July 21, 2017

Bishop Coyne uses Indiana experience to minister in Vermont

Josh Bach leads his family in a prayer before the meal in their home in Indianapolis on July 10. He and his wife, Cara, members of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis, have adopted the three girls seated in the chairs—Amelia, left, and Frances, both 6, and Victoria, 12. They hope to finalize soon the adoption of the two girls seated on the bench, who for legal reasons must remain anonymous until their adoption is complete. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., announces plans for a diocesan synod during an April 11 chrism Mass at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Burlington. (CNS photo/Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic)

(Editor’s note: During the national conference of U.S. bishops in Indianapolis in mid-June, The Criterion did one-on-one interviews with Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, and Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., prelates who all have strong ties to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The conversations with them are being featured, continuing this week with Bishop Coyne.)

By John Shaughnessy

Touched with humor and warmth, the homecoming was everything that Bishop Christopher J. Coyne could have hoped for when he entered SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis to celebrate Sunday Mass on June 11.

The cathedral was a familiar setting for him from his four years serving as auxiliary bishop, vicar general and apostolic administrator in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis from 2011 through 2014.

“It was wonderful to be back at the cathedral,” said Bishop Coyne, who has led the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., since January of 2015. “I got there a little early before Mass. When I walked into the cathedral, people were overjoyed, talking to me, and coming up and wanting to see me and tell me what was going on. So it was like a homecoming.”

Then came two memorable moments especially touched with heart and humor.

“I noticed there were a few people missing because they had passed onto the Lord. One I thought he had passed on to the Lord,” he said with a laugh. “I saw him and said, ‘I thought you passed onto the Lord.’ He said, “Not as far as I know.’ I said, ‘I’m glad to see you.’ He said, ‘I am, too.’

“Then I met a person who’s just getting done with a round of chemo treatment. She’s in remission now. And we talked about that, and how blessed she is. So it was like going home to my own parish, an old parish where I had been a priest. It couldn’t have been nicer.”

Bishop Coyne shared that moment in a conversation with The Criterion during his return to Indianapolis for the national conference of U.S. bishops in mid-June. He also talked about being back home in his native New England, ministering as a bishop in the most “unchurched” state in the country, his role as the chairman of the committee on communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the lessons he learned while serving in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q. What has it been like for you to be back in your native New England to serve the Church there?

A. “New England and the Church there is different culturally than the Church here in Indiana. People here are ‘Indiana nice,’ as they say. You walk down the street and you say ‘hello,’ and they say ‘hello’ back to you. And they’re courteous to each other. There’s always an edge to New Englanders. One thing I most appreciated about being here for four years in Indiana was I learned to be ‘Indiana nice.’ So I say ‘hi’ on the sidewalk [in New England], and they look at me like I’m going to shoot them sometimes, like, ‘What do you want? Why are you talking to me?’ I try, I try, and sometimes you get a nice response.”

Q. At the time you became bishop of Burlington, Vermont was considered the most “unchurched” state in the country. Have you been able to see progress in bringing people to the Church, and what has been your approach in trying to achieve positive change?

A. “I haven’t seen a lot of progress in terms of numbers, but we are seeing some progress in terms of environment and culturally receptivity to the idea of the Catholic Church having a place at the table in the general culture of Vermont.

“From the first day I got there to now—2 1/2 years later—we’ve tried to be part of the ‘Greater Common Good’ project. Vermont has the highest proportion of not-for-profits per population of any state in the country. So there’s a lot of goodwill there. We’ve been connecting with non-Christian groups, but groups that are doing things. Rather than build our own homeless shelter, the Catholic Church is connecting with people who are doing that.

“Rather than have all these separate food pantries or food drives, we’re becoming more connected with the Burlington Food Bank. Getting out and being with other folks in the community and being present and available as bishop to those things. Showing up at civic events and showing up at rallies against gun violence, and trying to promote good immigration law to protect some people who may be hurt by some of the poorer rulings we’re seeing. We’ve seen some real positive outcomes. I’m trying to keep it up and build on that.”

Q. Social media is a big approach for you. You write a blog, you’re on Facebook, you use Twitter. Talk about the importance of the use of social media to reach people about faith.

A. “It’s a continuation of a lot of things I started when I was here in Indianapolis. Most people today are unplugging from the old ways of doing things. Most people don’t have hardline phones in their homes anymore. Most people are unplugging from cable. They’re becoming more and more connected with tablets and iPhones. So if that’s the way most people are communicating, that’s where we need to be.

“You learn about strategies in the digital media. Video messaging is very important, nothing more than a minute long. Short, pithy messages that are positive and attractive. There’s a lot of anger out there. A lot of hurtful things being said. So just constantly try to maintain a very positive image. And try to bring more goodness into digital media and the culture.

“Not to give it a deep theological kind of a foundation, but I do take to heart the words of St. Augustine in terms of preaching and evangelizing. He said we have to teach, we have to please, and we have to persuade. So a lot of time when I send out a funny line or make reference to some place I’ve been for coffee, people like that. But that’s maybe 25 percent of that messaging. People go to my Facebook page or Twitter because they’ll see those things, but they’ll also see the other serious things. And then I try to persuade them as to the truth of the Catholic teaching.”

Q. What are the main messages you’re trying to share through the committee on communications for the USCCB?

A. “The major things that we’re dealing with are the shift from being a Church of the culture to being a missionary Church. Recognizing that we as Catholics are no longer the Church of the established culture. The established culture for the most part is becoming more and more irreligious: ‘we’re spiritual, but we’re not religious.’

“The idea of a revealed religion like Catholicism is something that people really don’t understand in many ways. So we can’t count on the old ways of doing things to work. So we’re working more and more to shift into a missionary approach, where we’re approaching a culture that is a lot of ways post-Christian. And you can’t make assumptions that people know you. You have to do correctives.

“You’re going into a place where there are perceived understandings of Catholicism that are wrong. So you end up doing apologetics, and saying, ‘No, that’s not what the Church teaches.’ ‘Well, the Church teaches that if you’ve been divorced, you’re excommunicated.’ No, that’s not what the Church teaches. ‘Well, the Church teaches that if you’re gay, you’re thrown out of the Church.’ No, that’s not what the Church teaches. It’s those kinds of things. You not only have to deal with the misunderstandings of the Church and the misapprehensions, then you also have to point out the goodness of the Church on top of that.”

Q. When you look back on your four years in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, how has that experience helped you in your two years as bishop of Burlington?

A. “When I came here to work with Archbishop [Emeritus Daniel M.] Buechlein, I encountered an archdiocese that was strong and healthy and in a good place in a lot of ways. The years that he had been here as archbishop, he really set a strong foundation for the next guy coming in. Then unfortunately, he had that severe stroke that debilitated him so he couldn’t serve as archbishop anymore.

“But then being named administrator for 14 months, or something like that, allowed me to learn at a place that was a good archdiocese, that was very healthy, that had good practices in place, that had a lot of good resources, and a very healthy presbyterate and lay folk. So I came away from this archdiocese with a lot of good learning.

“And then also spending time with Archbishop, now Cardinal, Joe Tobin. I learned from him as well. To have the opportunity to spend four years here prepared me in a way that when I went into the much smaller Diocese of Burlington, I was able to build on the good that’s there and the good people that are there as well.”

(The conversations with Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin and Archbishop Paul D. Etienne appeared respectively in the July 7 and July 14 issues of The Criterion..)

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