Father Bill Byrne, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, delivers the homily during the Aug. 28 Opening of Schools Mass. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Father Bill Byrne, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, delivers the homily during the Aug. 28 Opening of Schools Mass. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
During the Opening of Schools Mass for the Archdiocese of Washington, Father Bill Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, told the teachers gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington that they are the ministers of healing in the Church.

To begin his homily, Father Byrne told the teachers that Cardinal Donald Wuerl had asked for him to say the homily and for Washington Auxiliary Bishops Mario Dorsonville and Roy Campbell, Jr. to celebrate the Mass “because he wants this day to be about you and not about headlines and confusion.”

Addressing the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report that detailed how more than 300 priests had sexually abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades, Father Byrne said he prayed “that the report draws attention to the fact that the Catholic Church, in a spirit of contrition and determination, has committed herself to ensuring that children are safe and that stories like the ones conveyed in the report will never happen again.”

“And to survivors, I say again that your pain will always be our grief, and that the Church will unceasingly strive to assist you and your families and to do all we can to protect the children entrusted to our care,“ Father Byrne added.

He went on to tell a story that he had heard form a 96-year-old African American woman, who had once taken her family to a predominately white church. While she waited in line for Confession, the priest there asked her, “Why don’t you go to your own church?”

After they left, the woman’s daughter asked her why the priest said that, and she responded, “Listen young lady – you don’t go to church to worship the priest, you go to worship Jesus.”

Taking wisdom from that woman’s story, Father Bryne reminded everyone, “Jesus is why we are here and Jesus is why we will survive and Jesus is why we will thrive.”

Acknowledging that he shared the emotions of sadness, frustration and anger, Father Byrne said he had also found hope after spending much time in prayer. He heard Jesus tell him, “Billy, Look at the Crucifix. Look what I did with the ugliest moment in human history. I took the cross and turned it into the Resurrection. I got this. I will do the same with this ugly moment.”

“We are being called to a time of purification and rebirth,” said Father Byrne. “This is a time of resurrection and we will rise…The agents of this change are each of us here together. The ministers of healing are each of us here together.”

Several Catholic educators were seeking to be those agents of change by standing in peaceful protest outside of the basilica, advocating for justice in the Church in light of the recent abuse crisis.

Chris Hayes, one of those teachers, said they were there to “stand and support the victims and what they’ve gone through,” as well as to lead by example.

“We tell our kids to stand up for what they believe is right. We feel we need to be out here to lead by example,” he said.

He noted that these reports are difficult on Catholic educators who want their students to feel that school is a safe space for them, but know that they may not feel that way at the moment.

“We can work together to hopefully rebuild that trust, make a change in the world, and say what happened in the past is not what needs to happen in the future,” said Hayes.

Father Byrne encouraged educators to listen to the words of St. Paul, who in the second reading for the day asked his brothers and sisters in Christ to “stand firm.”

“Stand firm in the faith. Stand firm with Christ. Stand firm with the Church as she rises,” Father Byrne encouraged.

He also recalled how right after college, as he was discerning whether or not to enter the seminary, he taught fifth grade at a Catholic school. He remembered being afraid of entering the classroom for the first time, and assured first year teachers, “I know what you are going through.”

At the same time, he encouraged them to “enjoy the adventure.”

His three years of teaching helped him discover God’s will for his life and gave him a “profound respect for the delicate craftsmanship of being a professional educator,” he said.

Now that he has served as a pastor of parishes with Catholic schools, Father Byrne said, “It is from the students themselves that I have learned the priceless value of Catholic education.”

Once every week, he teaches the eighth grade class at Our Lady of Mercy, and he said the students’ curiosity “reminds me of the innate desire of the human person for God.” Similarly, the second graders whom he helps prepare to receive Holy Communion always leave him “in awe and wonder at their capacity to believe in Jesus.”  

“Their faith strengthens my faith,” he said.

Reminding the teachers of the Great Commission, Father Byrne said, “Yours is not a job, it is a ministry. It’s not just a paycheck, it’s a mission directly from Jesus himself.”

During the Mass, William Ryan, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, and Jem Sullivan, the archdiocesan secretary for education, both offered their own reflections on this mission of teaching.

Ryan quoted Pope Francis when he said “To be a saint is not a privilege of a few,” but is rather a vocation for everyone, and told the teachers that through their work every day in their classrooms, they help create saints.

Sullivan noted the Trinity Dome that many of the teachers were standing under. Pointing out the images of saints and of the Virgin Mary, she said they could “draw from this heavenly communion the strength we need in our work,” which involves being “the face of Christ to our students, their families, and our colleagues.”

Following Communion, Ryan and Sullivan joined Bishop Dorsonville in presenting awards to schools and teachers who were celebrating milestone anniversaries as Catholic educators.

After the close of the Mass, Tara Boogaerts, who teaches first through fourth grade natural history at Brookewood School in Kensington, said in the upcoming school year she is looking forward to “sharing God’s beautiful creation with the lower school children and growing in Christ as a community, strengthened through God’s word.”

She also noted that Father Byrne’s homily “inspired me to share the light of Christ with a firm foundation that truth will prevail.”

Strengthened by their shared celebration of the Eucharist, the educators left the basilica to go form more saints.

“You have been called to be the healers. You have been called to be the purifiers. You have been called to be the Resurrection,” said Father Byrne. “But I suppose this is obvious, because you have been called to be Catholic educators.”