent response.
CWR: You’ve also promoted devotion to the Holy Eucharist.
Bishop Byrne: Yes. Before the national discussion of the topic, we decided to have a year, now extended, of focus on the great gift of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We will be having a Eucharistic conference in March, as well as adoration and other activities.
In every parish I’ve been assigned to I’ve started an adoration program and those parishes started to grow. We must have Jesus central in our faith lives. We also have to preach to our people who Jesus is, that He can be known today, and that the Risen Lord is present to us in His Church. My plan is to let Jesus be in charge, let Him be central, and we will see great things.
CWR: What reforms have you implemented regarding clergy sexual abuse?
Bishop Byrne: In Springfield we have expanded our public list of credibly accused priests, and have developed a process in which someone who does come forward with an allegation of abuse can be heard without experiencing additional trauma. I also make myself available to meet with victims of abuse so that I can put a human face on the Church and help begin the process of healing.
CWR: What do these victims tell you?
Bishop Byrne: They express their gratitude at being heard. Having someone listen goes a long way in the healing process. They want people to know what happened to them. It is painful to listen to, but valuable to towards bringing about healing.
CWR: You have a sister in religious life, Sr. Deirdre Byrne, who is a religious superior, retired U.S. Army colonel and a physician.
Bishop Byrne: Yes. She is sister, soldier, and surgeon.
CWR: She spoke about her pro-life beliefs and the rosary at the 2020 Republican National Committee. What did you think of her remarks?
Bishop Byrne: Sister Dede made it clear that we are not just pro-life, but pro-eternal life. We are not here to judge, but to help bring people to Jesus Christ.
CWR: You yourself have been active in the pro-life cause.
Bishop Byrne: Yes. But we must realize that the Dobbs decision doesn’t end the abortion debate, but should prompt us to redouble our commitment to protect life at all stages. And, it means we are not just against abortion, but anything that diminishes the value of human life, such as physician-assisted suicide. We must provide a voice to those who don’t have a voice.
I am proud of our diocese’s efforts to support Walking With Moms in Need, a program that assists mothers who choose life for their children.
CWR: You have a dog, Zelie the Episcopup, that goes with you on your travels and has her own Instagram page.
Bishop Byrne: Yes, she’s a black lab that I take with me when I visit the parishes. People are drawn to the dog, and it helps the Church and the bishop seem a little more human. When do confirmations or celebrate Mass, someone usually sits with her in the back of the Church. Afterward, when they take photos, everyone wants a picture with the dog.
CWR: She is named for a saint.
Bishop Byrne: Yes, Zelie, the mother of St. Therese of Lisieux.
CWR: Who are some of your heroes in the faith?
Bishop Byrne: I was blessed to have become a priest during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul the Great. He was a remarkable man. We have images of him in his younger years going skiing, and later on as an older man, demonstrating that life has dignity, even when your hands are shaking with Parkinson’s disease. He called for change in Poland, but not with bullets but the power of prayer and the truth of the Gospel. I’m grateful to have shaken his hand.
I also admire Mother Teresa, whom I met while I was a seminarian. She greeted each of us seminarians, but stopped with me and said, “Don’t get in God’s way.” I don’t know why she said that to me and no one else, but I’ve tried to make that a general rule for my life.
I respect her for her radical commitment to the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, and seeing Christ in them. When I say Mass at a local jail at Christmas time, I look at the face of the inmates as they ask me to pray for them and their families. They bring to life to me that Christ was born into real poverty in a manger in Bethlehem.
CWR: What devotions do you recommend for the average laymen in the pew?
Bishop Byrne: I recommend the Rosary, through which we come to know Jesus through His mom. I recommend reading the daily Gospel thoughtfully, what we call Lectio Divina, which allows us to have an ongoing experience of the Risen Lord speaking to us through Scripture. And, if possible, we should receive Jesus in the Eucharist at daily Mass, as it enables us to have a personal encounter with Jesus.
CWR: What thoughts do you have for Christmas and the New Year?
Bishop Byrne: The best Christmas present is to be silent for a time with the Lord. Make that your New Year’s resolution. Put down your smartphone and other distractions and be silent for a time with the Lord. If you can do it before the Blessed Sacrament, that would be even better. There is so much noise in our lives, so we have to be intentional about creating time and space in our lives for the Lord.
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