“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”*
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my becoming a bishop. I can’t help but wonder how I got from point A to point B, how Christopher Coyne, son of Bill and Rita Coyne, one of seven children, somehow became the Most Reverend Christopher Coyne, auxiliary bishop of Indianapolis. I keep coming back to the lyrics from the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’” – “what a long strange trip it’s been.” Certain moments tend to stand out more than others: family celebrations, moments of grief and sadness, graduations, weddings, ordinations, friends found and friends lost, all things that any of us would recall when looking back in reflection upon one’s life.
Among many, there were a couple of people and moments upon which I look back now that seem kind of pivotal in terms of people really trying to push me to excel. I remember when I was in my sophomore year at Woburn High. I found high school to be boring. My grades were okay and I was in some honors levels courses and the like, but I never really worked at it. I was friendly with this guy named Jeff. We seemed to have the same class schedule and the same attitude towards class and studies – just do enough to get a decent grade and then “chill” the rest of the time. He and I were big readers so we would often sit in class reading some book or novel while the teacher would be teaching. We never really paid that much attention unless we had to, we did our class and homework with a minimal of fuss, and just chilled the rest of the time. We were not what any teacher would call a problem unless you were grading ambition and attitude towards learning. Well one day we were in our chemistry class when Mr. Nolan the teacher came down to us, grabbed our books, and told us we had a detention with him that afternoon. We both started saying, “What? What did we do? We didn’t do anything?” He said he was sick of our attitudes and he would see us later. I was ballistic as I had a job after school washing dishes and my brother, the senior, always gave me a ride. Now I had to track him down, tell him I had a detention, and figure out how to get to work late.
Anyway, Jeff and I showed up for Mr. Nolan’s detention and he sat us down in the front row and proceeded to yell at us about how sick and tired he was with our attitudes. “You two are wasting your talents. Look at you. You hardly crack a book, you don’t pay attention in class, you sit there in the back reading your novels and magazines and you still get a B for a grade. Think about what you could do if you just tried. Don’t you want to go to a good college? You guys are two of the brightest kids in your class and you’re doing nothing with it. When are you going to wise up and try? I mean, come on. What have you got to say for yourselves?” Well, Jeff and I just sat there in silence for a minute and then I said, “Ah, can I go? I gotta get to work.” Mr. Nolan got all red in the face, looked at us with disgust and said, “Get out of here.” After we got out of earshot, Jeff said, “That was so cool! I thought his head was going to blow up. Way to go!” Anyway, Jeff and I continued on our mellow way through the rest of high school, splitting up when we went off to college, I to the University of Lowell, he somewhere else.
College was much the same: lots of partying, just doing enough to get good grades, but never really working at it. I did manage to get invited to join the honors program in the business school but that ended when I realized I could work full time and finish my degree at night school. It wasn’t until I entered the seminary that things changed for me, but not right away. I liked the philosophy and the theology and tried to be dutiful and attentive in class, even taking notes. The profs were good in that they encouraged questions and seemed to enjoy a good dialogue. I pretty much aced everything without a lot of effort and I thought I was staying under the radar screen. Not so fast.
Every year we had a student evaluation based not just on your grades and class work but how you were coming together as a candidate for priesthood. Up until my third year, everything was going fine. That year, though, when I met with my faculty advisor, Fr. McGrath, he told me that the faculty overall saw me as a good candidate for priesthood but that they had a concern. They didn’t think I was applying myself to my academics. I was dumbfounded. I was getting all A’s! What are they talking about? I liked Fr. McGrath because he was always straight forward in his speech so he said to me something like, “Listen, you bozo, you and I both know that you could apply yourself more to your intellectual development. You’re wasting the gift God gave you if you just cruise through here.” Suddenly, I was in high school again, with Mr. Nolan yelling at Jeff and me. I almost wanted to say, “Ah, can I go? I gotta go to work,” but I didn’t. “Well, what do they want me to do?” I asked. He said, to “take some extra courses and not those “bunny” electives that are out there. Do something that will make you work.” I left his office still annoyed about the whole thing. So, I decided if the faculty thought I wasn’t working hard enough, then I would show them!
The next semester I took two extra courses, one a course in biblical Greek, the other a directed reading course in French Church history using the original French sources. The course load killed me but I did it. I found myself spending a lot of time in the library. When I would take a break from my studies, I would often pick up one of the theological journals in the reading room and skim through it, reading up on subjects that I never would have in the past. I started to keep a theological journal and worked on my writing skills. I began to really enjoy my time in studies and reading and actually got excited about what I was doing. After I left the seminary and was ordained, I still spent a lot of time in the library or in my room reading books and magazines as my parish schedule allowed. In my third year in the parish, I got call from the rector of the seminary asking me to go away to study so as to become a faculty member when my doctorate was completed. The rest is personal history and here I am today, a bishop-designate. So, Mr. Nolan, thanks. You got it right. It just took me a while to figure it out.
*Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime”