Can He Heal the Church?

December 25, 2016 Nestor Licanto

Bishop Michael Byrnes of Detroit was on a bus traveling to the south of England when he received a call from the Papal Nuncio of the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.  He knew almost immediately that it would not be an ordinary conversation.

Archbishop Pierre’s office is officially called the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States, and he is both the ambassador of the Pope to the President and the point-of-contact between the American Catholic hierarchy and the Holy Father. Receiving that call alone was a bit of a shock, but when he was told the reason for it, the good Bishop Byrnes described his reaction in a single word: “Stunned.”  

As his bus rolled along on that road in Great Britain, Byrnes listened as the Papal Nuncio explained that he was being reassigned to the Archdiocese of Agana on the island of Guam to become its new archbishop.

As a dazed Byrnes was trying to grasp all that the nuncio was telling him, the only thing he could recall about Guam at that moment was that “it was an integral part of World War II in the Pacific.” That was all? “Yes, that was all,” he admitted.

As for why he was chosen? “You know, they never gave me a reason. My impression is because I was available,” he said, laughing. “That’s about all I know, to be honest.”

Guam must have seemed like a very, very long way away for a man who has spent almost all his life in and around the Detroit area. Michael Jude Byrnes was born in 1958 to Patrick and Marie Byrnes. He attended Edison Elementary School, St. Mary of Redford Elementary and Junior High, and Detroit Catholic Central High School where he graduated in 1976.

He was active in sports, and played baseball and basketball “and any other sport I could find,” Byrnes remembered. “I played football in high school, too.”

Byrnes never really had to leave home for college either. He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, just 43 miles to the west, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology in 1979. He served as a campus minister during and after graduation before entering formation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit in 1990.

He earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Arts degree with a concentration in Scripture, and was ordained on May 25, 1996 at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.

He has wanted to be a priest since he was in second grade, and credited his great-uncle, Fr. Remy McCoy, for inspiring him.

Father McCoy had been a missionary in Northern Ghana, in sub-Saharan Africa. “He brought Christianity to the area for the first time, and now 350 thousand Catholics owe their faith to his work in the 1930’s,” Byrnes said of his grandfather’s cousin. Father McCoy regaled young Michael with his stories. “He just made me think that being a priest was a big adventure.”

Byrnes served as an associate pastor and an adjunct faculty member at a parish and seminary in Michigan before leaving for Rome in 1999 to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University where he earned his Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 2003.

He returned home to Detroit and re-joined the faculty of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary, and later became vice-rector. If he wasn’t a priest, Byrnes said he probably would have been a professor of some kind. “I really enjoy teaching.”


Byrnes inspiration to take up the cloth came from his great-uncle Fr. Remy McCoy

He also still enjoys sports, and up until a year ago he used to run marathons, even a few triathlons. One particular year he even convinced dozens of his seminarians to join him in one of the grueling 26-mile races. Unfortunately, he injured his hip playing golf and developed arthritis. “Now I have a new hip, so my marathon days are over,” he lamented. “I still enjoy swimming and hiking though, and I generally stay pretty fit.”

While golf may have cost him a healthy hip, he still participates in that sport too. “I like golf because it takes enough mental effort, so you have to pay attention to it, but it’s not taxing,” he said. Fridays were his days off from the Detroit Archdiocese, and he had a regular group for the golf outings.

“It helps to take your mind off work, and all the other concerns,” he explained. “My handicap is embarrassing—it’s in the 20’s,” Byrnes laughed, “but when I make a good shot, I feel good about it.” Like many weekend duffers, that’s all it usually takes to bring you back for the next round. “Exactly,” the new archbishop confirmed.

“We’re in a mess right now, and the waves on the sea are rough. Jesus can calm the sea, but it’s going to take awhile. That’s our main message right now.”

Byrnes also enjoys reading when he can find the time. His favorite book after the Holy Bible is To Kill a Mockingbird , the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 classic by Harper Lee about a lawyer in a fictional Alabama county. “I really admired the character of Atticus Finch, and the father figure that he presented,” Byrnes said.

Finch is considered one of the best fictional characters ever in literary circles, and according to the movie website IMDb, Finch was named the greatest film hero of all time by the American Film Institute. His most recognized traits are consistency and an unwillingness to be easily swayed.

“He is characterized by his calm demeanor, especially as a single father when parenting his children. He has a tendency to treat his children as adults, with a quiet persistence to urge them to think for themselves. Atticus is one of the more prominent citizens in the town, but unlike others, he holds no racism or bigotry,” a description states.

It goes on. “Atticus believes in the justice system, and he holds that Tom (his client during trial), who is accused of a crime because of his skin color, is an innocent man. Atticus has an unwavering position regarding Tom's innocence. While he is well portrayed as a quiet hero within the novel, this point of view is not necessarily shared by his children. But as the novel progresses, their attitude begins to improve.”

