Detroit — His father, Patrick Byrnes, tells the story.
Michael Byrnes is about two years old. Patrick is giving him a haircut in their Warren home when he makes a false move with the scissors.
“I nicked him and made him cry,” Patrick recalls. “Then, in my imagination, I saw the Lord’s hand on him — a strong carpenter’s arm and hand — and I heard Him say, ‘Be careful. This boy belongs to Me.’”
With his parents both steeped in the world of education — his dad employed with Detroit Public Schools, and his mother having earned her doctorate in education in his childhood — there was plenty for the young Michael Byrnes to learn while growing up.
But it was clear from the family atmosphere that “being Catholic” and having a tangible relationship with Christ wasn’t something the Byrnes family had to buckle down and study — it was lived, not learned.
“Certainly the faith came from my parents,” says Bishop Byrnes. “They were friends with priests in the parish, so we had a familiarity with priests — it was a viable option for our lives.”
Bishop Byrnes’s parents moved from Warren to the west side of Detroit when he was five or six years old. Part of the reason for the move was that his mother, Marie, was pursuing her degree at Detroit’s IHM-run Marygrove College.
Her affection for the IHM Sisters in mind, the bustling faith community of St. Mary of Redford Parish is where the family wound up.
Just being in that atmosphere was enough to make an impression on a youngster, Bishop Byrnes says.
“It was a huge, thriving parish,” he says. “It was like living in a small town. Everybody knew everybody in the area because they all went to the same church, all the kids went to the same school, and life just kind of revolved around the parish.”
In his youth, he remembers well his pastors. Among them were Msgr. Edward Hickey, who went on to become chancellor of the archdiocese, and Msgr. William Sherzer, a well-known pastor, teacher and spiritual director in the archdiocese.
By the second grade, he said he had a strong notion of joining the priesthood.
“It was a great parish, a great set of priests there who helped capture my imagination about wanting to be a priest,” he says.
Just as a parish-centered life was part of his childhood, so was faith at home. It wasn’t taboo to talk about God, faith or the priesthood with his parents.
“It’s not like we were super-pious,” Bishop Byrnes says. “But we were very faithful on Sundays. In May and October we’d often pray the rosary. And we always had dinner together and (faith) would be part of the conversation.”
Bishop Byrnes recalls a fun and active childhood. He grew up with one sibling, his younger brother Patrick — an “Irish twin” as he would say, as Patrick is less than a year younger than he.
Both brothers describe themselves as having a solid relationship, but being much different from one another.
“Somebody pointed out to me in high school that he found it impressive and admirable that he and I didn’t seem to fight much,” recalls the junior Patrick Byrnes, now a professional cartoonist in Chicago whose artwork appears in the New Yorker magazine. “We were so different in so many ways that we didn’t step on each other’s toes.”
But it’s apparent they had a great respect for one another’s intellect and abilities, even as they hint at a friendly sibling rivalry.
“He taught himself to juggle in one afternoon, upwards of 35 years ago,” Patrick quips. “To this day I still can’t. It’s still a bitter grudge, and I’m still deeply ashamed of it.”
As a family, the Byrneses have fond memories of vacations both educational and adventurous. They traveled out East and visited a lot of museums. But they’d have the most fun in the hotel pools.
They also grew to love nature.
“As we got older, we’d go on camping trips to the Porcupine Mountains,” said Bishop Byrnes. “Backpacking, canoeing — we loved the woods.”
As adults, Bishop Byrnes, his brother and their father all have fond memories of a trip taken 12 years ago for Patrick Byrnes, Sr.’s 70th birthday. They took a physically strenuous — too physically strenuous, they all agree — canoeing and hiking trip to the Boundary Water Canoe Area in Ontario, north of Lake Superior.
It’s clear that the Byrneses don’t shy from exercise — it’s been a part of the new bishop’s life for as long as he can recall.
Bishop Byrnes was his football team’s captain at Detroit Catholic Central High School, and still competes in marathons and triathlons now, in his 50s. He says his father can still do a handful of chin-ups, too.
“My dad was a football coach,” Patrick Byrnes, Sr. says. “We were always preached to about staying in shape.”
Bishop Byrnes says he was able to look up to both of his parents. With his dad, he could talk about his aspirations and his faith. With his mother — who passed away from cancer when Bishop Byrnes was in his 30s — he would learn to focus on accomplishing things a lot, and talking about it little.
“My dad was the one more open about faith and our relationship with God,” Bishop Byrnes says. “But my mom and I were more alike. Mom was a high achiever, and direct in her opinions about things. Her philosophy of life was more like, ‘Don’t talk about it … just do it.’”
Within all the trappings of a joyful childhood, Patrick Byrnes, Sr., says the young Michael Byrnes always stood out for his fairness and honesty.
“Very often we’d go on picnics with friends and what not, and they would relate to me, ‘You know, Pat, there’s something different about that boy.’ He was just fair and considerate about everybody — and that remark stuck on him,” says Patrick Byrnes, Sr.
Bishop Byrnes’ father noted how much Fr. Remy McCoy — his wife’s second cousin who was an African missionary — had an impact on the young Michael Byrnes (read story here).
“Mike had a great admiration for this missionary,” his father would say.
Through the years, Bishop Byrnes said his desire for the priesthood would never really leave his mind. He was an associate of the Basilian Fathers shortly after graduating from Detroit Catholic Central. He was involved in the Charismatic Renewal movement through college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
And even as he studied microbiology in hopes of entering the medical field, he said it was always in his mind how he could use that in the context of his childhood vision of being a missionary.
A proud family
Today, the Byrnes family — including Bishop Byrnes’s stepmother Roberta — are obviously proud of Bishop Byrnes. But they also are confident that he was picked by Pope Benedict XVI to be a bishop because of some specific attributes that the Church has need of.
“He’s straightforward,” Patrick Byrnes, Sr. says. “If he thinks something is wrong, he will let you know about it. He won’t smooth things over just to be polite. Right is right. And he’s a likeable guy and considerate of people.”
The younger Patrick echoed his father’s sentiments, adding that the Holy Father had made a wise choice.
“We need more like him for the Church,” his brother Patrick says. “It is that simple. He participated in an ecumenical brotherhood before his ordination, before he went into the seminary. At one event, someone had to pick one word to describe him, and he picked the perfect word: ‘true.’ Agree with him or disagree with him, he’s true. He has no pettiness or vindictiveness. He takes things seriously, despite having a good sense of humor, and he’s just a regular guy who happens to be smart and incredibly hard working.
“If the Church had more like him, we’d be seeing more happy days.”
— Robert Delaney contributed to this report