Statement of Most Reverend Christopher James Coyne,
Bishop-designate of Burlington,
December 22, 2014
Sisters and brothers, Good morning!
I want to begin by saying how happy I am to have been asked by Pope Francis to serve the Catholic community of Vermont as your bishop. I could not have wished for a better assignment.
I thank the Holy Father for the brother’s trust he’s shown in calling me to a ministry of service to this local church, and to the whole community of our “Green Mountain State.” I come to you ready to commit myself completely to the work of announcing the good news of Jesus Christ: He who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
If you’ll allow me, before going any further I need to thank the clergy, religious, and laity of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis – the good and holy people who welcomed me into their midst almost four years ago. On coming to them, I was what I remain today: a Bostonian with a “funny accent” and a “strange” devotion to Dunkin Donuts and the New England Patriots. But in serving the Church in Central and Southern Indiana, I came to be a part of a vibrant and growing family, a place where people truly live their faith and are fiercely proud to bear the name Catholic.
More than I can say here, I will especially miss my brother clergy, the priests and deacons of Indianapolis, who were so very good to me. Thanks to my time in that great Archdiocese, I’ve been blessed with so many good friends, and I feel that my four years there have given you a better pastor, servant, and man of the Church. So to the many folks who’ve been my life and so enriched it there through these years, please know how much you mean to me, how much I’ll miss you, and how I will always rely on your prayers and closeness in spirit and heart.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how pleased I am to be back in New England, closer to my family. Christmas is a time when all of us look forward to being with our families. With this appointment, this Christmas brings the special gift and joy of being closer to mine….”
For the past three months, I have been assigned to Southern Indiana as its regional bishop. Part of my responsibilities included being the administrator of two parishes (one with a school) and mentor to the young priest who was assigned to serve as their parish priest. For the first time in four years, I was “out of the office” and back where I always wanted to be, where I was ordained a priest to be: in full-blown parish life – celebrating the Sacraments, staff meetings, parish finance and pastoral council meetings, meetings with the school principal, meetings with parents unhappy with the school principal, hospital coverage, food drives, Advent penance services almost every night somewhere, worries about the parish finances, planning Christmas liturgies, celebrating funerals, and appointments with parishioners over any number of things (my favorite was the one where the person was concerned about the mole infestation at the parish cemetery).
This experience has been a real reminder to me of what the day-to-day life of the Church in the trenches – in every parish – is about. A healthy parish is a busy place: busy about social outreach, busy about worship, busy about education, but most especially, busy about announcing Jesus and His work – the “Good News” that heals our brokenness.
While my time in the parishes was short, I was able to have two meetings of both parish councils at which we set aside the normal agenda in favor of a conversation about ‘rebooting’ or ‘rethinking’ who we are as Jesus’ disciples within the larger community. The approach we took was “respectful listening” in which people said whatever they wanted without any necessary response.
We began with two questions: “What are we doing well?” and “What are we not doing well?” As you might imagine, I respectfully heard a lot. There were concerns about the fact that so many people had left the Catholic faith and how none of our young people seemed to be staying Catholic. Some talked of friends and family who felt alienated from the Church for all kinds of reasons, while others talked of how a number of our faithful had left the Church and joined the local Evangelical mega-church. We also talked about some of the good and healthy things that we were doing as parishes.
As part of what went on, I shared with them my belief that we have moved from being a “Church of the Establishment” to a being a missionary Church – and that we must, in the words of one author, move from “maintenance to mission.” I also shared with them these words of Pope Francis: “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. “
Towards the end of our last conversation, a number of folks remarked that they felt it was the first time that someone from the Church had really listened to them. They also talked about how they were beginning to be excited and enthusiastic for the first time in a long time or even for the first time ever about being a Catholic.
Our next meeting was going to be directed towards the question, “What do we do now?” I guess I’ll have to leave that meeting to the priest who takes my place.
Now – or rather, pretty soon – I’ll be in Vermont: the pastor of a much larger Catholic community, but one which might just be facing many of the same challenges as my parishes in Indiana. I am not coming here with any answers outside those our Faith already gives us. I come with no pre-established plans, or any agenda other than to serve my brothers and sisters as a faithful disciple and believer in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior in the family of the Catholic Church.
In order to do that well, I need to get to know my fellow Catholics, whose pastor I now prepare in hope to become. After my installation on January 29th, I plan on reaching out to as many parishes and places as I can, to visit and to listen to what people, lay and religious, have to say about our Faith, and to begin a process of discernment about how this local church of Vermont announces Jesus and spreads His Gospel, His Good News. I also plan on spending a good deal of time listening to my brother clergy, the priests and deacons who serve in our parishes, and I commit myself to fostering their physical and spiritual well-being.
In addition, it is my intention to foster a healthy and strong relationship with the civil authorities of our state and my brothers and sisters in the ecumenical and inter-faith communities. I look forward to meeting Governor Shumlin tomorrow morning and I plan to celebrate Evening Prayer the night before my installation with as many of the leaders of our ecumenical and inter-faith partners as wish to attend.
For a number of years, I have been writing and talking about the “New Evangelization”: the call of Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and now Pope Francis to Catholics to re-engage ourselves into a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, from which we “go out” and evangelize those who are not within “our doors.” In this spirit, I take these words of Pope Francis very much to heart: “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace.”
The Holy Father has urged the priests of the world to go out “into the sheep” and get to not only “know their smell” but to take it on as well: “The shepherd should have the smell of the sheep.” That’s a rather earthy image – for a dairy state like Vermont, it might need to be adjusted a bit. But as someone who, over his time in Indiana, went to tractor-pulling contests, “showed” a pig at one county fair, ate a deep-fried Twinkie at another county fair, gave the invocation at the Indy 500 three times, ate my fair share of fried chicken – and the four starches that always accompany it – and attended a number of parish “turkey shoots,” I can tell you that I’m ready to experience what Vermont can offer. And since Indiana is a rather flat state, I’m also looking forward to hitting the slopes again.
It’s been a while since I’ve done that, but it’s just one mountain I face in Vermont – the other, the far bigger one, is growing into to being a diocesan bishop worthy of this mission and the people I’ve been sent to know, love and serve. Whether on the powder or as your pastor, I know there will be times when, to use Pope Francis’ words, I will “take a spill” or “make a mess.” And when I do, I’d ask that you could help me get back on my feet.
A Good Samaritan on the trails of Stowe probably wouldn’t know he’s doing that for the bishop – at least, I hope he wouldn’t! But regardless of the circumstances, whenever we reach out to lift each other up and help somebody else along, we become an even better people who walk together in faith. So trusting in the Lord’s help, let us begin.
Please know of my prayers for you, and if you would, please help me with yours.
May Jesus Christ be praised in all things – now and forever. A Blessed and Merry Christmas to you and yours!