In this issue our writers and columnists have explored the impact of Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, who on Nov. 9 handed over leadership of the archdiocese to his successor Archbishop Paul Etienne.
After 15 years as head of the archdiocese, it is fitting to look back on Archbishop Schwietz’s legacy, his successes and the challenges he faced. These pages reveal a man who led his flock with a particular interest in strengthening and expanding Catholic schools, reaching youth and young adults struggling with faith, increasing the role and number of permanent deacons, and sending priests to remote Catholic communities in the hinterlands of a 138,000-square-mile archdiocese. His most enduring legacy, however, lies elsewhere.
Archbishop Schwietz was a prayerful leader who preferred personal encounters to the public spotlight. With this approach, a quiet renaissance took root in the heart of the archdiocese.
When Archbishop Schwietz began his ministry here in 2001, the Alaskan priesthood was quite literally dying out. We had an aging group of hardworking clergy, but there were scarcely any young men following in their footsteps. The priesthood was simply not on the radar and in many parishes and families it was not encouraged.
This presented a serious problem for Alaska, for the Catholic Church affirms that the priesthood is essential to the health and continued ministry of Christ’s church on earth. Priests — through an unbroken line of bishops tracing back to Christ and his Apostles — are consecrated to Christ for the purpose of celebrating the sacraments of the church. As the priesthood dwindles the sacraments wane — fewer confessions, fewer baptisms, less opportunities to partake in the Body and Blood of Christ through Holy Communion. It is no overstatement to say: “As the priesthood goes, so goes the church.”
In tackling this challenge Archbishop Schwietz took an approach less focused on flashy campaigns and catchy slogans and more on personal encounters. He asked local clergy to identify one or two young men in their parishes who might be open to considering whether God was calling them to the priesthood. Then Archbishop Schwietz launched regular vocation dinners with these young men. Through breaking bread and allowing men to ask questions and listen to priests who had given their lives to Christ and his church, these dinners built fraternity and sparked friendships. By familiarizing guys with priests and seminarians, holy orders became a realistic ideal for some of them.
Archbishop Schwietz went further. He personally encouraged young men to serve as his altar servers that they might see the priesthood up close and perhaps consider whether they were called to a similar path.
About eight years ago Alaskans began to respond to these overtures. It started slowly with one seminarian, then two. But as these seminarians shared their experiences with youth and young adults the ranks continued to grow. Over the past three years Archbishop Schwietz has ordained two new priests. A third is slated for this summer and five other men are in seminary with several others seriously considering the call.
Yes, faithful families and inspiring priests played a key role in the recent vocations boom, but Archbishop Schwietz has deliberately tapped into these supports and for this the archdiocese is eternally indebted.
We would do well to continue this approach, finding ways for priests and seminarians to personally share their vocation journeys with our families, parishes and schools. In a modern world that often flattens life into the mere pursuit of a middle class lifestyle, the priesthood offers an inspiring alternative rooted in the proclamation of the Gospel and the redemption of souls.
Imagine a day when the Archdiocese of Anchorage is filled to overflowing with our own Alaskan sons, brothers, nephews and grandsons who have accepted the call to priesthood. This has been Archbishop Schwietz’s inspiring vision. It is also one sign of a church growing from within and reaching out to a world in need.
— Joel Davidson, editor