DETROIT — Two weeks ago, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes was on a retreat in the south of England, thousands of miles away from his native Detroit.
It was there he got the call from the papal nuncio to the United States, who asked him a question that would take him farther away from his home, on a much more permanent basis.
“I got a call from the papal nuncio (Archbishop Christophe Pierre); it was a 5-10 minute conversation, where he asked me if I would accept the appointment to become the next archbishop of Agana, Guam,” Archbishop-designate Byrnes said in an interview with The Michigan Catholic. “I said yes, I’m willing to do whatever the Holy Father asked of me.”
Being a bishop means dedicating one’s life to the service of the Church, including traveling great distances to proclaim the word of Jesus Christ, just as the Apostles did.
But Archbishop Byrnes never thought it would mean being the chief shepherd of the south Pacific island community, 7,528 miles from his native Michigan.
“I did look up Guam on my phone when I found out,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “I knew what Guam was; I read enough about World War II. But outside of that, I knew nothing about Guam, really. I found out the community was heavily Catholic, overwhelmingly Catholic.”
The Archdiocese of Agana encompasses all of Guam, an unincorporated, organized territory of the United States, situated about 2,500 miles south of Japan and east of the Philippines. The Archdiocese of Agana comprises the entire island of Guam and is responsible for the pastoral care of 132,000 Catholics – 85 percent of the island’s population.
The history of Catholicism on Guam goes back to 1668, when Spanish colonizers introduced the faith. In 1965, the Diocese of Agana was created as a suffragan of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, before being elevated to a metropolitan archdiocese in 1984, with suffragan dioceses in the Caroline and Marshall Islands.
Archbishop Byrnes said he’s come to learn of the rich, deep faith life on Guam in the past few days.
“Jesus is always Jesus,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “I understand the faith is deep in Guam, with a lot of devotion, especially to the Blessed Mother. I think, like every diocese, it has a different feel to it, and I’ll learn what those feelings are. It’s an island, and as I understand, everybody knows everybody.”
The difference from the Northeast Region of the Archdiocese of Detroit – where Archbishop Byrnes was previously assigned – and the Archdiocese of Agana is profound.
The Northeast Region has 93 churches, spanning from St. Ambrose in Grosse Pointe Park to St. Edward on the Lake in Lakeport, roughly a 64-mile drive. Guam’s 26 parishes stretch across 38 miles from the northern point of Guam to the southern point.
“Being such a small island, it’s a tremendous advantage to get the opportunity to know the priests better,” said Archbishop Byrnes, who would be the eighth bishop in Agana’s history. “I still have to tell my dad what’s going on. But my brother looked up Guam and told me he was thinking about coming out for spring break with his family.”
Archbishop Byrnes was made an auxiliary bishop of Detroit in 2011 and recently was tasked with leading many of the archdiocese’s “Unleash the Gospel” initiatives in the building up Synod 16, an archdiocesan-wide event focused on “reinventing the DNA” of the archdiocese.
“Archbishop Byrnes has given exemplary pastoral service in the Archdiocese of Detroit, most recently in leading us to prepare for Synod 16 as part of our efforts to Unleash the Gospel,” said Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron. “Now God has chosen him for a challenging mission almost a half-a-world away. Pope Francis, in sending Archbishop Byrnes to Guam, has recognized that he possesses not only the talents, but above all the deep faith in Jesus Christ that make him suitable for this apostolic work. He goes with our love and prayers.”
Archbishop Byrnes will enter a difficult situation in Guam, where the current archbishop, Archbishop Anthony Apuron, OFM Cap., is facing allegations of sexual abuse of minors dating back to his time as a parish priest.
Since news of the allegations surfaced in May, Archbishop Apuron has resisted calls to resign his post, including from his own presbyteral council and the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai.
At least six allegations have surfaced against Archbishop Apuron since May, and in June, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Hon, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to take over administrative and pastoral responsibilities in Agana. Though Archbishop Apuron remains the archbishop, he no long holds authority there.
Coming into a difficult situation, Archbishop Byrnes said it is important for him to be understanding and listen to people who may be angry with the Church and its leadership.
“You try to listen and understand, some doubt, fear and skepticism,” said Archbishop Byrnes, adding he has been in contact with the archdiocese’s current administrator, Archbishop Hon. “To treat the difficulties the archdiocese is facing as real, some that we need to deal with together. You don’t talk people into trusting you. It’s now what you do. Trust is easily lost, but only through time is it won. I can only win trust through time; it’s not automatic, and I’m aware of that.”
As coadjutor archbishop, Archbishop Byrnes will take over administrative and pastoral responsibilities of the archdiocese as Archbishop Apuron’s situation is resolved by the Holy See. A coadjutor bishop, unlike an auxiliary bishop, holds the right of succession as the ordinary of his diocese.
Heading into a crucial point in the Church’s history on the island, Archbishop Byrnes said he’s first been personally preparing himself for the task at hand.
“First, I need to check my heart,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “My heart has to be a heart ready to love people. I’m already praying for the archdiocese, the people and the religious. Unless I embrace Jesus’ heart for them, it would be ineffective. So they’ve been a big part of my prayer. My heart has to be in that mode. Not in a ‘success mode.’”
As point person for many “Unleash the Gospel” initiatives in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Archbishop Byrnes is grateful for the opportunity to lead the Church is this capacity, but said the efforts are not solely his.
“In God’s providence, He’s allowed me the opportunity to be involved with this for four years, and apparently He thinks that’s enough,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “The momentum of the Unleash the Gospel initiative is not caused by me. It’s caused by the 100 or so people, not including people in the Chancery, who’ve been integral into moving this whole thing forward. We have great leadership here, and it’s been a great opportunity to lead it for these last four years.”
Archbishop Byrnes will remain in Detroit through the archdiocesan synod, Nov. 18-20, before transitioning to his new role in the Archdiocese of Agana. Regardless, Archbishop Byrnes said he’ll miss the archdiocese and the city he’s called home throughout his lifetime.
“I’m sad to leave the archdiocese now, I’ll never forget it,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “I’ll always immerse myself in it. I was made in Detroit, for goodness sake.”
Ordained a priest in 1996, Archbishop Byrnes spent much of his priestly ministry serving in various roles on the faculty at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, including as vice rector from 2004-11. During that time, he also served as weekend assistant and later pastor of Detroit’s Presentation/Our Lady of Victory Parish, as well as weekend assistant at St. Gregory the Great Parish and Church of the Madonna in Detroit. Early in his ministry, he served as associate pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores.
Michael Jude Byrnes was born in Detroit on Aug. 23, 1958, one of two children of Patrick and the late Marie (McAndrew) Byrnes. He also has three stepsisters and a stepmother, Roberta (Wise) Byrnes. Archbishop Byrnes attended St. Mary of Rockford Elementary and Junior High before graduating from Detroit Catholic Central High School in 1976; he becomes the first Catholic Central alum to be ordained an archbishop.
In addition to advanced theological degrees from Sacred Heart Major Seminary and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Archbishop Byrnes holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in microbiology from the University of Michigan. During his time in Ann Arbor, he worked as a lab assistant, campus minister and a leader in the Catholic charismatic renewal ministry.
Thinking back on his years as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Archbishop Byrnes recalled the mission Archbishop Vigneron gave him in regard to evangelizing the archdiocese, and how it relates to the new mission Pope Francis has given him.
“The archbishop gave me a mission to work toward unleashing the Gospel,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “Now, the Holy Father is giving me a mission to care for an archdiocese, a people, that are wonderful, but are facing a challenge in which they need a new leader. And that’s my mission now.”