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Bishop Christopher J. Coyne became bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, a little more than a year ago, arriving from Indiana where he was bishop for the southern region of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Born in Woburn, MA, Coyne was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 for the Archdiocese of Boston and received a Licentiate degree in Sacred Liturgy and a doctorate in Sacred Liturgy from the Pontifical Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo in Rome. Returning to Boston, he went on to serve in various diocesan roles, as well as a parish pastor and professor of Sacred Liturgy and Homiletics at St. John’s Seminary.
Coyne is the current chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications committee— and a perfect man for the job. His innovative use of digital media to share the Gospel is a standout. In addition to what he and his staff are doing at the diocesan level, he has his own website, which features a hosts of digital media products he produces to teach and connect with the people he serves. He recently spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky about it.
Zoe Romanowsky: You’re using digital technology in a very comprehensive, savvy way — you have a blog, a podcast, videos, you’re very active on social media and you’ve even got a camera in your car that you use to record yourself talking to your viewers. Have you always been interested in technology and digital media, or was there a time in your ministry when you decided to embrace it?
Bishop Christopher Coyne: Well, I was always a bit of a Mac geek in college and through seminary and in my work, but I didn’t start to embrace digital media until I was a pastor in a suburban parish outside Boston. We were publishing the weekly bulletin, but the steps to do it on our web page were complicated and a lot of work, so I started working with our web person to figure out how to make it more user-friendly, and that got me going into the whole process of using digital media in a pastoral way. The first thing I did was a written blog about 10 years ago.
A bishop’s life is busy; it’s a very full schedule. How do you find time to be present on social media, maintain a website and do blog posts, podcasts and videos? Do you have a team of helpers and a budget?
I do now. But most of that is on the diocesan level. My personal stuff I tend to do myself. Most of it is done early in the morning when I first get up after my prayer. I’ll spend time looking around the internet and look at the news, and I’ll post on Facebook. Since my Twitter posts are slave to my Facebook posts, I don’t have to do double duty.
I’m very strict about boundaries on the Internet. So, for example, both of my Facebook pages — I have a private page and a public page — say at the top that I don’t carry business through on my FB page … so you need to contact my office for that. I don’t do apologetics [on social media] because you spend a lot of time getting into arguments with people, so I limit myself there, and I’m very careful about not spending too much on the Internet. During the course of the day, I do monitor it, just to make sure that something isn’t happening, like inappropriate posts, or someone in a crisis who’s trying to reach me. But I don’t want to become consumed by this.
I must say that your videos and social media presence, and the fact that you have your own website that invites others to engage with you, makes you seem very accessible. I think most people are used to their bishops being inaccessible … in terms of ever being able to to personally connect with them, ask a question or have a conversation. What has this way of reaching out done for the way people perceive you and respond to you?
It’s really worked, especially here in Burlington since I’m so new — I’ve only been here a year. When I go out to parishes and I’m out in public, people come up to me and say, “I follow you on Facebook”; “I follow you on Twitter”; “I feel like I know you”; “You’re so human”; “I love your humor.” I basically try to follow what St. Augustine said in his treatise on the teaching of Christian doctrine — that a good teacher teaches, pleases and persuades. The pleasing part is not that you say things that people want to hear but that your message is attractive to people and they want to engage it. So I’ll put something funny out there, or something personal — like three days ago I had a bad cold and I mentioned it. … Even if it’s the first time they’ve met me, people feel like they know me because they know about my mother and my brothers and sisters, and they know when I’m traveling and what I’m doing.
Your diocese — Burlington, Vermont — announced plans to open the first Catholic online high school. Why did you decide to do this?
I came from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which has a huge Catholic school system, which produces such benefits for the diocese. When I got here to Vermont, I encountered a school system a quarter of the size in a state that is half the population … so I started think about how I could foster and support Catholic schools here.
