Hectic Capitol Hill keeps days ‘joyfully challenging’

Besides noontime bells, the church was silent as a dozen people, scattered through the pews, knelt in prayer before a Wednesday Mass.

Abruptly, a voice broke the quiet.

“The angel of the Lord declared to Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Spirit.”

Everyone stood and recited the Angelus as Father William Byrne ambled down the center aisle, his voice booming over the pews as he surveyed the church. At the front of the nave, he genuflected, finished the prayer and headed for the sacristy to vest.

Mass is perhaps the most public part of Father Byrne’s day. He is with people, however, from dawn to dusk as he balances two roles — the first as pastor of St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, a Washington, D.C., parish that sits across the street from the Library of Congress and serves the House of Representatives and surrounding neighborhoods, and the second as Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Mass provides parishioners an opportunity to pin down the on-the-go pastor. Shaking Father Byrne’s hand in the vestibule after Mass, one man pitched his catering businesses to him, apologizing that he was doing it in church. Another woman introduced herself as a visitor from Ireland who attended a baptism he had celebrated a week before. Another woman stopped him on his way to the sacristy for a brief conversation in Italian.

Gregarious and energetic, Father Byrne inserts humor and commonalities in conversation, his voice rollicking with enthusiasm, good-natured hyperbole and quick-wittedness. He admits, however, that he thrives on short exchanges and has difficulty tracking long conversations, unless they involve a tragedy.

He counts his frenetic personality as a blessing because it allows him to keep his attention on multiple things at a time, he said.

“His brain does jump very quickly,” said Lynn Marsh Freeman, St. Peter’s rectory manager. “He comes into a room and says, ‘Do this, do this, do this; what about that, what about that, what about that? OK. Bye.’ And that’s fine.”

Hectic schedule

Father Byrne — known to many as “Father Bill” — grew up in a Washington suburb, the youngest of eight kids in a Catholic family. He attended Catholic elementary and high school, and graduated from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, before returning to Washington to teach at his grade school. Three years later, he entered seminary, studying at the North American College in Rome. After ordination in 1994, he served as an associate pastor of two parishes before spending eight years as a college chaplain at the University of Maryland, his assignment before St. Peter.

Father Byrne
Father Byrne, pastor of St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill and secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the archdiocese, sits in silent prayer before daily Mass. Photo by Gerald Martineau

He fulfills his commitment to the parish and archdiocese with the help of “a truly remarkable, wonderful staff,” he said. “They make a lot of grace happen in this archdiocese.”

On this day, the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Father Byrne had been up since 5:30 a.m. He began his day with the Divine Office, followed by a 90-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial and back. He then prayed Morning Prayer, got ready for the day and spent time in the parish office before hearing pre-Mass confessions.

It’s not a typical day, he said, but for Father Byrne, there is no typical day. As he hangs his vestments in the sacristy, he remarks that he’s also not a typical priest because of his two jobs, but then rethinks; many priests today have other “jobs,” such as business managers, principals or diocesan office directors.

Father Byrne usually spends early mornings and evenings at the parish, and he is at the archdiocesan offices from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It varies based on the demands of the parish, its elementary school and the chancery. The previous day, he offered a 10 a.m. funeral Mass before visiting the St. John Paul II Seminary, where two parishioners are in orientation. After having lunch with them “to cheer them on,” he spent the afternoon at the archdiocesan offices, where he oversees “everything in the archdiocese that is not finance, schools or priest personnel.”

He used to joke that the only things he disliked about priesthood were meetings, and now his day is all meetings, he said. He has learned not to mind them.

Pulling up his color-coded (and seemingly packed) calendar on an iPad, he laughed and said, “This is like a low schedule.” Students were still on summer break, Congress was on August recess and his vicar was on vacation.

Nonetheless, the previous day’s “low schedule” included meeting with the Missions Office director and a conference call with Catholic Relief Services to talk about Operation Rice Bowl before taping a 30-second audio segment.

“Let’s face it — if your job description is ‘be the love of Christ,’ that’s a pretty good job description.”— Father William Byrne

Sought-after speaker

Father Byrne is “the voice of the archdiocese” for Discover Your Inspiration, a series of upbeat radio messages played weekly across the Washington region. “Would you notice if your neighbor was away for a week? How about two?” began a recent spot that encouraged people to reach out to their neighbors. “God made us for community. Build a community wherever you are,” it continued, pointing listeners to the archdiocesan website.

Father Byrne
Father Byrne celebrates a weekday morning Mass at St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by Gerald Martineau

“People love them,” Father Byrne said. “Catholics are really proud of them because they’re not in your face, and they’re positive.”

The priest’s time is in demand. Each year, he heads to Rome to teach a weeklong homiletics course at the North American College. He’s routinely sought as a speaker, and he ticked off a list of upcoming engagements, including ones in Oklahoma and New Jersey. That evening, he would drive to southern Maryland for a parish’s Theology on Tap Q&A.

“I try not to overdo it,” he said. “I do the ones that sound like they’re going to be fun.”

