I am now of an age where some contemporaries from my seminary years (1981-1987) are now bishops. I was curious to know what response, if any, they had offered in the aftermath of what is becoming known as the Orlando Tragedy.
In the days after the June 12th massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, many American bishops issued statements condemning this act of senseless violence that resulted in the deaths of 50 souls (including the shooter) and injuries to more than 50 other innocents. Invariably, these bishops called for prayers for the victims, their families, as well as first responders and others who provided care to those affected. A very small number of bishops went further. These brave pastoral leaders — notably Bishop Robert Lynch of neighboring St. Petersburg, Florida — not only recognized that this attack took place in a gay bar, but he also stated that religion, including Catholicism, must take responsibility and make amends for the religious roots of homophobia.
The strengths and shortcomings of bishops’ statements are thoroughly described not only in the national Catholic Press (cf. Robert Mickens, Church statements keep the door closed on gays), but especially through the thoughtful blogging of New Ways Ministry (cf. Bondings 2.0 posts for June 2016).
“What words,” I wondered, “had Chris Coyne offered to the people in his diocese of Burlington, VT?” Chris was one year ahead of me at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He was ordained in 1986 and I the following year. While we were acquaintances to the degree that one “knows” anyone in a seminary community where its members live and eat and study and pray together, we were not close. Chris was outgoing, gregarious, smart, and he was socially friendly with a number of faculty members that made it evident he knew how to make his presence known, even in the small system of a Catholic seminary. In the years since he became a bishop, Chris has been very active on social media. Not only does he have his own website and blog (BishopCoyne.org), he is quite active on Facebook and is on Twitter daily.
This past Sunday, I checked the official website of the Diocese of Burlington and, sure enough, there was Chris’s statement Regarding the Tragedy in Orlando. Unlike Lynch and others, including Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, Chris took the easier path. Disappointed in his words, especially his failure to recognize that this attack was an assault on the LGBT community, I decided to write to Chris. I did so privately, through his website.
Here’s what I wrote:
I doubt you remember me, Chris, but we were in the seminary together at St. John’s (I was ordained in 1987). I’m writing to you directly (I presume?) simply to let you know that, while it was good of you to make a statement about the recent tragedy in Orlando, I was disappointed that you did not choose to recognize that this particular act of violence was against a specific community. There is no doubt that, whatever elements may have been at play in the shooter’s mind or worldview, he chose to attack a gay night club and the majority of those who died or were injured would identify as LGBT. The fact that you and so many of your brother bishops — with a few notable exceptions — chose not even to mention this salient fact in your statement simply re-traumatizes those of us who continue to hold on to our Catholic faith, while also being true to ourselves as God created us. We look to Church leaders who — as I’m sure you remember Bishop Daily never tired of saying — act “in persona Christi,” to be the presence of the Lord, especially in the midst of tragedy, sadness, grief and despair. I don’t know what your relationship is to the LGBT community in Vermont, but I hope you are able to recognize that God’s LGBT children are also part of the flock you are called to shepherd.
May God bless you, Chris. Peace!
The following day, here’s the reply I received (in its entirety):
Thank you for your communication and the opinions it contains.
Needless to say, I was taken aback by the response’s brevity, and its failure to address my concern in any way, let alone address me, personally. Some with whom I privately shared the email exchange wonder if it’s an “auto-response.” Given that it did not come immediately upon submission, I doubt this is the case.
For three days I have prayed about whether I should post this or not. I know, after all, that part of me is angry; and action taken solely in anger is rarely helpful. My decision to post is not meant to shame or embarrass Bishop Coyne. I’m sure he is a good man with a good heart who does many good things for the local Church he serves. But if we do not call leaders to task, then who can we blame when the change we seek does not come about? The change I hope and pray for is one where the Church and her leaders recognize and embrace the full diversity of all God’s People. I hope and pray for a Church where every diocese and parish fully welcomes all — regardless of race or gender or age or orientation or status or disability — bound together only by our common faith. Yes, I am angered and saddened by the impersonal response I received, which caused me to feel dismissed and unheard. But, I am also hopeful — for without faith and hope, what else is there?