The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont will formally install its next bishop Thursday, January 29, at a Mass in Burlington's St. Joseph Co-Cathedral. Bishop-Designate Christopher Coyne, a native of Woburn, Massachusetts, was named to the post last year by Pope Francis.
"My first year, I hope to just get out and listen to people," Coyne told New England Cable News in advance of his installation.
Vermont's 118,000 Catholics have not had a bishop since the diocese's former leader, Bishop Salvatore Matano, moved to serve the diocese in Rochester, New York.
Coyne's move to Burlington represents a return to the northeast for the former spokesman of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Coyne served in that position during a dark and turbulent time more than a decade ago, amid the unfolding scandal around sexual abuse by clergy.
"I was angry about how badly things had been handled," Coyne recalled. "I was angry at priests who had abused children."
Later, as Bishop of Indianapolis, Coyne said he stayed a New England Patriots fan in Colts country.
Now in Vermont, Coyne acknowledged he finds himself in the state which surveys, most notably by the Pew Research Center, have called the least religious in the entire country. The Burlington diocese also has, as have others nationwide, grappled with declining attendance at Mass.
"We are no longer the church of the establishment, in the sense that if we just open our doors people are going to come and they're going to stay," Coyne told NECN. "We are now a missionary church, an evangelical church; we have to go out of the doors. We have to give people a reason to stay. We have to be inviting."
Coyne's new diocese has also faced painful sex abuse cases and costly settlements of its own. Bishop-Designate Coyne said he looks forward to reaching out to victims of past abuse and their families to let them know there is a warm place for them in the church. "I know there's still a lot of hurt in this state because we've only recently settled many of these cases," he said.
Coyne described himself as primarily a pastor, adding he embraces direct and charitable conversations with parishioners and community members.
Coyne also maintains a large presence on social media, with thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter. He also has a blog (http://bishopcoyne.org/) with video posts that are both casual, featuring observations about life, and formal, discussing scripture and answers to parishioners’ questions about faith.
"The way people engage each other more and more is through digital media," Coyne said. "If we want to go out and engage people, we have to be there. We have to be present in the digital media. We have to be willing to engage in conversations."
As part of a national church communications committee, Coyne said he is now helping design smart phone apps for Pope Francis's visit to the United States later this year. He said that visit should be an opportunity for the church to reintroduce itself as a joyful and welcoming place.
According to the website of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, a prayer service January 28 will serve as Bishop Coyne’s reception to the wider Vermont community. That service, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Burlington, will also host public officials and ecumenical and interfaith leaders from around the Burlington area.