The week before, he had spoken at another Theology on Tap event for Washington young professionals. His topic conveyed his widely regarded sense of humor: “How not to plan your civil war reenactment wedding” with five wedding-planning tips.

The title was a joke — sort of. It has happened, he said.

“You don’t ask people, usually, ‘Tell me about your tuxes,” he told an audience already laughing in anticipation. “So when the couple comes in — in Civil War reenactment outfits — you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to tell people this story.’”

St. Peter hosts a considerable number of weddings; Father Byrne witnessed 20 last year, less than half the total. Most weddings and marriage preparation — including two archdiocesan-wide retreats — are handled by his parochial vicar, who was assigned to St. Peter when Father Byrne took on the chancery job five years ago. Since many of the parish’s engaged couples are Washington transplants, they receive marriage preparation at St. Peter but hold the ceremony in hometowns.

“I’ve never been bored as a priest. It’s remarkably and joyfully challenging.”— Father William Byrne

Old parish, young parishioners

Among U.S. Catholic parishes, St. Peter is an outlier. With 1,600 households, it has doubled in size in the seven years Father Byrne has been pastor. He estimates the average Sunday Massgoer’s age is 28. Most parishioners are well educated and work on Capitol Hill or related agencies and organizations. Many are converts; about 45 people participate in St. Peter’s RCIA program each year. He attributes the “fruit” of his parish to Eucharistic adoration, which St. Peter offers daily.

Father Byrne
Father Byrne pets Mary Cole. Father Byrne splits his days between St. Peter’s and the archdiocesan office. Photo by Gerald Martineau

A committed group of young adults attend parish events, and Father Byrne shares a good rapport with them. He’s in the midst of a weight-loss wager with one young parishioner. This year Father Byrne turns 50, and his birthday present to himself is to lose 50 pounds. He’s already halfway to his goal, which he is achieving through tracking his steps via his Fitbit and eating salads like the one he chopped for lunch: turkey, lettuce, cucumber, tomato and artichoke hearts.

He enjoys gathering people together for meals. “God made us for community!” he said, repeating the Discover Your Inspiration line. He hosts two regular dinners to foster fraternity — the first a weekly meal and night prayer for a dozen local priests, and the second a monthly dinner for Catholic members of Congress. On a typical night, he and the vicar make a point of eating together following evening meetings with engaged couples, the parish council or those grieving a death.

Father Byrne at home
Father Byrne escorts his black Labrador, Mary Cole, downstairs for dinner and mixes up a concoction of dog food and peanut butter to hide a couple of medication pills. Photo by Gerald Martineau

In the midst of his busy schedule, Father Byrne strives to deepen his own spiritual life by meeting monthly with a spiritual director and maintaining his daily prayer routine.

“That’s a top priority. You have to do that,” he said. “It’s a matter of keeping those basic elements in place.”

Still, he said, getting the important things done each day can be a challenge, especially in the face of a full inbox.

“The pastoral priority comes before an administrative one all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easier to do the administrative thing because it gives you the feeling of getting something done.”

When busy times in both of his roles come together at the same time, it’s hard to get it all done, he said. In those times, he prays, “Lord, just give me the grace to do the next thing.”

He added: “Sometimes it’s better to work on trees than forests.”

‘Joyfully challenging’

Father Byrne tries to be at the school during drop-offs and pickups to greet students and parents. For St. Peter’s School students, Father Byrne is synonymous with Mary Cole, his black Labrador Retriever. She takes walks with him, and if students drive by with their parents, they shout out the window, “Hi Mary Cole! Hi Father Byrne!”

“I really love being a pastor,” he said, adding that he’s a pastor in both of his roles.

Father Byrne
Father Byrne applauds for newlyweds U.S. Navy Lt. David Nostro and Emily Timchalk, who met Father Byrne while she was a student at the University of Maryland, where he was a chaplain. Photo by Gerald Martineau

“Here, I’m a pastor of the parishioners of St. Peter; there, I’m a pastor to people doing works of ministerial leadership. I see myself as much as their pastor as their supervisor.”

Father Byrne holds a graduate degree in dogmatic theology, but would appreciate a business degree to expand his understanding of management systems.

“Effective leadership and management styles are some things we have to learn by apprenticeship, and it’s hard because we’re not apprentices long enough anymore,” he said.

He advises young priests to take initiative in learning how to keep records or lead schools, and thinks the best pastors are those who look to experienced mentors for help navigating tricky situations.

“I’ve never been bored as a priest,” Father Byrne said. “It’s remarkably and joyfully challenging.”

He added: “Let’s face it — if your job description is ‘be the love of Christ,’ that’s a pretty good job description.”

Father Byrne calls his neighborhood “the most beautiful place on earth,” a sentiment he repeated on his rectory’s front steps, looking across the street at the petite, pastel-painted brick row houses characteristic for Capitol Hill.

He waxed for a moment about the wonder of it all, then abruptly stopped, as if remembering another commitment, and turned back to the rectory to tackle the next task.

Maria Wiering writes from Maryland.