Many Catholic priests sing from the altar. Most shouldn’t. Father J. Michael Byron, who died suddenly on Friday, May 20, was an exception.
Father Mike, as his parishioners at Pax Christi called him, had a beautiful voice from when he led 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 as he grew up. .
“Over the years, Father Mike has had a close relationship with his friends at OLG, especially his parents’ friends,” Finnegan continued. “Regularly, he returned to celebrate the funeral of one of his parents’ friends, which allowed him to reconnect with his friends.”
Hundreds of grieving members of Pax Christi gathered Friday evening at evening prayer to remember Father Mike, their pastor since 2018.
“What to say when you feel like an orphan? parish director Carol Bishop said during the prayer service.
According to longtime friend Reverend Phil Rose, Father Mike was intelligent, passionate and gentle. Mike comes from a family of four, which grew when his parents adopted two children. His father was co-founder of the law firm Fredrikson & Byron. His mother Mary was lively and engaged; his family was his life, according to John Estrem, a former priest in the archdiocese and a longtime friend of Mike’s since his OLG days.
Mike began a career in banking and investing after graduating from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1981, but realized early on that wasn’t his calling, according to Rose . He entered the seminary in his late twenties.
Educated 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 served as one of the first youth ministers at Pax Christi.
A former member of the Eden Prairie School Board, Rose was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 2013 and is now chaplain to St. Paul’s Episcopal Homes.
“(Father Mike) said a lot in a few words,” Rose said. “You could usually hear the newspaper in its preaching, and it helped listeners understand the scriptures and took away something personal to apply in their daily lives.
“I’m hesitant to tell stories about some of the pranks he pulled,” chuckled Rose. “During his senior year in high school, Mike encouraged other students to check out all the books in the school library in a certain section. Many people were looking at dozens of books under the letter ‘S’ during the last week of school. You had to know him a little, but there was always a hint of Irish humor in Mike’s eyes.
“The library story feels like it’s up Mike’s alley,” Estrem echoed. “Mike was very smart, but not a nerd. With intelligence came some intelligence. He got into a lot of mischief with a bunch of louder guys, but as far as I know he never got caught.
Father Mike was part of a long-time dinner group that had met monthly for over 25 years. Not formally a support group for priests, it’s still a much-loved ritual for the 14 members – some retired, some former, some still active – who are now 13.
“The next time our dinner party gets together, we’re going to miss Mike’s voice, but we’re not going to miss his cooking,” Estrem said. “Mike was an awful cook. In fact, he never cooked. His sister and her friend would come over when it was Mike’s turn to organize dinner and cook. Over the years, we loved doing gaffes and gossip, but we’ve also been through a lot together.
A Vatican II priest‘
Father Mike also taught at Holy Angels Academy and St. Paul’s Seminary.
In a 2016 article in the Jesuit magazine AmericaFather Mike wrote, “To be Catholic is to be attentive to the expectation that God’s grace will be poured abundantly into our world, and benevolence may lurk almost anywhere.”
Controversially, he also described what it was like to teach seminary: “For most of that time, I felt like a pretty wintery season in church politics. . It was unwise in my institution to question the liturgical preferences or theological dispositions of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, or the Roman Curia without jeopardizing his personal reputation and professional career.
In contrast, Father Mike was what some Catholics call a full Vatican II priest.
“Mike deeply believed in the dignity of the baptized, and he was not shy about it,” Estrem said. “He could be true and honest about his theological and scriptural knowledge without making it seem esoteric. There is very little of that in the church now. For Mike, being a pastor meant being in the mess of life while remaining flexible and welcoming. Ultimately, the person in front of you is a real person with real needs. Mike had a true pastor’s heart. In my mind, there is no greater compliment.
Father Mike also served as parish priest in some financially challenged 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, Saint-Pascal Baylon, in Saint-Paul.
“I’m always worried about the 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, the pastor and the people recognized each other as kindred spirits.
Since the retirement of the late Father Tim Power, the community has gone through what many in the parish describe as difficult leadership transitions. Last Friday, after the prayer service for Father Mike, there was palpable and confidential anxiety among the mourners over who the Archdiocese will appoint their next pastor.
It has been the custom for several years on Good Fridays at Pax Christi to invite one of the members to share a personal story in which he or she shared the transmission of the passion. Often it is someone who has had a serious illness.
This year, the liturgy planners asked Father Mike to be the sharer. (His reflection starts at 49:15 and ends at 57:40 in the live-streamed service.) Pale and emaciated, Father Mike spoke of the many blessings in his life. When he explained how he came closest to carrying the cross, he mentioned his temptation to stop praying.
“A relatively comfortable life often makes prayer unnecessary. It’s not terrible from an emotional day-to-day standpoint. It feels more like a slow drying up of what I know to be my source of life and the cause of my ultimate joy and hope,” Fr. Mike preached that day. He urged his listeners to return to prayer, “to rejoice in what is joyful, to face what is dreadful”.
A month later, not wanting to disappoint his parishioners, Father Mike led a pilgrimage to Greece. Upon returning last Wednesday, Estrem confirmed that Mike had been taken directly from the airport by ambulance to Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Two days later, after receiving the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick from his longtime friend, the Very Reverend Michael Tix, Father Mike passed away.
“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 and study of theology nourished his love and personal concern for the needs of his community. He had a deep aversion to anything that smacked of elitism or clericalism, preferring – in words of Pope Francis – “to be a shepherd living with the smell of sheep”.
A visit for Father J. Michael Byron will be held from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday, June 1 at Pax Christi Catholic Community, 12100 Pioneer Trail, Eden Prairie. This will include a brief vigil service at 6:45 p.m.
On Thursday, June 2, visitation will be held at the church from 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. before the funeral mass at 11 a.m. There will be lunch after Mass.
Editor’s note: Steve Schewe is President and CEO of Eden Prairie Local News. It was a Catholic Pax Christi community member from 1988 to 2006 and member of the parish council from 2000 to 2003.
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