We only have two Catholic high schools … we’re such a rural state — everything is spread out. How do we engage our Catholic families and Catholic students, especially at the high school level? And the idea of a digital Catholic high school came to fruition, not just as an online program, or as a curriculum for homeschooling families, or classes, but we asked: What makes Catholic school unique? It’s the formation. So we decided to have one day a week called a “hub day,” where students would sign up for our school, but then one day a week they’d have to make a trek to one of the hubs in the state where they’d have Mass, formation, peer ministry, counseling, tutoring if need be, but without the hassle of doing that every day.
And when do you plan to launch this?
We hope this fall to have our first freshman class up and running. We’ve got a lot of content from the Jesuit online program and the Archdiocese of Miami, which has its own online high school program, but they don’t have the hub days, or focus engagement with the families on the formation level.
Do you envision this being for people who might otherwise home-school, as well as those who may currently send their kids to a public or Catholic school?
We’re getting a lot of inquiries from home-schoolers — but what they’re more interested in is content. They’re excited about tying into what we’re doing and using a lot of our online classes, but they’re not necessarily inclined to enroll fully into the Academy yet; they want to see how it plays out.
But we’re also getting inquires from across state borders — from Massachusetts and New York, and from Canada. So we hope to set up our hubs in the corners of the state, close to borders so a lot of these families can enroll and be able to have their students attend our Academy. Many schools are failing in Vermont, due to dwindling numbers and resources, and current private schools, whether Christian or secular, are very expensive, so we’re trying to keep our costs very low but offer a quality education and Catholic charism. Currently, we have an online survey and we’re trying to figure out where the people are who would be interested in our Academy, and then we’ll choose our hubs accordingly.
In addition to nearby border states, do you see this as something families in far away states could eventually participate in?
We just got an inquiry from Hawaii. If you think about it, a digital Catholic academy spread across the islands could work well out there.
Where do you think the Church is when it comes to using digital media to evangelize, catechize and build and foster community?
I think Pope Francis and the Holy See are leading the way, and I don’t say that to bow my head to the pope (laughs), but when you look at what he has initiated at the Vatican … the very fact that he chose Msgr. Paul Tighe as the number two at the Pontifical Council for Culture — who is really tied to digital media; and you see the Holy Father recently meeting with the CEO of Google — the Holy See never meets with individual business leaders; they had a private audience — and the pope himself is using digital media with his monthly reflections on God’s mercy, and his use of Google chat rooms to have distant conversations with young people and families. So using his example and his lead, each of us in his own way needs to do this as bishops. The USCCB needs to start doing this, too. I just started my three-year term as the chair of the communications committee, and we are beginning shift away from print to digital — not turn from print media completely but move more and more into the digital culture.
I would say many of my fellow bishops are still hesitant, concerned about the amount of resources required, the time it requires and also, frankly, about controlling it. But I think as we move forward and see the lead of the Vatican and the USSCB communications office, others will follow suit.
What stands out to you most about Pope Francis and his message?
He’s a person who understands the role of image. He can talk about mercy, but [then there is] the image of him hugging that severely deformed man a year ago … he can talk about reaching out to the immigrant, but [then there is] the image of him going to that island in the Mediterranean, and being there with the thousands of migrants in their boats and in their wretchedness, giving them a message of hope. He understands that most often in this digital culture, the meme or image is what tends to capture the message itself. And in that, he hasn’t changed the content of what we believe, but he’s changed the way we are perceived. People now talk about the Catholic Church more in terms of what we are for, than what we’re against.
Any future plans or projects you can let me in on, or dreams for what you’d like to do in the future?
I invite you to keep paying attention to our digital outreach here at the diocese of Burlington. We hired a fantastic digital person, and he is reworking everything, and the videos he puts together for our year of mercy and the work he is doing is just phenomenal. As we move forward, I hope to make the diocese of Burlington a model of what one can accomplish through the good use of digital media to spread the Good News.
This is the fifth installment in Aleteia’s series on Catholic innovators. Be sure to check out Aleteia’s previous interviews with Brandon Vogt, Lisa Hendey, Mary Rose Realy, Obl., OSB, and Daniel Mitsui.
Zoe Romanowsky is the lifestyle editor and video curator for Aleteia.