Perhaps Byrnes identified with Atticus Finch because he saw traits in himself that are very similar. He remembered one passage in the book when Atticus is talking with his daughter Scout: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

“That always stuck with me,” Byrnes said. “I’m fair. I don’t judge without hearing both sides. I really try hard to be impartial in any kind of leadership role that I take.”

But it is a passage from his favorite book that influences him the most. He quoted a verse in 1 Corinthians 4 that talks about the Lord as judge. It reads in part: Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

“I take that very seriously. I really try not to take sides, I just really think that’s important,” he repeated.

“The Ignatians used to call it Holy Indifference,” Byrnes elaborated. “That’s not to say I don’t have feelings, but that I hold my will in a place that’s ready to respond to God’s initiative.” An article by Alice Von Hildebrand on the website explains it further. “When St. Ignatius called us to be indifferent about something, he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about it, that we should somehow leave our heart out of it: He meant that we should care about God more.”

As the island’s newest archbishop, Byrnes’s commitment to being impartial should serve him well as he takes charge of Guam’s Catholic faithful. The archbishop acknowledged that there are divisions within the ranks. “The Church here is not broken, but it’s wounded.  You’re hearing about this polarization, and it’s easy to lose sight of the good that we have,” he said.  

At the center of the fray has been Byrnes’s predecessor, Archbishop Anthony Apuron, who was replaced by Pope Francis pending the outcome of his canonical trial for alleged sexual abuse of former altar boys.

Apuron, in recent years, has become a follower of the Neocatechumenal Way, which many saw as a clear departure from the Catholic traditions practiced for generations by the majority of the island’s faithful.  

The estimated 700 followers of the NCW represented a small minority, but traditionalists feared that through Apuron they not only held the highest position in the Archdiocese, but also had control over Guam’s future clergy through the formation of priests at the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Yona.  The seminary became the flashpoint that thrust the dispute into the public spotlight.  

The Church recognized this, and soon after Byrnes was appointed, moved swiftly to reassert control over the seminary. At the instruction of the Holy See under the authority of the Pope, Byrnes filed legal documents with the Department of Land Management to “effectuate the reversion of the Yona property back to the full control and governance of the Archdiocese of Agana.”

Byrnes further cemented his control by rescinding a 2011 deed restriction on the property by Apuron that detractors said gave indefinite ownership of the seminary to the NCW. Byrnes also dissolved the seminary board that was composed of NCW followers and installed himself as the sole member. 

Still, the archbishop will approach the seminary he now controls with an open mind. “I have every intention that the seminary will continue. The action that I have taken is mainly to clarify the ownership of the property, and not so much over the seminary activity. So there’s a difference,” Byrnes explained.

 “The seminary has produced, from what I understand, good fruit, good priests, not only for Guam but other diocese in the Oceana region. And so it’s another place I need to hear from, to see for myself. But I have at this point every intention to continue its service, and I certainly want to continue supporting the institute. It can be a tremendous source of grace for the Archdiocese. I have plenty of experience in the seminary, and I know the good it can do. I’ll know more [about the seminary] and I have no intention of changing its activity at this point.”

He is well aware of the deep rift between the traditionalists and the followers of the NCW, but again he is not ready to take any sides. “I can tell you this, I know the NCW. It’s highly respected, and it’s a movement within the Church, a movement that is meant to recharge, to refocus the faithful on important charisms of the Church. So I would hope that the priests that are formed in that seminary would take the growth that they receive and donate it to the parish.”

Byrnes said there are so many different spiritualities, and there should be a place where there are a variety of spiritualities. “You know I’m not part of the Neocatechumenal Way, but they’re Catholics. They’re the Neocatechumenal way, but theirs is not the only way. There’s definitely room for them on the island. But we’re Catholics, we’re not becoming something else. I will celebrate the mass the way the mass is celebrated.”

For now, Byrnes intends to do a lot of listening. “I need to hear their hopes and their concerns.” Probably a lot of talking too. “I’m reasonably extroverted. People know pretty well what I’m thinking because I’ll usually say it. I tend to be direct, and more of a task-oriented. I wouldn’t say I’m a pragmatist; I’m goal driven, so I’ve learned to balance that goal-driven [character] with a strong value for people.”

His advice for parishioners is to keep their focus on Jesus. “He’s the reason we’re Catholics. And people may say that’s super spiritual, but no, that’s just reality. Either He’s real, or He’s not. I can testify that Jesus is alive, and He is the one who can guide us through the mess. We’re in a mess right now, and the waves on the sea are rough. Jesus can calm the sea, but it’s going to take awhile. That’s our main message right now.”

 To quote Byrnes, “The Church here is not broken, but it is wounded.” The new Archbishop of Guam has arrived to try and heal it.

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