Friends, colleagues describe Archbishop Byrnes as ‘man led by the Spirit’

By Mike Stechschulte
Catholic Philly
November 8, 2016

DETROIT (CNS) — Ever since Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes was a newly minted associate pastor at St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores, Deacon Tom Strasz knew he had the qualities of a natural leader: good listener, excellent teacher, calm under pressure.

But more than any of those traits, Deacon Strasz said one thing stands out when he thinks about his longtime friend and mentor.

“He has the heart of an evangelizer,” said Deacon Strasz, who is in ministry at St. Joan of Arc and who for the past five years has been Archbishop Byrnes’ secretary at his regional office at St. Francis of Assisi-St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Ray Township. “He wants you to have the Lord and he wants you to see the Lord and hold the Lord in your heart. Everything he does goes toward that.”

Even still, Deacon Strasz — nor anyone else, for that matter — could have guessed those qualities would take Archbishop Byrnes halfway around the world as he takes on his next assignment as coadjutor archbishop of Agana, Guam.

Pope Francis Oct. 31 named then-Bishop Byrnes, a Detroit auxiliary, as Agana’s coadjutor. As coadjutor, the new archbishop will automatically become head of the archdiocese upon the resignation or death of the current archbishop, Archbishop Anthony S. Apuron, who is the subject of a Vatican investigation over allegations that he has sexually abused minors.

With the Agana Archdiocese embroiled in controversy, Archbishop Byrnes’ leadership there will face an immediate test.

However, if anyone is equipped to take on such a monumental task, Pope Francis couldn’t have chosen a better candidate, Deacon Strasz said.

“He will tell you about his great uncle who was a missionary; in a sense, he’s following in those footsteps,” Deacon Strasz told The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Detroit Archdiocese. “He’s just the kind of guy who goes where he’s needed and just happens to do an excellent job wherever that is. The people of Agana are going to be very blessed. He will bring stability and peace and comfort and consolation in the Lord to these people, and be a good leader for them, too.”

Sacred Heart Major Seminary professor Father Daniel Jones, a high school friend who also worked with Archbishop Byrnes during his time as vice rector of the seminary, said Archbishop Byrnes’ many gifts and talents will make him “a tremendous ordinary and archbishop.”

“He has a general competence that is just very wide,” said Father Jones, who got to know Archbishop Byrnes well during their time together at the University of Michigan in the 1980s. “His first publication was in microbiology, but he’s got a doctorate in Scripture, he’s taught for the Catholic Leadership Institute on organizational behavior, temperaments, things like that.”

During his time at Sacred Heart, Archbishop Byrnes’ classes were always among the seminarians’ favorites, Father Jones said.

“The men really loved him, particularly as a teacher but also as vice rector. They felt he was very fair and they knew where they stood before him,” Father Jones said. “There were no surprises, which is really important in a seminary.”

Archbishop Byrnes’ straightforward nature also meant you never had to guess where he stood on important matters, the priest added.

“He has tremendous integrity,” Father Jones said. “If he knows something’s right, he’ll do it, and if he knows he’s wrong, he’ll admit it.”

During his more than five years as an auxiliary bishop in Detroit, Archbishop Byrnes led efforts related to the archdiocese’s evangelization initiative, “Unleash the Gospel,” including the historic archdiocesan synod to be held Nov. 18-20.

Erik Coules, regional coordinator of parish life and services for the Archdiocese of Detroit who worked closely with Archbishop Byrnes on the initiative, said a distinctive element of Archbishop Byrnes’ leadership is his ability to “allow for mess” to make room for the Holy Spirit.

“In church work, we want things organized, we want them orderly, we want it to be clearly structured and have an exact understanding, but he’s allowed himself to go forward while saying ‘I don’t know what the Lord wants, but I know this is the direction,'” Coules said. “He’s definitely a man led by the Spirit.”

Deacon Strasz added Archbishop Byrnes is “an excellent listener” who has the “rare characteristic that he can be put in the midst of all kinds of turbulence and not only keep his head, but enter into conversation about correcting behaviors where he doesn’t lose it and doesn’t come off as bludgeoning.”

“He’s just got that way about him where he can criticize and not take you down,” Deacon Strasz said. “He builds you up.”

Being made a bishop didn’t change the way Archbishop Byrnes related to those around him, and neither will being made an archbishop, Father Jones said.

“One of the things that’s striking is that when he became a bishop, it didn’t make him proud. He was the same guy — in fact, it only made him more of a servant,” Father Jones said. “I’m sure this will do the same thing.”

Coules said Archbishop Byrnes’ prayerful life, humility and love for his people will be a blessing for the people of Guam, who will come to love him as much as his native Detroit does.

“I was so disappointed to hear we were losing him, but it did not surprise me at all,” Coules said. “They say the Archdiocese of Detroit is a bishop-maker, but we’re definitely going to miss him.”


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