Saturday, February 19, 2011

Towards the New Evangelization: Learning from the Past

I recently came across this excerpt from a sermon by Saint John Chrysostom (349-407) on St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. I found his words encouraging in terms of clearly understanding the dynamic between belief and unbelief, the believer and the unbeliever:

We impart the wisdom of God in a mystery (I Cor. 2:7). A mystery does not need to be proved, but simply proclaimed. It would not be a wholly divine mystery if you added to it anything of your own.  Besides, the reason it is called a mystery is that we cannot penetrate its depths: what we see is one thing, what we believe is another.  In this lies the very nature of our mysteries.

My reactions to them [the mysteries] are therefore different from the reactions of an unbeliever.  When I hear that Christ was crucified I am filled with amazement at his love for us, but to the unbeliever this shows weakness.  When I hear that Christ became a servant I am astonished at his solicitude for us, but to the unbeliever this is a disgrace.  When I hear that Christ died I marvel at his power, since he was not conquered by death, but instead put an end to death.  The unbeliever, however, see Christ’s death as a sign of helplessness.

The unbeliever regards the resurrection as pure fiction, but I accept the proven facts and venerate God’s saving plan.  In baptism, the unbeliever sees only water, but I perceive not only what meets the eye, but also the purification of the soul by the Holy Spirit.  The unbeliever thinks only the body is cleansed, but I believe that the soul also is made pure and holy, and I am reminded of the tomb, the resurrection, our sanctification, justification, redemption, adoption, and inheritance, of the kingdom of heaven and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  I judge outward appearances not by what I see but with the eyes of the mind.  When the Body of Christ is mentioned the words have one meaning for me, another for the unbeliever.

Just as the letters on a page are meaningless to a child who has not yet learned how to read, so it is with the Christian mystery.  Unbelievers are deaf to what they hear, whereas the experience of the Spirit empowers believers to perceive its hidden meaning.  Paul made this clear when he said: Our preaching is obscure but only for those on the way to perdition. Something proclaimed everywhere without being understood by those lacking an upright spirit is undoubtedly a mystery.  For to the extent that we are able to receive it, it is revealed not by human wisdom but by the Holy Spirit.  Rightly, therefore, is the mystery said to be a secret, for even we believers have not been given a completely clear and accurate knowledge of it.  As Paul said: Our knowledge and our prophesying are imperfect.  We see now as it were a dim reflection in the mirror, but then face to face.  This is why he said: We impart the wisdom od God in mystery predestined by God before all ages for our glory.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Focus on what’s important

I was on retreat this week, a guest of the monks of St. Anselm Abbey in Manchester NH.  I was allowed to become, in a sense, a temporary member of their community of prayer, and found myself falling into the rhythm of the monastic hours of prayer.  The first day or so, I found myself caught up in more of the how of prayer and the distractions of all that was going on around me.  In the chapel I was given a prayer stall next to the prior who helpfully laid out the hymns and texts for me before each prayer.  Given the option of processing in and out of the chapel with the monks I declined, choosing to sit in quiet contemplation before each hour of prayer. 

The community has a particular pace to their singing and recitation.  Much is accompanied by various moments of standing, kneeling, and bowing.  I tried to take my cue from the monks around me and was careful to hold back and follow their lead as to tempo and tone.  In spite of the fact that there was often 15-20 men in choir singing and praying, the prayer was softly muted, sung so that no one voice could easily be heard above the other.

At first I was distracted.  I found my eyes wandering around, gazing at and listening to so many unfamiliar things: the monks in choir, the chapel itself, the way the light caught different angles, the sound of the chant, the airy pitch of the pipe organ, the patterns in the wood and the places where the floor and the kneeler were worn from the years of the monks’ kneeling, walking, sitting, and standing.  The monks themselves were a wide spectrum of ages and types.  The old brother to my right used a walker to quietly shuffle in and out of the chapel.  I knew many of the monks already as the abbey sends them to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for further study so they were either my contemporaries from my student days at the seminary or students that I had taught when I was on faculty there.  It was good to see them all again.

