On the second stop of his town-hall-style state tour, the leader of the Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese fielded questions in Essex Jct. last week about some of the church’s biggest challenges – and what he’s doing to address them.
Bishop Christopher Coyne billed the meetings as an effort to promote better communication and transparency between the diocese and its parishioners. He spent 90 minutes before a crowd of more than 50 gathered at the Holy Family Catholic Church, listening to their concerns and offering candid answers to questions on faith, finances, traditions and trust.
Coyne said the listening tour wasn’t a response to the church’s child abuse scandal, but the topic no doubt remains a stark challenge for Catholic leaders both locally and worldwide, and Coyne faced a handful of inquiries at the Jan. 22 gathering about what’s being done to repair the damage and prevent further abuse.
He said the diocese is working with police and prosecutors to investigate misconduct tracing back decades, and he highlighted the lay committee charged with reviewing personnel files of 52 former clergy who have faced charges so the diocese can publicize offenders’ names later this year.
“We’re giving them all the time that they need to do it,” he said of the committee.
And while old allegations are still coming to light – the diocese settled a priest abuse case last month from a man who alleged he was abused decades ago in Milton – Coyne stressed the Vermont diocese has received no substantiated allegation since 2002.
“The church is not a haven to sexual predators any longer,” he said. “That’s not just true in the diocese of Burlington. That’s true in the U.S.”
Parishioners’ concerns extended well beyond the abuse scandal, however. Some honed in on church finances, inquiring about oversight and voicing frustration over the state organization’s taxes on their local parishes. Coyne assured the crowd his staff monitors Vermont’s 72 parishes and investigates any report of irregularities. He added the diocese has maintained a balanced budget for years but remains cognizant of keeping cost burdens low.
Others repined on the declining role organized religion plays in today’s society. They pointed to a noticeable lack of young faces in the audience and asked Coyne how the church can reinvigorate itself among younger populations.
“It’s not just a Catholic issue,” Coyne responded. “The fact that young people are not participating in revealed religions anymore is a problem across the board. The culture does not see belonging to a church as a necessary cultural value in the same way as other generations.”
He encouraged parishioners to be the “seeds of Christianity” when part of larger groups instead of “seeing ourselves as separate.” To that degree, Coyne said, the diocese has adapted and works with secular human service providers instead of creating competing Catholic-based services. He stressed Catholics must start with their actions.
“The most important thing is authentic discipleship and authentic way of life,” he said, adding it wouldn’t hurt if they wore some branded T-shirts when serving lunch at the soup kitchen.
After the meeting, several area residents told the Milton Independent they appreciated the bishop’s willingness to hear the parishioners’ concerns. Laura Duquette, an Essex woman who was interested in hearing about the church’s evangelistic efforts, said the format allowed both her and the bishop to learn more about what parishioners see as important.
Brian Beckage, who admitted he wanted a more concrete answer to his question about whether Coyne supports “more bottom-to-top control of our individual parishes,” said he would like to see the events happen more regularly.
“It’s like shedding light into a closed system. You need that,” he said. “It’s therapeutic just to say what you’re thinking. It doesn’t mean things are going to change necessarily – there’s a lot of momentum, it’s a big ship. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Coyne, who took over the Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese four years ago, appeared comfortable and prepared when discussing some perennial questions facing the church.
Asked his stance on women clergy, Coyne said he wouldn’t mind if the order came down but feels bad for any woman who would have to marry him (a joke he also rolled out the during the first meeting in St. Albans, according to VtDigger).
But he also occasionally riffed on some of the more sensitive social issues facing Catholics today, leading to an exchange that embodied church’s constant struggle to remain relevant yet pure in its beliefs in a shifting society.
“What do I do when a politician goes on [Vermont Public Radio], like this past weekend, says, ‘I’m a Catholic,’ and then rants and rants and rants against the church’s position on some things?” Coyne asked. “I don’t know how you can say you’re a good Catholic and do that.
“But short of having police at the communion line to stop them, you can’t stop it,” he continued. “It’s just dysfunction that’s out there.”
Lisa Rees, a Milton woman who recently returned to the faith, commended the church for making the religion feel more welcoming in recent years. But she said she’s the only one in her friend group who attends services, a fact she believes has much to do with the guilt that comes from holding views that aren’t purely Catholic.
“I don’t want to hear that I’m not welcome into the Catholic church just because I believe in gay marriage and I believe in [pro-choice],” she said. “I want to still feel like I still have a place.”
In response, Coyne softened. He welcomed Rees back to the faith, earning her a round of applause, and explained Pope Francis encourages clergy help new arrivals to “focus on where God is in their life” instead of where he’s not. And while Catholics indeed seek “perfections,” he continued, they must recognize “all of us in this room are on different levels of that path, myself included.”
Coyne added he’s not “scandalized” by anyone who admits their beliefs aren’t 100 percent Catholic.
“You should come to my family and sit down on Christmas,” he quipped.