February 25, 2011

Our New Auxiliary Bishop

Priest friends admire Bishop-designate Coyne’s humility

By Sean Gallagher

Prayerful. Humble. Approachable. A man of the people. A man of the Church.

That is how several priests and a bishop who know Bishop-designate Christopher J. Coyne describe their friend, who will be ordained as an auxiliary bishop for the Church in central and southern Indiana on March 2 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis.

Father Aaron Pfaff is one of a few priests ministering in the archdiocese who knew the soon-to-be-auxiliary bishop before his appointment.

Currently the administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Leopold, St. Martin of Tours Parish in Siberia and Holy Cross Parish in St. Croix, Father Pfaff was formed for the priesthood at St. John’s Seminary in Boston as a seminarian for the Diocese of Manchester, N.H.

He is seeking to be incardinated as a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Father Pfaff’s last year in the seminary was Bishop-designate Coyne’s first year as a member of its faculty. As a transitional deacon, he was led by Bishop-designate Coyne in a practicum that helped him and his classmates learn how to celebrate the Mass.

“What he [taught] was more than an academic science,” Father Pfaff said. “It was the love of his life. He led us deeper into that love. He taught us how to pray what we’re celebrating, to pray the Mass.”

Father Pfaff also appreciated the way in which Bishop-designate Coyne related to him and his seminary classmates.

“It was as if he was one of us, not necessarily as an authority over us,” Father Pfaff said. “He kind of led us as a group forward, almost like brother peers. … He was approachable, down-to-earth, accessible.”

Although Father Pfaff only interacted closely with Bishop-designate Coyne for about a year, his observations echo the comments made about him by friends and colleagues that have known him for decades.

Father Mark Mahoney, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Topsfield, Mass., was a seminary classmate of Bishop-designate Coyne and has remained a friend for 25 years.

“He’s one of those people who you could talk to about anything from the theology that you were studying to current events to sports,” Father Mahoney said. “He was knowledgeable on all subjects and very easy to talk to.

“He’s very easygoing and a man of the people. He’s anything but haughty. He’s humble. And that makes him very approachable.”

That humility and hospitality is manifested in special ways with his brother priests, whom he regularly invited to his rectory at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Westwood, Mass., for dinner on Saturday nights.

Father Mahoney sees a connection between this hospitality and the way he welcomed his parishioners to the table of the Lord at Mass.

“He celebrates the sacraments wonderfully and prayerfully,” Father Mahoney said. “The Saturday evening vigil Mass is well prepared.

“But he might well, at the same time, have meats marinating in his kitchen to be prepared later that evening after the celebration of the liturgy for six to 10 priests of the neighboring parishes to come over and have a meal with him.”

Msgr. Cornelius McRae, the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in nearby Norwood, Mass., was often one of those dinner guests.

Msgr. McRae was ordained in 1961 when Bishop-designate Coyne was just 2. Despite their difference in age and pastoral experience, Msgr. McRae holds his younger colleague—whom he said is “talented in the pulpit and in the kitchen”—in high esteem.

“He is an energetic and reliable spokesman for the faith. He’s a wonderful communicator—under fire, I might add,” said Msgr. McRae, referring to when Bishop-designate Coyne served as a spokeman for the Archdiocese of Boston from 2002-05 during the height of the priestly sex abuse crisis.

“That was tough duty every night [on TV] facing the hostility of … a good part of the world,” Msgr. McRae said.

“It was a time when many Boston priests will say that it was difficult to be in public wearing the clerical collar,” Father Mahoney said. “And yet, there he was almost nightly on the news doing so in the most public of manners.”

Father Mark Hunt, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who has known Bishop-designate Coyne since they were graduate students in Rome in the 1990s, said those trying times in the Archdiocese of Boston challenged the peace-filled joy his friend had found in his vocation.

“It was tested,” Father Hunt said. “And it was tested in ways that he will never speak about and that only people very close to him will know about.”

The priestly fraternity that Bishop-designate Coyne nurtured over the years became a source of support for him during that time.

However, Bishop Richard G. Lennon said, his priest friends weren’t the most important source.

“To a considerable extent, it was his relationship with God that was the foundation,” said Bishop Lennon of Cleveland, Ohio. “Then, certainly building on that, was the whole relationship with priests. That certainly strengthened it.”

Bishop Lennon previously served as an auxiliary bishop and the apostolic administrator of the Boston Archdiocese.

While serving as his previous local Church’s spokesman during a difficult time, Bishop-designate Coyne was confronted with the brokenness of humanity on a regular basis.

But Father Hunt said that a deep core of his friend’s life of faith—an authentic humility that acknowledges both his own as well as other people’s gifts and limitations—helped him do that well.

Father Hunt was reminded of this by

Bishop-designate Coyne’s humorous response to a question about his episcopal motto during a Jan. 14 press conference at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis.

At the time, the bishop-designate told the media that he had looked in the Bible for “It is what it is,” but couldn’t find it there.

According to Father Hunt, Bishop-designate Coyne had used that saying while trying to console him during some difficult times in Rome.

“He’d say, ‘Mark, it is what it is,’ ” Father Hunt recalled. “ ‘We’d love it to be perfect. We’d love it to be all the times edifying. But it is what it is, and it’s the human condition. And how’s the redemption of Jesus Christ going to break into it? And how are we going to let it [break in]?’ ”

Father Hunt said this underlying humility helped his friend maintain a sense of peace and joy despite the hardships he has faced over the years. And he expects it to continue in the new bishop’s episcopal ministry in the archdiocese.

“My hope is, if anything, that the peace and joy that he has had as a pastor in Westwood would continue in his life as an auxiliary [bishop] in Indianapolis,” Father Hunt said. “That was contagious in the parish. [The] Westwood [parishioners] knew that they had a priest who loves being a priest.”

Bishop Lennon said he hopes that his soon-to-be brother bishop will “always remain true to who he has been.”

“He’s certainly a man of the Church and he’s a man of integrity,” Bishop Lennon said. “He takes his

responsibilities seriously, and is able to do it in a way that … is sociable and outreaching to people. But, primarily, he’s a man of the Church who lives his life with great integrity.”

For his part, Father Pfaff is eager to have his former seminary professor minister with him in central and southern Indiana, and he sees the local Church here as a good place for Bishop-designate Coyne to minister with Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein.

“I see the Archdiocese of Indianapolis [as] being spiritually alive and welcoming,” Father Pfaff said. “The fraternity of priests is real. The presbyterate is solid and holy. I think he’s going to be very much supported and uplifted by his new archdiocesan family here even though he’s going to be removed from his family and friends [in Boston].

“I’m thrilled,” Father Pfaff said. “This is good.” †

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