At various times during the prayer, we would either stand or kneel.  When this happened, the wooden seat would be folded up as we stood or the kneeler would be folded up or down as need be.  The monks seemed to be able to do so without any noise or effort whatsoever.  I, on the other hand, no matter how much I tried to be quiet, always seemed to make some kind of noise as the kneeler or seat was placed. I never did it gracefully.

Still as the week unfolded, I found myself being able to turn away from my distractions and into the prayer of the psalms, canticles, and readings themselves.  There is a shelf in front of each seat on which one places the text to be used, remaining there as one stands or sits, only reaching over to turn the page as need be.  I used the trick of focusing on the words on the page in front of me as we sang.  By keeping my head down, I was able to avoid distractions and really center on what we were praying.  Or so I thought until Wednesday morning.

At the abbey, prayer begins each day at 6:00 AM with Vigils and Lauds, what in the Liturgy of the Hours we refer to as the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer, one right after the other.   That morning, as prayer began, we silently knelt on the hard wooden floor and then sat and commenced the recitation of the assigned psalms for that day.  I kept my head down, focusing on the text of Psalm 103, “My soul, give thanks to the Lord, all my being, bless his holy name…,” but there was this strange little pointed shadow hanging down on my book.  It seemed that the monk in front of me had put up his hood in a way that the back point of the hood was sticking out, casting a kind of dark pointer.  As he slightly moved his head while reciting the texts, the pointer in turn moved from word to word like the bouncing ball over the lyrics in the old “sing-a-longs.”  I found it very distracting and funny.   I tried moving the book from side to side on the shelf but to no avail.  Perversely, no matter where I put the book, the shadow followed.  So, I gave up and gave in to “bouncing ball’ and the distractions around me and allowed them to just become part of the prayer.

Later on I was thinking about this. I was reminded that, no matter what, our faith and our prayer is always embodied, embodied in myself, embodied in those around me, and embodied in the Church.  I might want to become like one of the angels, unencumbered by material form, hence undistracted by the natural order of things around me, but I can’t.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because then I’m reminded that faith is matter of living, not just a matter of intending or idealizing or thinking.  I simply can’t live my faith in the chapel or the church, seeing the people around me as a distraction to my prayer, but I have to live my faith among humanity, not just in the chapel but elsewhere.  So a little distraction in prayer is not a bad thing - it so human - although next time, I think I’ll move my seat.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Same blog just transferred to a new location

With my transfer to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, my blog has been transferred to a new location as well. Through the marvels of internet technology, you may have entered the ‘old’ address ( and found yourself automatically here at Bookmark this page and check back from time to time as we ‘walk together.’

Friday, February 4, 2011

"You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"*

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my becoming a bishop. I can’t help but wonder how I got from point A to point B, how Christopher Coyne, son of Bill and Rita Coyne, one of seven children, somehow became the Most Reverend Christopher Coyne, auxiliary bishop of Indianapolis. I keep coming back to the lyrics from the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’” – “what a long strange trip it’s been.” Certain moments tend to stand out more than others: family celebrations, moments of grief and sadness, graduations, weddings, ordinations, friends found and friends lost, all things that any of us would recall when looking back in reflection upon one’s life.

