Real life experiences, cultural concerns and the Catholic Church’s loss of young people were all part of a frank discussion at Lumen Christi High School gym in Anchorage. On June 6, four church leaders fielded tough questions from nearly 200 teenagers gathered during the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference’s (ACYC) version of the Tonight Show.
Alaska’s three bishops — Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne, Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski and Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, along with the administrator for the diocese of Juneau Father Pat Travers, fielded impromptu questions from teens during day two of ACYC. The teens came from all over the state for the four-day conference.
One of the first questions to the bishops dealt with present-day cultural happenings. What concerns them most, asked ACYC Tonight Show hosts Heather Shaw and Elise Zajicek, on behalf of the conference attendees.
“I wonder about how much people live life separated from what reality is,” Archbishop Etienne responded. “We spend so much time on social media, so much time on games, or music or entertainment, and it’s almost like we’re allowing those things to define reality for us instead of allowing the view of reality as what is going on around us to be viewed as our reality. It’s a very upside-down pattern.”
He feels those immersions are what is behind so much violence and disrespect in today’s world.
Father Travers said there is an underlying reality that isn’t arbitrary that concerns him.
“There are truths and values and an ultimate truth in God,” he said. “There really are truths that set us free and make us happy if we live in accordance with them.”
Zajicek asked the four church leaders to elaborate on any kind of “God moments” they have ever experienced.
Archbishop Schwietz recalled two moving spiritual moments: ordaining a young priest whom he had known for many years, and installing Archbishop Etienne as his successor for the Anchorage Archdiocese. Archbishop Zielinski talked about his moments with elders, visiting them in their homes.
“They are like saints,” he said. “That is a beautiful God moment for me,” bringing them communion.
Father Travers said his dad had served in the military. After Mass one day recently, he met with a man retired from the armed forces whose son is also a priest.
“That was a God moment. It touched me very deeply,” he said.
With the microphone handed to the teens, the first questioner wanted to know what brought the men to the priesthood.
Archbishop Schwietz, answered first, joking that his “girlfriend dumped him,” which drew a long moment of laughter from the teens. Then in seriousness, he told them the light of “discernment doesn’t come on all of a sudden.”
It was a long process that, for Archbishop Schwietz, began when he joined the seminary as a first step — uncertain where it would take him.
The MC, Heather Shaw, said she had heard he brought a photo of himself from his senior prom. Last year, Archbishop Schwietz had shared his prom story with the teens. Over the past year, he happened upon the photo and decided to bring it with him to this year’s ACYC. To the young people’s delight, he held the photo up.
Asked what he enjoyed most about that senior prom, the archbishop said, “When it was over.”
Archbishop Etienne also shared the junctures of his life that led to the priesthood. He hadn’t thought of becoming a priest, but people in his small town eyed him as one “who should go into the priesthood.” At age 18, he hadn’t even intended to attend college.
“I was going to be a self-made businessman,” he said, noting that he bought his first house when he was 18. “I wanted to raise a big family and quarter horses and beagles,” he said. “None of that came to pass.”
He eventually realized that earning a college degree would be a good thing to undertake. He heard his parish priest and friends of the family, even people he worked with, say he should become a priest.
“They had planted the seed,” he said.
He was also dating a girl. When he went to her house, two roommates would yell, “‘The priest is here.’ I thought, hey, God is trying to tell me something.”
Archbishop Etienne then went to the seminary and still didn’t plan on becoming a priest. He wanted to marry. But working in Washington, D.C., and planning the visit of Saint Pope John Paul to the U.S., he realized his faith led him toward the priesthood and he reentered the seminary.
By the time Archbishop Etienne was 33, he was ordained. “It was a long road,” he said.
The youth then asked why the four clergymen wanted to attend ACYC this year.
Father Travers said he wanted to share faith with young Alaskans. The trip traveling by ferry and highway from Juneau to Anchorage provided a unique chance to be on the road with youth.
“You matter and your life matters,” Fairbanks Bishop Zielinski responded. The students thundered their applause.
Then the bishops had a chance to ask the teens a few questions.
What would they like Archbishop Etienne to ask Pope Francis when he visits him in Rome this summer? Archbishop Etienne asked, referring to his impending visit to receive his pallium from the pope.
“When are you coming to Alaska?” young people called out.
One girl from Fairbanks wanted them to ask the pope to pray for all Alaskan young people.
“We have a lot of issues with drug abuse, violence, depression, suicide, and I think in our school system we could really use Pope Francis’ prayers,” she said.
One of the final questions came from the bishops to the assembled youth. What in their opinion is causing so many 18-30 year olds to declare ‘no’ religious affiliation? The number is “skyrocketing,” Fairbanks Archbishop Zielinski said.
Catholics take “constant bashing on social media” for their beliefs, one young person from Palmer responded.
“We’re not prepared to fight it with doctrine and teaching. People want to be accepted. But some people are beat up for being Catholic.”
The church could better prepare them in responding to religious “bullying,” the young person concluded.