More than 100 people joined Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne at Holy Family Parish Hall in Essex Junction Jan. 22 for the second of six Catholic Town Meetings happening throughout the state during January and February.After Edmundite Father Charles Ranges, pastor of the Essex Catholic Community —which includes Holy Family-St. Lawrence and St. Pius X parishes — opened the meeting with a prayer, Bishop Coyne offered brief remarks on the status of the Diocesan Synod and the motivation for the meeting.

He reported that the official synod process has drawn to a close and that the yearlong effort went well. The three key themes that emerged were evangelization, building vibrant parishes and communication. The Diocese of Burlington has contracted with the Catholic Leadership Institute to work with each parish in conducting surveys, training teams and formulating plans for how they can grow these areas in their specific situations. The Catholic Leadership Institute also will help parishes evaluate the effectiveness and status of their plans one year after implementation.

Bishop Coyne explained that the Catholic Town Meetings are an effort to respond to requests for better two-way communication between himself and the faithful of Vermont. Catholics have expressed a desire not just to hear from him more frequently but also to be able to speak to him. These meetings are one way to facilitate open communication.

The majority of the 90-minute event was spent on the question-and-answer portion of the meeting. Concerned Catholics asked questions about financial transparency, protection of children, seminary training and priest formation, how to engage families and young people, the role of religion in politics, the possibility of female and married clergy, accessibility of adoration opportunities, the process of returning to the Church and how to increase the role of the laity in decision-making and practice.

The Diocese of Burlington is one of only two Dioceses in the country to have received an A rating for financial transparency in a recent nationwide study. “Financial transparency is important to me,” said the bishop, “I want parishes to be financially solvent and strong.”

In response to questions about whether child protection policies put in place nearly two decades ago are enough to keep children safe today, Bishop Coyne responded affirmatively. There have been no new, substantiated allegations of abuse against a minor in the Diocese of Burlington since the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. Anyone working with minors on behalf of the Diocese—staff, volunteers and clergy—must undergo a background check and participate in ongoing safe-environment training. Adults also are trained to detect signs of abuse that may be happening elsewhere, and children are taught what is and is not appropriate and how to tell a trusted adult if something is wrong. All clergy, catechists, teachers and volunteers are mandated reporters and any new allegations will be handled correctly. “Our policy is zero tolerance,” Bishop Coyne said.

Bishop Coyne offered several suggestions to parishioners who wonder how to attract young people and families into Church participation today. “The old model of just opening our doors and inviting them in is no longer sufficient,” he said. “We have to go out and witness by loving actions and authentic, holy lives. We need to be a part of the general community.” He suggested that groups could say a prayer before serving at a soup kitchen, wear T-shirts displaying the name of their parish or Catholic school or explain that their service it motivated by Catholicism as ways to witness to their faith.

As laity desire to be more involved in decision-making, coordination and practice at parish and diocesan levels, Bishop Coyne assures them that while there is a hierarchy within the Church’s celebration of the liturgy and its governance, he’s trying to move away from the “pyramid model” locally. He offered examples of lay committees that have been formed to advise him on various decisions and leadership positions at the chancery that are filled by the most qualified people available, often women.

In addition to posing questions, attendees of the Catholic Town Meeting in Essex Junction expressed gratitude for Bishop Coyne’s willingness to engage in open conversation and for the welcoming nature of their local church.

Upcoming town meetings will take place in Bennington, Rutland, South Burlington and Orleans. The full schedule can be found on the diocesan calendar at vermontcatholic.org/events.

 

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