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Our #10 celebrates first year anniversary as Bishop of Burlington, looks to future

When Bishop Christopher J. Coyne became bishop of the Vermontwide Diocese of Burlington nearly one year ago, he set out to be a positive, faithful presence both within the Catholic and wider civic communities.

To that end, he has visited all 10 deaneries and met with priests, religious, parishioners, interfaith and ecumenical leaders, the governor, the mayor of Burlington, the president of St. Michael's College in Colchester, persons involved with social service agencies and Catholic school students and teachers. From the middle of February to the end of November, he put more than 15,000 miles on his black Jeep Grand Cherokee.

"I have tried to reach out to not only the Catholic community but also to men and women of goodwill throughout the state," he said during a Dec. 1 interview at his chancery office in South Burlington. "I have tried to establish that the Catholic community has a positive place within the larger community of the state and that we are not a marginalized people but we are in fact a people of goodwill who want to work with other people of goodwill to foster the common good of all."

His first 11 months as 10th bishop of Burlington have been recorded on his blog, Facebook, Twitter and other media accounts. During this time through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops he has coordinated media relations for Pope Francis' first-ever visit to the United States, promoted the establishment of the first virtual Vermont Catholic high school and maintained lines of communication with all people.

"I'm trying to be a person of good faith, goodwill and good news," he said.

He's also a good sport, throwing out the first pitch at a Vermont Lake Monsters baseball game.

But one of his funniest memories is of going to Troy on Good Friday to celebrate the 3 p.m. liturgy because his schedule had listed "Sacred Heart Parish."

"They were not sure why I was there but were glad to have me," he said. "I couldn't figure out why I was scheduled for Troy instead of the cathedral. Finally, it occurred to me that it was an old event from Indiana (where he had served as an auxiliary bishop) where I was supposed to celebrate the 3 p.m. service at Sacred Heart Parish in Jeffersonville, Ind. I thought I had cleared my calendar of all Indiana events when I came to Vermont, but I missed that one."

Bishop Coyne was installed as the shepherd of Vermont Catholics during a packed – and televised – Mass Jan. 29 at St. Joseph Co- Cathedral in Burlington.

In his homily, he addressed decreasing church attendance, saying, "Now more than ever, our community needs to hear the call of the good news, proclaimed to a culture that seems to hear so many other voices." He addressed the challenge faced in Vermont and elsewhere of declining membership and a cultural trend away from a revealed religion to a personal spirituality at best or no belief at worst.

By visiting parishes throughout the state, Bishop Coyne has seen declining church attendance and witnessed the effects of both lapsed Catholics and changing demographics. "It's not simply a matter of a lack of priests oftentimes it's a lack of Catholics" that has created the need for parish reconfigurations such as those that have taken place during the past several years, he said.

He has celebrated Masses for hundreds of people and for tens of people, prompting the question of sustainability over the years for some Catholic parishes with declining populations. "We have priests, and we have enough priests to take care of our Catholic community, but our priests need to be assigned to places where people can be found," he said.

To foster more vocations from within the Diocese of Burlington the diocesan director of vocations will be full time rather than part time as of July 1 with the help of an assistant vocation director and the reestablishment of a vocation board.

With nine current seminarians and at least five more serious candidates, he is hopeful for an increase in vocations to the priesthood.

In addition, when a call was issued in October to parishes, Catholic agencies and Catholic schools for the names of young men and women who might be possible candidates for priesthood or religious life, more than 600 names were submitted. "There is a lot of possibility of vocations within this state," he said; those individuals were invited to a vocations awareness program.

Asked about Pope Francis and his influence on his first year as bishop of Burlington, Bishop Coyne said not only does he owe him respect and obedience as the supreme pontiff, he respects the way Pope Francis has changed the conversation between the Church and the culture of the world.

"Now more and more we are being defined by what we are for rather than by what we are against," the bishop said. "We had allowed ourselves to be defined as a church that's against gay people, a church that's against women, a church that is against freedom of expression – all those things of the culture war."

But Pope Francis has "turned that around" and the Church is better known as the Church for the marginalized, the needy and the struggling, he said. "The arms of the Church are very wide."

The pope has visited prisons, met with the poor and shown kindness to the needy. "He challenges me all the time," Bishop Coyne said.

In calling for a special Year of Mercy – which began Dec. 8 – Pope Francis is emphasizing God's great mercy. "With God's mercy, there are no ifs, ands or buts," the bishop said. "We human beings want to put restrictions on God's mercy" and say it is available only if certain conditions are met.

"God's mercy is a very abundant mercy. It's a wide mercy that calls each of us to His love," he said, stressing that everyone needs that mercy and must be an instrument of it for others, moving out of the selves and their churches to be instruments of mercy to others. "Mercy means I see a need and I act out of compassion to help."

Considering the Syrian refugee situation, the bishop said he hopes to address it "in a substantive way in the very near future," and in the meantime encouraged Vermont Catholics to support the work of Catholic Relief Services and the local work of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and to pray.

Bishop Coyne expressed gratitude for the multitude of ways Vermont parishes and Catholic schools and social service agencies reach out in their communities and beyond. "Our Catholic community is invested in good works," he said, giving as examples the efforts of the two Vermont Catholic high schools that are involved in such activities as providing food for the needy at holiday times and Vermont Catholic Charities Inc., the work of which includes providing emergency assistance and supporting programs that feed and shelter the poor.

During the chancery interview, Bishop Coyne spoke of his support for life issues including an end to abortion and opposition to physician-assisted suicide. But because both are legal, he said the efforts of the Church "should be to make sure that people don't get so desperate that they have to" access them.

He wants the Church to seek to enact just laws to protect all human life and also to "create and maintain" housing for elderly, sick and needy persons so they don't ever feel alone and "do everything we can" to help women and families "not have to make the unfortunate choice for abortion."

As he looks to the future, the bishop sees an essential good work in which he wants members of the Catholic community to be of assistance: the fight against heroin addiction. He hopes they will commit themselves to work with the wider community to "stamp out the scourge of heroin addiction" that takes a toll on people of all ages, ethnicities, social classes and places of residence.

They can help educate others about the epidemic, listen with compassion to those affected by it, make appropriate referrals, support groups working with addicts, lessen the shame of the addiction and educate people about the signs of addiction and drug dealing.

Bishop Coyne is energized by the hiring of new diocesan staff including a director of youth and young adult ministry, director of evangelization and catechesis, executive director of development and coordinator of pro-life ministries. "We're getting the team in place" to minister and spread the good news throughout Vermont, he said. "I'm happy with where we're going."
Last modified onWednesday, 27 July 2016 15:16
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