PITTSFIELD — He’s Father Bill to thousands of viewers on YouTube, where he provides upbeat advice on issues facing Catholics. Come Monday afternoon, the Rev. William D. Byrne, a 56-year-old native of Washington, D.C., debuts as spiritual leader of more than 160,000 Catholics in Western Massachusetts.
Byrne will be installed at 2 p.m. Monday as the 10th bishop of the Springfield Diocese, in a proceeding led by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Springfield. The ordination and installation will be livestreamed at diospringfield.org and wwlp.com, the Springfield NBC affiliate.
Byrne succeeds Bishop Mitchell D. Rozanski, who was installed in August as archbishop in St. Louis.
In an interview with The Eagle, Byrne explained why he hopes to bring a “season of hope” to Catholics in the four western counties of Massachusetts and what he once learned from the creator of the TV show "Happy Days." He spoke of the role of the religious leader in today’s times and said that, as bishop, his job is to be a “healer in chief.”
“The competency of the church is faith and morals. With that in mind, my job is to help people transcend the everyday realities of our world and help them see beyond it,” he said. “And that is the love of God, bringing them through challenging times.”
On the issue of clergy sexual abuse, healing is far from complete, Byrne acknowledged.
Byrne plans to make his first pastoral visits in the Berkshires to St. Joseph's in Pittsfield at 4 p.m. Jan. 16; at 11 a.m. Jan. 31 at St. Mary’s in Lee; and at 4 p.m. Feb. 6 at St. Agnes in Dalton.
After a 50-minute conversation over Zoom, Byrne called out to an employee of the diocesan office in Springfield to bring in a special guest. It was Zelie, Byrne’s Labrador retriever, named after the mother of a French saint. Zelie is a frequent companion as Byrne makes his rounds.
QUESTION: You mentioned at your introduction in October that you hope your leadership of the diocese would start a "season of hope." What holds back hope?
ANSWER: Hope from a faith perspective is not the same thing as saying, "I hope my horse wins at the racetrack." Wishing for the good. Hope is actually based in the knowledge that Jesus rose from the dead, from the Christian perspective. I know at the end of the day that he's won and I am in the process of trying to make that reality. It means that life beats death. It means love beats hate. It means that peace conquers violence. And so, with that reality, to know that all of that is already true ... then as we face ugliness or difficulties in our lives, we step back and so no, no, no. This won't win in the end. Because love will win.
Q: How do you see the role of a religious leader in our times, given all that's happening politically, socially and with the pandemic? Does that influence how a bishop should lead a diocese?
A: I would hope it wouldn't. I would hope that the bishop would realize that his responsibility is to be a healer in chief and to be one who brings that hope that we were speaking about. The competency of the church is faith and morals. With that in mind, my job is to help people transcend the everyday realities of our world and help them see beyond it. And that is the love of God, bringing them through challenging times.
I'm not a scientist. I'm a religious. I'm bringing the message of faith. I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Q: You've taught “homiletics,” the writing of sermons, to seminarians. What is at the art of writing a sermon?
A: The elements at the heart of classical rhetoric are ethos, pathos and logos. Logos is the words, the message that I want to bring you. Pathos is the call to action that I hope it evokes in both of us. But, you can't hear my logos and you won't be called to pathos if you don't trust the giver of the message. And that's ethos.
So, inherent to any effective witness to faith, whether it's a preached homily or whether it's how we live our lives, if it's not mirrored in the actions and the way we live and how we treat people, then it's just, as St. Paul says, a clanging gong. If it's not based in love.
And so, if people don't know, or believe, that you love them and that God loves them, and that you love God, then I might have the prettiest words. I might be able to use words like "homiletics," but I'll never be able to move hearts.
Q: So, in the composition of a sermon, given the classical rhetoric lessons that you still remember from Holy Cross, you want to make it a three-point thing?
A: It's not necessarily a method, it's an underlying philosophy or theory of what's required in order to be an effective communicator. It's the same in your job. If people don't feel that you are trustworthy, or that you aren't seeking to bring them truth, well, then your message is not going to be effective at all.
