On Monday, the Rev. Bill Byrne will be installed as bishop of the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese. He succeeds Mitchell Rozanski, who left this summer to become archbishop of St. Louis.
Byrne comes to western Massachusetts from Potomac, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C.
Kari Njiiri, NEPM: Your archbishop in Washington, Wilton Gregory, recently became a cardinal, the first African American cardinal in church history. Can you talk about the meaning of this, especially in a year with such a focus on racial justice?
Bishop-elect Bill Byrne: Oh, I found it a work of the Holy Spirit that through the pope, that in this year where we've seen — where the ancient wound in this country has been suddenly brought to the front in a way that it needed to decades, centuries ago — where we witnessed the ugliness has not died down, but has continued. And then, for this very providential appointment of one of the top papal advisers, and an elector of the next pope, to be an African American, is I think one of God's ways of trying to heal us as a society — and through, especially, his church.
You produced a series on YouTube about the church and its teachings called "Five Things with Fr. Bill Byrne," including a clip, "Five Things I Learned from My Dog." I love that clip. What five things should we know about you?
Five things you should know about me: No. 1: I'm the baby of a big family. I'm used to not feeling overly special. I think when you grow up in one of eight — then you realize, OK, you need to work as a group in order for... people to get along and be happy.
And the other thing is, is I'm a priest, and I love being a priest. I've been a priest for 26 years, and I find myself more joyful now than I was 26 years ago. And I was pretty doggone joyful then.
No. 3 is I'm a pastor at heart. The majority — 22 years of my priesthood — has not been administrative. Although I worked in the archdiocese, all the while, I kept living in a parish, which is the place where sort of the faith hits the road.
No. 4: I would say I'm a chronically hopeful person. To say the glass is half full is an understatement. I believe, even in this really weird and challenging year of 2020, that if we open our hearts and minds and our eyes, great things can happen.
I always tell people we're not getting back to normal. Let's get back to better. The lessons that we learned about, our simplified lives, and spending time with our families and walking a lot — I think all of these are sort of part of the blessings that we should be garnering, because it won't last forever.
And No. 5 is that I am a believer, and I'm thrilled that the pope has sent me to this incredible part of the world, in western Massachusetts, to walk with the people. One of the great things that Pope Francis teaches us is we need to accompany each other in the faith.
You know that the diocese and your predecessors have said over and over that they regret the sexual abuse committed by clergy members and the failure of the diocese to protect their parishioners. And yet, it seems every year we hear of new accusations and new problems with how investigations were conducted. How are you going to be able to hold the diocese accountable?
This is a No. 1 priority of mine, because we cannot get to healing until we get to transparency and communications. We did a survey before I was even thinking that I would be going to [the] Springfield Diocese, to western Massachusetts, and the message came back clear: We need better communication. We need transparency.
So... I've already directed our staff to start working on getting this information out and releasing the names so that true healing can begin. It's not a luxury. It's an absolute necessity to be able to provide people with the information that they need so that we can begin to bring healing — most importantly, to the victims.
I have never been a bishop before, but I have been in parishes for 26 years, and I've seen the devastation that our failure to be truthful — what it does to people.
As you drive around, you will see quite a few empty church buildings, some in very prominent locations in western Massachusetts communities. Have you been briefed on the diocese's efforts to sell these churches and get them developed?
I am not ...as familiar with that. The flood of information is about five fire hoses at once. I was announced October 14, so it really has only been just under two months.
So I have been concentrating on our child protection, concentrating on making sure that our priorities are established. I also see that dwindling participation is not just sad, it's also an opportunity.
You mentioned that dwindling sort of attendance, which has also led the Springfield diocese to close a number of schools in recent years. My understanding, though, is that enrollment has increased somewhat due to the diocese offering in-person classes during the pandemic. How will you be able to sustain that, given the available financial aid that remains limited?
Well, when your numbers go up, so does your income. So nothing succeeds like success. And I expect that when people begin to start experiencing what — or what they are experiencing now — the investment that you make not just in in-person classroom education, but actually seeing that we have the capacity to educate the whole person. We don't just take care of their brain or get them out in the fields for gym. We also educate the spirit.
And we don't have to pray in Catholic schools. We actually get to pray. And that experience of developing our spirit and joining each other — if we want to know what's going to end a pandemic of hatred and racism and ugliness in our culture, it's that. It's getting people in a room together to pray, to laugh, to run around and have fun on the playground, and then have the excellence of a Catholic education.