Friday, January 14, 2011

Beantown Spokesman... Brickyard Bishop: In Stunner, Boston's Coyne Flipped to Indy

And now, Item 2....

At Roman Noon today, the Pope named 56 year-old Msgr Mark Bartchak, until now judicial vicar of Erie, as bishop of Altoona-Johnstown, succeeding Bishop Joseph Adamec, head of the 100,000-member diocese of Central and Western Pennsylvania since 1987, who reached the retirement age last summer. The bishop-elect will be ordained and installed on 19 April.

At the same time, however, in what can be viewed as quite possibly the most confounding nod the Stateside bench has seen in quite some time, B16 likewise appointed Fr Christopher Coyne (above), of the clergy of Boston -- heretofore, and "happily," pastor of St Margaret Mary church in Westwood, Mass. -- as auxiliary to Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis.

(Sure, it's early -- but, no, your eyes aren't off... read it again.)

The first auxiliary the 250,000-member Indy church has received since the future Cardinal Joseph Ritter (a native son) was tapped to assist an ailing Archbishop Joseph Chartrand in 1933, the selection of the highly-regarded 52 year-old liturgy scholar, blogger, TV host -- and, indeed, spokesman for the Boston church amid the sexual-abuse eruption of 2002 and onward -- upends the long-standing logic of American appointments on two almost invariable accounts. For starters, while most diocesan bishops nearing the retirement age are reluctant to petition Rome for an auxiliary lest (thanks to the Vatican's time-honored "magic") a coadjutor appear instead, in this instance the exact opposite came to pass. Likewise, though it's the standing rule of the process that Hispanic and African-American auxiliaries in the US are drawn from national lists and, as a result, are traditionally newcomers to the province and diocese where they receive the high-hat, it's exceedingly rare that an Anglo priest been made an auxiliary across provincial lines... let alone halfway across the country.

(Historically speaking, the last time a non-minority auxiliary from the secular clergy was plucked from another diocese on these shores came in early 2008, when Msgr James Conley of Wichita -- freshly returned home from several years as the senior English language staffer at the Congregation for Bishops (and high on its radar as a result) -- was named an auxiliary of Denver. Before that, you'd have to go back to 1998, when then-Fr Patrick Zurek of Austin was named an auxiliary of San Antonio; that, however, was a move within what, at the time, was the same province.)

In this circumstance, the judgment underpinning the move has ostensibly been one of providing a vigorous, well-seasoned assist in the quickest way possible. Early last fall, after years of difficult health, Buechlein requested a coadjutor -- soon to turn 73, in early 2008 the Benedictine prelate was diagnosed with Hodgskin's lymphoma, undergoing a successful initial surgery which saw the cancer go into remission. A former rector of St Meinrad Seminary and bishop of Memphis who's led the Hoosier province since 1992, the archbishop experienced further setbacks following subsequent operations on his shoulder and stomach, whose aftereffects combined to take an toll on his stamina; while Buechlein presided at last year's Holy Week Chrism Mass, the archbishop left its celebrating duties to Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, who months earlier became the first Indy priest named to the hierarchy in two decades.

According to ranking sources, Buechlein's wish for a coadjutor was declined by Rome and an auxiliary offered instead, the likely rationale being twofold.

On the one hand, the years-long process of selecting an archbishop-in-waiting would have proven too lengthy to provide for the current need of the Indy church. And on the other, given the state of a vetting process become so intense that it's standard fare for the Nunciature in Washington to quietly send 150 or more interrogatory letters to people familiar with a recommended priest to glean every facet of the candidate's gifts, limitations and all-around suitability for the episcopate, the well-trod path of hometown terna and according consultation was likewise deemed unfeasible. Ergo, seemingly with a little gumption on the part of Archbishop Pietro Sambi and the Congregation for Bishops, the choice was accomplished with conspicuous speed, matching Buechlein's need with a young, sharp, energetic cleric who already cleared the scrutinies, had manifested the requisite "outstanding qualities" as a pastor, teacher and diocesan official... and just as importantly, has had to live up to William Henry O'Connell's famous motto over the course of his priesthood at more turns than he probably ever imagined.

Ordained 25 years ago this June and viewed all around as the classic "good guy," the bishop-elect's name probably rung a bell among at least some veteran church-watchers for the high-profile assignment handed him under historically trying circumstances.

In March 2002, as it became clear that the searing global spotlight on the Boston church's tragic history of sexual abuse by clergy and cover-up by archdiocesan officials would be no fleeting headline and waves of public fury over the revelations battered the old Brighton Chancery until the nation's senior active cleric, Cardinal Bernard Law, was forced to resign in disgrace, Coyne -- then a professor of liturgy and preaching at St John's Seminary -- was recruited as backup for the then-archdiocesan spokeswoman, Donna Morrissey, who, as one aide recalled the situation, "couldn't get the answers" from officials that the unrelenting media storm demanded.

Within weeks, the priest became the lead voice of real-time response to the greatest scandal American Catholicism had ever known. As a Boston Globe profile at the time compared him to the besieged Morrissey, "Coyne's has been a more forthcoming and compassionate voice, and, perhaps because he is a priest, his words seem to many to carry greater weight.

"Some advisers had urged the archdiocese months ago to rely more on Coyne as a spokesman," the paper added, "but their advice was apparently not heeded until now."

At a moment when the Globe -- upon which Law famously "call[ed] down the power of God" after an earlier round of the paper's sex-abuse coverage -- wasn't exactly known for covering the priesthood in a positive light, the plaudit's merit was only amplified.