Q: I watched a few of your YouTube videos. You have a frank, easy and accessible way of speaking. I presume that's not just for your YouTube viewers. You refer to confession as a form of Drano, which is a startling and fresh way of looking at our spiritual pipes. How effective is that fresh approach to language — and using popular culture — in pastoral work?
A: I'm a strong believer in you've got to be yourself. Not trying to be some image of what I think a priest should be. God didn't call me to be the best Pope Francis, or the best Larry. He called me to be William Byrne, with all my particular gifts and foibles and life experience. What really underlies how I approach this is that I believe — and this isn't me, I'll explain where it came from — I believe that life is school and faith should be recess.
Studies show that if you don't get exercise, and run around and play and laugh, and spend time with your friends, then you don't learn as well. We've often made church feel like school. I'm all about education. But, I mean in the sense of it feeling like work, when it should feel like recess. And that's not me, it was Garry Marshall when he was talking about his show, "Happy Days." So, that's from the great "theological theater" of Garry Marshall, the producer and director of "Happy Days."
I read that, and it always has touched me. I think the closer that we can bring faith to people's own common experience, the more effective any creature can be. I believe that God is speaking in all things — another thing I learned from my days at Holy Cross. My Jesuit education was that God isn't just communicating when I read the Bible or when I'm sitting in church. But, in my interactions with my dog, God's teaching me something about how he loves me.
Q: The news media writes often about people who've taken new jobs. But, the new job you've taken is singular, I think, in what people expect of you. You just said that you've got to be yourself. To what degree do you see a challenge or a passage in entering this new role for the diocese, and fulfilling expectations while still being yourself?
A: I can't necessarily speak to everybody's expectations. I can speak to the expectations that the church has of a local bishop. And what the duties, and dignity and responsibilities of that are. But, within a way that's faithful to my own gifts and my own talents that God gave me — and, I believe, has called me to this particular moment right now, in my life and in the life of the church here in Western Massachusetts.
[Byrne says that, at a recent retreat, a bishop friend offered advice.]
He said God isn't sending you, or the church isn't sending you, there just because your resume fits. He's sending you there because he loves you and he loves the people of Massachusetts and he thinks the two of you together are going to be great. That had a profound impact on my own way of stepping foot onto the terra firma of Western Massachusetts. I'm being called here out of love.
I told the [diocesan] priests when I met with them, "Don't look for me in my office." We have incredibly competent people here who can do all those things to help me make the most effective decisions. My first responsibility is, I've got to get out and meet these people and listen in every socially safe way that I possibly can. I need to start hearing how the holy spirit is speaking to them, so that we can build the kingdom ever more so here in these counties.
Q: Your installation is Monday. That's a high and ceremonial affair. But, I get the feeling that you're going to be present in the diocese in a more casual way through the months ahead and that people will get to know you more on a one-to-one basis. Is that fair to say?
A: Yes. I may be a more informal person, but I also respect and love the beauty of the liturgy and of the way the church dresses things up. And in a certain sense, that's what it is. There's a certain dressing up and pageantry. There's a reason why you take pictures of your kids going to the prom — because it's fun to see them in a tuxedo and in the gown with the corsage. There's a beauty to that formality. But, you don't have the prom every day, or else it gets old. I will still appear as a bishop, but I will always be myself, God willing.
Q: Some people may want their spiritual leaders to embrace the ceremonial roles and bring dignity to those rites.
A: Yes, absolutely. But, dignity does not have to be boring. The dignity of the office I will purport with all my effort. Because it's not me: it's the office. To do deference to that ... but at the same time I think it's possible to do that in a way that is true to myself.
Q: At your introduction event in October, you mentioned that you were looking forward to receiving the report from retired Judge Daniel Ford and his Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse. A couple of months has gone by. Can you offer any timeline on what you think is coming down the road?
A: As part of the process of the independent task force, one of the things we did was have a survey. Two things came clear. Transparency and communication.
