SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts — Shortly after delivering an Easter homily in which he said the Resurrection is a call to build “a culture of life, a culture of love. … We can’t cancel, we counsel,” Bishop William D. Byrne issued his first pastoral letter as Springfield’s bishop.
The letter, titled “Back to Better: Our Road to Emmaus,” was issued April 10 on the Springfield Diocese’s website, diospringfield.org, and published in the April issue of the diocesan publication, The Catholic Mirror.
Using the biblical account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Byrne wrote, “This letter is intended to be a message of hope, and, I pray, a guide for our future.
“Since it is intended to be a road out of the dark and into the light, I think we should begin by meeting our Lord on the road, not just any road, but the road to Emmaus.”
Acknowledging the challenges of the present time of pandemic and uncertainty, he wrote, “Sadness and despair can make the world look different to us. Our expectations can cloud our vision. In these days in which we are living, it can be difficult to see how Jesus is walking with us, but it does not mean that he is not truly present.”
Byrne, who was ordained and installed as Springfield’s 10th bishop Dec. 14, 2020, said in his letter the path forward includes dealing with the wounds of clergy abuse, “bringing healing to the victims-survivors, atoning for these sins and honestly communicating what we know must be our priority.”
He referenced the work of the diocese’s Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse in addressing the abuse crisis, noting the task force “is charting a path for the future rooted in the principles of transparency and accountability. These efforts are not the culmination of our commitment, rather just the start.”
He urged readers to offer special prayers for the priests of the diocese, writing: “They live lives committed to their parishioners and yet often feel distrusted. These good and dedicated men need to be celebrated for their commitment and not associated with those few who did so much damage to their victims and the whole church.”
Byrne also acknowledged the declining numbers of practicing Catholics and, quoting Pope Francis, said there is a loss of a sense of belonging to a wider community of human beings.
“True community only flows out of our knowledge and love of Jesus,” he wrote. “‘Back to better’ will only happen when we as individuals and as a church move closer to Christ through the Scriptures and the Mass.”
He commended the efforts of parishes and the diocesan media to offer virtual means of Mass attendance but stressed the need for in-person worship as soon as possible.
“However, beginning again means getting back to church, participating in person, and renewing our sacramental encounter with Jesus,” he wrote.
“Today, as from the very first days of the church described in the Acts of Apostles (2:42), we as Jesus’ disciples need to come together to listen to the word of God, to renew and strengthen our community bonds, to share in our prayer and joy and, above all to celebrate the Eucharist and receive the Lord’s body and blood together,” he said. “We need to be back together as soon as we can.”
Byrne’s road map to a better future also includes increasing opportunities for eucharistic adoration and promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He also encourages greater focus on the family as the “domestic church.”
“One of the perceived consequences of the pandemic was that families often spent much more time with each other. I pray that this never changes,” he stated in the letter. “As things open up, it may be necessary for couples and families to recreate this pandemic situation by scheduling a ‘family/date night.’ Please make this a priority and I assure you that you will recognize the blessing of each other.”
Calling on all parishioners to embark on a renewed mission of evangelization, Byrne wrote: “As we make our way back to church, we need to be a people of invitation and welcoming. Parishes can begin by establishing teams to invite people back.
“A call from a neighbor may be all that is needed to light a spark in someone’s soul. If someone is unable to return, we may be able to have an encounter in their home with a visit.”
In the pastoral letter, he also stressed how important youth ministry and young adult ministry are to the mission of evangelization as well as the important role Catholic schools also play in that mission.
The human right to life also is central to a better future, he noted: “Jesus taught us to stand up for the most vulnerable among us. Protection of the unborn, the poor, the immigrant, and the elderly is not just a religious value, it is a human right.”
Byrne concluded the pastoral letter with words of hope: “We have been down this road before. Kingdoms and empires have come and gone, yet the church still stands,” he said. “Pope Francis, the 265th successor of St. Peter, still preaches the unchanging Gospel from the very same place where Peter was crucified.
“Why should it be any different for us in the Diocese of Springfield? We are in the process of purification. If we embrace this time with hope, great things will happen.”
Drake is editor of The Catholic Observer, the magazine of the Diocese of Springfield, and editor/news director of Catholic Communications in the diocese.