Plenty of Catholic priests sing from the altar. Most shouldn’t. Father J. Michael Byron, who died unexpectedly Friday, May 20, was an exception.
Father Mike, as he was known to his parishioners at Pax Christi, had a beautiful voice from the days when he was a leader in the concert choir at Edina West High School.
“As a young man, his love of music was expressed through his active participation in our music ministry,” said Father Kevin Finnegan, the current pastor of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, where Father Mike attended with his family while he was growing up.
“Over the years, Father Mike maintained close relationships with his OLG friends – especially folks who were friends of his parents,” continued Finnegan. “Regularly, he would return to celebrate the funeral of one of his parents’ friends, which gave him a chance to reconnect with his friends.”
Hundreds of grieving members of Pax Christi gathered Friday night at evening prayer to remember Father Mike, their pastor since 2018.
“What are we to say when we feel orphaned?” said Carol Bishop, parish director, during the prayer service.
According to the Rev. Phil Rose, a longtime friend, Father Mike was intelligent, passionate, and gentle. Mike came from a family of four, which increased in size when his folks adopted a couple of kids. His dad was co-founder of the law firm Fredrikson & Byron. His mom Mary was lively and engaged; her family was her life, according to John Estrem, a former priest of the Archdiocese and longtime friend of Mike’s from their OLG days.
Mike started a career in banking and investing after graduating from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1981, but he realized early on that was not his calling, according to Rose. He entered the seminary in his late 20s.
After studying in Rome, he held a series of parish posts in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the years.
“He was a phenomenal preacher,” said Rose, who grew up with Father Mike and was one of the first youth ministers at Pax Christi.
A former member of the Eden Prairie School Board, Rose was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church in 2013, and he now serves as the chaplain at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul.
“(Father Mike) said a lot in a few words,” said Rose. “You could usually hear the newspaper in his preaching, and he helped listeners understand scripture and take away something personal to apply in their daily lives.
“I’m reluctant to tell stories about some of the pranks he pulled,” chuckled Rose. “In his senior year in high school, Mike encouraged other students to check out all the books in the school library from a certain section. Lots of people were checking out dozens of books under the letter ‘S’ in the last week of school. You had to know him a little bit, but there was always a twinkle of Irish humor in Mike’s eye.”
“The library story sounds like it’s right up Mike’s alley,” echoed Estrem. “Mike was very smart, but not a nerd. With the smarts came a certain cleverness. He engineered a lot of mischief with a group of more boisterous guys, but as far as I know, he never got caught.”
Father Mike was part of a long-standing dinner group that has met monthly for over 25 years. Not formally a priest support group, it’s still been a highly valued ritual for the 14 members – some retired, some former, some still active priests – who are now 13.
“The next time our dinner group meets, we’re going to miss Mike’s voice, but we’re not going to miss his cooking,” said Estrem. “Mike was a horrible cook. In fact, he never cooked. His sister and her friend would come when it was Mike’s turn to host the dinner and do the cooking. Over the years, we’ve loved to goof and gossip, but we’ve also been through a lot together.”
A ‘Vatican II priest’
Father Mike also taught at Holy Angels Academy and the St. Paul Seminary.
In a 2016 article in the Jesuit magazine America, Father Mike wrote: “To be Catholic is to be alert to the expectation that God’s grace is abundantly poured forth into our world, and that benevolence may be lurking almost anywhere.”
Controversially, he also described what it was like to teach at the seminary: “For most of that time it felt to me to be a quite wintry season in church polity. It was not safe in my institution to question the liturgical preferences or the theological dispositions of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI or the Roman Curia without putting one’s personal reputation and professional career at risk.”
In contrast, Father Mike was what some Catholics refer to as a thoroughly Vatican II priest.
“Mike believed deeply in his bones about the dignity of the baptized, and he was not shy about that,” said Estrem. “He could be true and honest about his theological and scriptural knowledge without making it seem esoteric. There’s very little of that in the church right now. For Mike, being a pastor meant being in the messiness of life and still being flexible and welcoming. When push comes to shove, the person in front of you is a real person with real needs. Mike had a real pastor’s heart. In my mind, there’s no higher compliment.”
Father Mike also served as pastor of some financially struggling parishes. He was quoted in a Minnesota Public Radio investigation in 2014 of the Archdiocese as being concerned about the finances of his local parish, St. Pascal Baylon, in St. Paul.
“I’m always worried about money,” said Father Mike. “I don’t know if I have much more reason to be worried this year than most, but I don’t know.”
Coming to Pax Christi
When Father Mike arrived at Pax Christi in 2018, pastor and people recognized one other as kindred spirits.
Since the retirement of the late Father Tim Power, the community has gone through what many in the parish characterize as rocky leadership transitions. Last Friday, after the prayer service for Father Mike, there was palpable, off-the-record anxiety among the grievers about whom the Archdiocese will appoint as their next pastor.
It’s been the custom on Good Fridays at Pax Christi for several years to invite one of the members to share a personal story in which he or she has shared in the bearing of the passion. Often, it’s someone who has had a serious illness.
This year, the planners of the liturgy asked Father Mike to be the one to share. (His reflection begins at 49:15 and ends at 57:40 in the livestreamed service.) Pale and gaunt, Father Mike spoke of the many blessings in his life. When he spoke about how he had come most closely to bearing the cross, he mentioned his temptation to stop praying.
“A relatively comfortable life often makes prayer seem needless. It’s not terrible in an emotional sense from day to day. It’s more like a slow drying up of what I know to be my life source and the cause of my ultimate joy and hope,” preached Father Mike that day. He urged his listeners to run back to prayer, “to joy in that which is joyful, to confronting that which is awful.”
A month later, not wanting to disappoint his parishioners, Father Mike led a pilgrimage to Greece. Upon his return last Wednesday, Estrem confirmed that Mike was taken directly from the airport by ambulance to Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Two days later, having received the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick from his longtime friend, the Very Rev. Michael Tix, Father Mike died.
“Father Mike had a brilliant intellect and a deeply pastoral heart,” said Father Finnegan of Our Lady of Grace. “In his priestly ministry, his passion for and study of theology fostered his love and personal concern for the needs of his community. He had a deep dislike for anything smelling like elitism or clericalism, preferring – in the words of Pope Francis – ‘to be a shepherd living with the smell of the sheep.’”
A visitation for Father J. Michael Byron will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 1, at Pax Christi Catholic Community, 12100 Pioneer Trail, Eden Prairie. That will include a brief vigil service at 6:45 p.m.
On Thursday, June 2, visitation will occur at the church from 9 to 10:45 a.m. before the 11 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial. Archbishop Bernard Hebda is presiding. There will be a luncheon following the Mass.
Editor’s note: Steve Schewe is president and CEO of Eden Prairie Local News. He was a Pax Christi Catholic Community member from 1988 to 2006 and served on the parish council from 2000 to 2003.