That's a priority of mine. We have to wash the wound if we're ever going to let it heal. And our first responsibility is to victims. When we talk about victims, we're not just talking about the individual that experienced the devastation at the hands of somebody who should have been protecting them — a clergy person, or someone who worked for the church. We're talking about their mom or dad. Their brothers and sisters. Their best friends. It's not one hole in the ice, it's a crack that spreads through the entire unit of the family and friends and the community.
The tentacles go deep. If we're ever going to begin to heal, then the first step is, we have to be honest. We have to lay this out. We're already working on that. ... That's the benefit of an independent task force. No group can police itself.
Q: You and Joe Biden are both in waiting mode.
A: [Laughs.] Yeah, I suppose so. Exactly.
Q: You've been with the church for three decades. What is the best way to reach those "tentacles" of the clergy abuse crisis that remain ... where faith in the institution can be restored for those for whom it has broken. What is the best way to do that? What is the Drano for this one?
A: Until everything is on the table, we can't know how deep the necrosis is. ... The process of bringing things out allows us to see just what the effect of this is. Generations ago, bishops did what they did because they were afraid of scandal. That it would hurt people's faith if people know about this. Brush it away, they thought, because scandal would be the worst possible thing.
Little did they realize that every time that that happened, below the surface, those cracks started forming. When all of a sudden the surface was blown away and we realized we had a house of cards that had been constructed over decades.
We have to know what exactly is going on. The process of child protection is so much more advanced now than it ever was. We know we're building something strong for the present and for the future, but we have to look back and see what we can do for those who have lost. They're not just people in the pews. They're souls that God loves and loves dearly. And that love was obscured by a few bad people. Some number over the years were really bad, and caused a lot of hurt.
Q: How much harder is it now, to make the message come through to parishioners and the wider community, that transparency isn't just a new stance, it's something that is a means to reconnect people?
A: Conversations like this are an important part of that. As we move forward, we have to move beyond perception into reality and truth. The more that we stand on truth, we can fight back against perceptions.
Q: There are headlines coming not only about the task force and the work you're doing, but about litigation or some kind of news about settlements regarding the late Bishop Christopher Weldon and the man whose story moved retired Judge Peter A. Velis to issue his finding last June that Weldon engaged in sexual abuse. I know there are lawyers involved here, but how might you frame that for people? What's the best way to understand the news they'll hear about that?
A: I'm not sure what the news will be beyond what we know right now. Since it's an ongoing conversation, it would be irresponsible for me to look into a crystal ball and say, "This is what I think people will hear." I think it will be remarkably painful for people, as it already is. The genie's already out of that bottle. The report has been made available. People know what Judge Velis said.
I really can't speak to how I think people will perceive it — other than how they already have, which is just with sadness and disgust. I think the allegations that this man made and the things that the judge concluded — we have to work with that. And begin to realize that this was a yesterday issue and now we need to work on today.
We already have been doing that for 20 years. As these things come back, they pull us back into that memory. As we work to make sure our children are as safe as they can possibly can be, in any one of our institutions.
My heart, and the heart of the church, is always for the victim. For the poor. For those who are marginalized. And what's more marginalized than someone who's been hurt in childhood in this way?
Q: The value of an independent group led by a retired judge is its credibility and its insulation from institutional bias. What will be your interaction, if any, with Judge Ford's group?
A: I expect it to be an engaging dialogue in which I expect to be the recipient of information, [while] we need to be the provider of facts and accessibility. I see it as an engaged partnership in that way. Not a partnership of which there is any pressure.
Q: In the case of the Velis report, that was delivered to former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski. Will this be delivered to you, or will it be made public?
A: They're working on policy guidelines and on many different fronts. It will be a public discussion. I don't know the timeline or the exact process.
Q: Are you anticipating trips through the four counties?
A: Absolutely. I'm asking for pastors to invite me. And I'm trusting their knowledge of their own situations — and how we're going to do it most safely. Already, I've had many invitations. Respecting their knowledge and their desire to keep people safe, I'll do what they tell me to do. I told my folks, don't look for me in my office.