On April 29 Pope Francis named Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne to become coadjutor archbishop of Seattle. This appointment takes effect June 7. The Catholic Anchor sat down with Archbishop Etienne to discuss the impact of this appointment on the Anchorage Archdiocese and to reflect on his two-and-a-half years serving as Archbishop of Anchorage.
When did you find out about the new assignment in Seattle?
The U.S. Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre called me Saturday before Palm Sunday.
Were you anticipating a new assignment?
Well, my name has been in the press quite often, so the rumor mill started several months ago that I wasn’t going to be here long. I’ve learned that the rumor mill is just the rumor mill and not to pay a lot of heed to it.
So on a gut level I was shocked when I got that phone call. On another level it was like, “Well, I guess the rumors are true.” It was a pretty brief phone conversation. He said the Holy Father had named me a coadjutor. I said, “Okay, Archbishop. You know me. I go where Mother Church asks me to go. So sure, if that’s what the Holy Father wants me to do, I’ll say yes.”
What will be your job as a coadjutor archbishop?
The primary job is preparing for the moment to become the archbishop. That is especially the case with this appointment. Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, in our visits over the last couple of days I was in Seattle, made it real clear he wants me to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
I know you can’t say exactly when the succession is supposed to take place, but will it be a relatively quick turnaround?
Archbishop Sartain is using the phrase: “Archbishop Etienne and I will make a decision and will let you know once we have decided.”
Do you have any idea when Anchorage will get a new archbishop?
No, I don’t. I think the list of potential candidates for Anchorage will be pretty short. The nuncio, Archbishop Pierre, knows the urgency and the need here. I believe he is sensitive to that. The one thing that will always slow things down is that the summer months are quickly approaching when the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops takes a summer break and a lot comes to a halt until September.
What is the process of getting a new archbishop? Does the laity have any role in that or do we just sit and wait?
I don’t know this for a fact, but I would have to think that the vetting process has been enhanced given this last year that the church has been through. I will certainly make it part of my recommendation, that the archbishop speak with some people and that he include lay leaders of the archdiocese in his assessment of the needs so that they have a voice in this process. But that is clearly up to the archbishop.
What is a turna?
The turna is the official list of three recommendations that he asks me as the outgoing bishop, because the nuncio has to submit a turna to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Then they send their turna to the Holy Father. At any point in that process the turna can be sent back and they can say start over again. The archbishop has not yet asked me for my turna, but typically he does and he has already said he will be back in touch with me soon.
So in the end the pope gets a list of three candidates from which to choose the next archbishop?
Yes, with the clear indication from the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops (the department in Rome that oversees the selection of new bishops) of what the selections process up to that point indicates as the first candidate. But the Holy Father can pick any name from that list, or he can pick somebody off the list, or he can say, “I don’t like the list, please send me a new one.”
As of June 7 you are no longer archbishop of Anchorage. At that point, how will our archdiocese be governed?
The Holy See has fundamentally two options. It can appoint an apostolic administrator with specific guidelines about what their powers of governance will be, or the college of priest consultors here in the Archdiocese of Anchorage would gather and have a confidential election to determine who would become the administrator here during the interim.
There are some initiatives that must go on hold now that you are departing. The pastoral plan is a big one. That basically can’t be promulgated at this point, right?
And what about the independent commission you appointed last October to review all allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy, religious, lay volunteers and employees of the archdiocese?
The commission has reviewed all of the files and they are now working on drafting their final report. When that is done and submitted, their work is done. Then it will be up to whoever the administrator is and whatever powers they have to work with to determine what to do with that report. For me to say anything beyond that would put pressure on the new administrator.
Are there items that must be put on hold until the new archbishop is appointed?
The new archbishop will arrive with some pretty good groundwork done and some other things that I think he will find very beneficial. It will be up to him do decide whether to promulgate or not.
You were trying to replace the outgoing Oblate of Mary Immaculate priests on the Kenai with priests from another religious order. Were you successful?
No. I was unable to find another group. Invitations have been extended. Maybe their circumstances will change and someday they’ll come, but for the moment everybody’s resources are too restricted to take on another territory.
What is one of the more important projects you completed during your time in Alaska?
Every bishop leaves a certain footprint of the Good Shepherd behind. I’m clearly supportive of the vision of the Holy Father — I’ve made no bones about that. Some people love it. Some people are less than enthused about it, but I think it is a positive. The church is always moving forward, as the Holy Father says. It does not move backwards. I will just continue to preach and minister in that fashion.
A lot of the other things I’ve accomplished are more organizational and at the archdiocesan level. We did some organization of how we invest our funds and I’m very, very proud of that. We have rewritten a number of internal documents. We’ve basically brought a lot of order to the internal workings of the chancery. Again, most people won’t notice that, but I guarantee you the incoming archbishop will notice that he is inheriting a better organized infrastructure.
What challenge will the incoming archbishop need to address?
I’ve always been convinced that every church has the gifts it needs to do the ministry that needs to be done in that part of the world. But we need more people who believe that and who are willing to live their faith by engaging in ministry and sharing the gifts that they have, and making a gift of themselves to the parish, to their broader community, to the archdiocese. The Second Vatican Council is very clear on the role of the laity to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and to share their gifts to advance the mission of the church.
This mentality that we rely upon the generosity of others, outside of the local church, to accomplish our mission is an errant thought. We have plenty of resources here that are yet untapped. That will be one of the challenges for the next archbishop.
Looking back, is there anything that you might have done differently during your time in Alaska?
If I err in any way on a habitual level, it’s being too guarded — protecting my time and energy too much. There’s certainly room to engage more with more people. But I also know I am in this for the long haul and finding that delicate, appropriate balance of taking care of myself but still making a generous gift of myself as fully as I possibly can, that’s the balance I seek. And I’m sure there have been moments when I could have accepted a few more invitations to do this or that, could have been more present out in the public.
What advice would you offer your successor?
Listen, listen, listen. Learn the lay of the land. Listen to where the people are, but don’t be afraid to challenge them to go deeper.
Was there anything else you would like to add?
I am just very grateful, especially to my staff here at the chancery, to our priests and deacons. The women religious — they are a hidden presence, but a powerful source of grace and good for this local church. I am very grateful for the people’s faith. As diverse as this local church is — ecclesiologically and culturally — people’s hearts are well intentioned for the good of the church and a bishop can only be grateful for that.