Across the sprawling 138,000-square-mile Anchorage Archdiocese, 29 parishes and missions are united through the apostolic ministry of Archbishop Paul Etienne. He in turn is united with all fellow Catholic bishops around the world who are together in full communion with Pope Francis in Rome.
In accomplishing their work, church law requires all bishops to maintain a chancery for their respective dioceses. Composed of various officials named by the archbishop or bishop, the chancery assists with the official governance of the archdiocese and helps the bishop carry out his pastoral ministry in union with the pope and the Catholic Church across the world.
The Anchorage chancery, under the direction of Archbishop Etienne, manages all official documents concerning the archdiocese.
According to the church’s Code of Canon Law the chancery must include the bishop or archbishop as well as a vicar general and judicial vicar (both of whom must be priests) and a chancellor and diocesan finance officer.
GOVERNING CHURCH LAW
According to church law, every bishop must appoint at least one vicar general who has the authority to exercise a limited portion of the work of the bishop. The extent of this authority is limited by church law and may be further restricted by the bishop at his discretion.
The authority of a vicar general is exercised not on his own, but in the name of his bishop. When a bishop is out of state or unavailable, the vicar general leads the diocese until the bishop returns. In Anchorage, Father Tom Lilly fills this role.
Each diocese must also have its own court to judge cases as they relate to the Catholic Church’s canon law. The chief judge in these cases is the diocesan bishop, who can exercise his authority personally and by the work of his judicial vicar. A judicial vicar must be a priest, trained in the church’s canon law.
In the Archdiocese of Anchorage the judicial vicar is Father Pat Travers, who also serves in that capacity for the Juneau and Fairbanks dioceses.
Father Travers oversees the Anchorage tribunal office, which includes himself, two other judges, a lay canon lawyer and assistants.
Generally speaking, most of the work of the tribunal deals with responding to requests by those who have divorced to investigate whether their former marriages failed to fulfill the church’s theological and canonical understanding of marriage. Among its other duties, it gives certain dispensations and permissions for celebration of marriage in the Catholic Church.
Each diocese must also have a presbyteral council — a group of priests assisting the local bishop in governing his diocese.
From among the presbyteral council the bishop appoints some priests to serve on a smaller group called the college of consultors. The bishop presides over this college, but on the occasion that the see is vacant, due to a bishop’s death or retirement, the senior priest in ordination among the consultors takes on the duties of leading the college until another bishop is appointed.
While not mandated by canon law, a bishop may appoint some priests to serve as priest vicars who are delegated to oversee certain key aspects of the diocese. An example of this would be the vicar for clergy.
Also a bishop may appoint additional notaries to assist with documenting official correspondence within a diocese.
Outside of the mandated chancery offices, a bishop has the authority to set up any number of offices to help run the archdiocese efficiently and pastorally. Examples of these would be the diaconate office to assist with formation of deacons, the safe environment office to deal with abuse cases, schools offices and others.
MAINTAINING FINANCIAL ORDER
In every diocese there is also a mandatory diocesan finance council whose members are appointed by the bishop to provide advice about financial matters affecting the diocese. These members may be laypersons or clerics who provide expert advice in financial affairs and civil law.
The finance council assists a bishop in his responsibilities for the financial welfare of the diocese, including approving the annual diocesan budget, reviewing diocesan financial reports, providing consultation on diocesan taxes and parish assessments and advice on investments. Overall, this body aims to strengthen accountability and ensure good financial practices.
KEEPING THE HISTORICAL RECORD
Every Catholic diocese must have a chancellor — a layperson or cleric appointed by the bishop to administer all official documents required in the operation of a diocese. The chancellor ensures that the administrative and judicial acts of the diocese are organized and preserved in its archives.
A bishop may delegate the chancellor to exercise other functions for the diocese. In Anchorage, Archbishop Etienne has appointed Deacon Les Maiman as the chancellor. His office offers support for clergy, including retirement and clearance for ministry outside the diocese. It is also responsible for the diocesan archives, which includes the preservation of the diocesan history, permanent documents, religious objects and sacramental records. The chancellor’s office also verifies the suitability of clergy, religious and laity wishing to serve in the diocese.
The chancellor’s office compiles annual statistics on the diocese and oversees the official documents, including the archives.
With chanceries operating in every diocese around the world, their collective work makes the Catholic Church one of the most extensive record keepers on the planet. At the Pastoral Center in Anchorage, the lower level contains countless volumes of historical records, from the landmark visit by Pope John Paul II to Alaska in 1981 to the founding documents and photos of parishes and missions across the archdiocese. The purpose of all these paper trails is not bureaucracy for its own sake. In the end, the aim is pastoral.
Overall, the work of the chancery allows the church to see where it came from, how it has developed over time and what sort of outreaches and initiatives it might need in the future as it aims to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.