The duo remained at the herculean task until shortly after the arrival of then-Archbishop Sean O'Malley in mid 2003, when the priest-portavoce was left to communicate the crisis' continuing fallout (including the Capuchin healer's quickly-inked $86 million settlement with victim-survivors) on his own.

Along the way, there was at least one moment of relative levity.

When the Red Sox were scheduled to start their 2004 season on Good Friday, the Boston Herald asked the spokesman if the obligation of abstinence would be lifted in deference to Opening Day. Though the chancery had received a steady stream of requests for a dispensation from doubly-devout Catholic ballfans longing for spring, it wasn't just any Lenten Friday, so Coyne's answer was, in effect, no dice.

After the tabloid's resulting lede blared that "Catholic members of Red Sox Nation might be eating tofu at Fenway on Opening Day," a friend of Coyne's recalled years later that the bishop-elect received more hate mail and furious calls from the public on the rule than he had about anything else.

Then again, however begrudging it might've been, Sox Nation's ritual penitence ended up paying off in something the fans coveted far more than an Opening Day hot dog -- or, for that matter, a truckload. The season that began with strict fast and abstinence ended up emptying baseball's most vaunted tomb of all as the team's mythic 86-year championship drought reached its end with the World Series victory generations of New Englanders had lived and died in longing to see (a title drive that, lest anyone forgot, included an epic 4-game ALCS comeback against an "Evil Empire" up 3-0).

After three years in the hot seat, though, as the Series sweep's glow still lingered, the spokesman began seeking out a change of scenery and pace... but again, likely ended up with more than he bargained for.

Apparently impressed with Coyne's ability to win the respect and goodwill of a media scrum that could turn acidic on a dime, O'Malley entrusted his departing PR with another situation that, in less savvy hands, threatened to easily combust: replacing the Boston church's de facto "leader of the opposition" -- the wildly progressive, eminently outspoken (and, among his people, even more popular), Fr Walter Cuenin -- as pastor of Our Lady, Help of Christians in Newton.

To put things in context for those at a distance, Newton is the heart and base of Barney Frank's congressional district. (And, for most, 'nuff said.) Along those lines, among other aspects of his magnetic ministry, Cuenin once made it a point to underscore that he had "never, in a public setting, spoken against the church’s teaching on homosexuality" right around the time he became the first-ever Catholic cleric to preach Boston's annual Gay Pride Service (where he restrained himself so thoroughly that the congregation responded with two standing ovations).

While Our Lady's came to draw a catch-all, highbrow congregation in a historically blue-collar Italian quarter of the sprawling suburb emerging as an exemplar of faith-and-justice work, politics -- whether secular or ecclesiastical -- was never far from the surface. As Cuenin himself put it in an interview with the village paper, "Our Lady’s was so strongly opposed to Cardinal Law. There was a lot of tension between the cardinal and the parish." And so, when the longtime pastor with the cult following was found by an archdiocesan audit to have leased a Honda and drawn an extra stipend from parish funds -- with the approval of his lay finance board, but in defiance of archdiocesan policy -- Cuenin went, Coyne came... and, in a word, Newton went nuts.

To his supporters, Cuenin's transfer from Our Lady's to the Catholic chaplaincy at nearby Brandeis University was less rooted in his ledgers than his candor, above all during the throes of the crisis. And accordingly, 200 red-clad parishioners converged on Holy Cross Cathedral to "shout defiance" at Mass, the finance council protested that Paul Shanley -- the most egregious of Boston's predator clergy -- wasn't removed for committing serial abuse, and hundreds more marched miles to the chancery, carring signs with sayings like "He told the truth and he was crucified." ("He," for the group's purposes, not being Jesus.)

This was the mix into which the former spokesman walked... and from the first, it proved brutal.

Looming over the scene were two issues: 1. Chris Coyne was someone who wasn't Walter Cuenin. And 2. As the latter put it, especially given the circumstances of his departure, the "baggage" of the new pastor's years as the face of the scandal-wrought administration proved too much to surmount. So while many parishioners would come to see an understanding confessor and prayerful spirit in their new pastor, and even Cuenin himself openly praised his successor as "a very nice guy" who gave him an open invitation to come back, some in the pews literally turned their backs on Coyne, or "every time he made headway, the term 'Law's man' came up," or -- at their worst -- likened him to a "Nazi collaborator" because of his prior post.

In all of four months, it was over; the chancery tried to hold on, but assuaging the die-hards seemed impossible, and Coyne reached the conclusion that "enough was enough." Yet as the locals recall it six years later, "he kept his chin up," never once allowing himself to respond to the fray in kind... even if -- as one of the crowd who warmed to him put it -- "For [the critics], our [parish] hymn, 'All are welcome,' excluded Coyne."

Bottom line: if the Indy crowd tries getting revved over the new second-in-command not being one of their own, suffice it to say, he's had it far worse.

The Newton experiment behind, Coyne finally found the fulfillment and relative peace he sought on leaving chancery work in his second pastorate, 10 miles down the Mass Pike in more subdued Westwood, south of the city.

There, in his last posting on the blog he set up on the parish website, a subheadline said the note -- dated 6 January and titled "Hello, Lord" -- was written "while faced with a difficult decision."

And now, the world knows what it was all about.

The Indianapolis Curia has called the traditional presser for 10.30am Central time. The bishop-elect will be ordained on 2 March.