Among many, there were a couple of people and moments upon which I look back now that seem kind of pivotal in terms of people really trying to push me to excel. I remember when I was in my sophomore year at Woburn High. I found high school to be boring. My grades were okay and I was in some honors levels courses and the like, but I never really worked at it. I was friendly with this guy named Jeff. We seemed to have the same class schedule and the same attitude towards class and studies – just do enough to get a decent grade and then “chill” the rest of the time. He and I were big readers so we would often sit in class reading some book or novel while the teacher would be teaching. We never really paid that much attention unless we had to, we did our class and homework with a minimal of fuss, and just chilled the rest of the time. We were not what any teacher would call a problem unless you were grading ambition and attitude towards learning. Well one day we were in our chemistry class when Mr. Nolan the teacher came down to us, grabbed our books, and told us we had a detention with him that afternoon. We both started saying, “What? What did we do? We didn’t do anything?” He said he was sick of our attitudes and he would see us later. I was ballistic as I had a job after school washing dishes and my brother, the senior, always gave me a ride. Now I had to track him down, tell him I had a detention, and figure out how to get to work late.

Anyway, Jeff and I showed up for Mr. Nolan’s detention and he sat us down in the front row and proceeded to yell at us about how sick and tired he was with our attitudes. “You two are wasting your talents. Look at you. You hardly crack a book, you don’t pay attention in class, you sit there in the back reading your novels and magazines and you still get a B for a grade. Think about what you could do if you just tried. Don’t you want to go to a good college? You guys are two of the brightest kids in your class and you’re doing nothing with it. When are you going to wise up and try? I mean, come on. What have you got to say for yourselves?” Well, Jeff and I just sat there in silence for a minute and then I said, “Ah, can I go? I gotta get to work.” Mr. Nolan got all red in the face, looked at us with disgust and said, “Get out of here.” After we got out of earshot, Jeff said, “That was so cool! I thought his head was going to blow up. Way to go!” Anyway, Jeff and I continued on our mellow way through the rest of high school, splitting up when we went off to college, I to the University of Lowell, he somewhere else.

College was much the same: lots of partying, just doing enough to get good grades, but never really working at it. I did manage to get invited to join the honors program in the business school but that ended when I realized I could work full time and finish my degree at night school. It wasn’t until I entered the seminary that things changed for me, but not right away. I liked the philosophy and the theology and tried to be dutiful and attentive in class, even taking notes. The profs were good in that they encouraged questions and seemed to enjoy a good dialogue. I pretty much aced everything without a lot of effort and I thought I was staying under the radar screen. Not so fast.

Every year we had a student evaluation based not just on your grades and class work but how you were coming together as a candidate for priesthood. Up until my third year, everything was going fine. That year, though, when I met with my faculty advisor, Fr. McGrath, he told me that the faculty overall saw me as a good candidate for priesthood but that they had a concern. They didn’t think I was applying myself to my academics. I was dumbfounded. I was getting all A’s! What are they talking about? I liked Fr. McGrath because he was always straight forward in his speech so he said to me something like, “Listen, you bozo, you and I both know that you could apply yourself more to your intellectual development. You’re wasting the gift God gave you if you just cruise through here.” Suddenly, I was in high school again, with Mr. Nolan yelling at Jeff and me. I almost wanted to say, “Ah, can I go? I gotta go to work,” but I didn’t. “Well, what do they want me to do?” I asked. He said, to “take some extra courses and not those “bunny” electives that are out there. Do something that will make you work.” I left his office still annoyed about the whole thing. So, I decided if the faculty thought I wasn’t working hard enough, then I would show them!

The next semester I took two extra courses, one a course in biblical Greek, the other a directed reading course in French Church history using the original French sources. The course load killed me but I did it. I found myself spending a lot of time in the library. When I would take a break from my studies, I would often pick up one of the theological journals in the reading room and skim through it, reading up on subjects that I never would have in the past. I started to keep a theological journal and worked on my writing skills. I began to really enjoy my time in studies and reading and actually got excited about what I was doing. After I left the seminary and was ordained, I still spent a lot of time in the library or in my room reading books and magazines as my parish schedule allowed. In my third year in the parish, I got call from the rector of the seminary asking me to go away to study so as to become a faculty member when my doctorate was completed. The rest is personal history and here I am today, a bishop-designate. So, Mr. Nolan, thanks. You got it right. It just took me a while to figure it out.

*Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime"
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