Newly installed Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne sat down with the Catholic Anchor to discuss his first month in Alaska and the priorities he has for the first year. The following interview is edited for length.
What stands out most about the Nov. 9 installation Mass when you became the fourth archbishop of Anchorage?
At the end of Mass, when I sat down after Communion, I just thought, “I’m not going to get up to say the closing prayer because I don’t want this moment to end.” The celebration was such a grace-filled moment. Saint Ignatius taught that we need to have a heightened awareness of those grace-filled moments in our life, because the grace continually flows from those moments. That will be a moment I revisit many, many times in my episcopal ministry in the midst of the people of Anchorage to draw from the grace of that moment. It was a very powerful experience of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s providence and an affirmation that this is where God wants me to be.
What have you been up to since the Nov. 9th ordination?
This first month, I really gave myself over to the tidal wave of people who just wanted to come and meet me and share their role in the archdiocese and the work they are interested in. I want time to meet with all the priests, so I’ve begun setting up times to individually meet with them to get to know them. They’re going to be my main collaborators. I’ve also started scheduling parish visitations to get to as many of the parishes as I can and to celebrate Mass and have a reception and meet as many people as I can. My goal is to visit every parish and mission within the first 12 months. A lot of people aren’t bashful about telling the new archbishop what their hopes and desires are and that’s a part of it. I’m listening a lot.
Are there specific areas regarding the life and mission of the archdiocese that you plan to focus on in the coming months?
Certainly vocations. I met last night with Father Arthur Roraff, who is the priest in charge of the recruitment part. I had a visit with Father Tom Lilly in terms of the formation components of seminarians. That is certainly a priority. We will also be talking about how we advance the spirituality of stewardship throughout the archdiocese. With regard to our Catholic schools and religious education, my desire is to find more ways to do something for families and for married couples, which is a strong priority for the church universal these days. During this listening phase my hope is to see what we are doing as church in these categories already and listen to people in terms of how they see us moving forward and advancing that ministry. Then, with the people, I want to set some kind of strategic plan in place. I feel it is an injustice for me to come in, just as the archbishop, and tell the church, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” That’s not my style. I will be a leader and I will, at the appropriate time, share my vision. But I will collaborate with pastors and parish and diocesan leaders in setting that vision in motion.
How can the faithful here assist you in carrying out your ministry?
Be patient with me. The main question I’m getting now in these receiving lines and in encountering people out in public or wherever, is that they want me to be an Alaskan overnight. It takes time. There is a grieving that’s kind of profound, really, of leaving a whole family behind. I’m not talking about my biological family, but a church I have invested in for the last seven years in Wyoming. That takes time to let go of. I am certainly happy to be here, but there is a lot to learn and a lot to embrace, as well as a lot to let go of, so be patient with me as I make that transition. Be patient with me in giving me time to make all the visits. Everybody wants me to come to their parish, to their institution, to their school, to their program and I love it. I love the enthusiasm of the people but it is going to take time. It is my desire, though, to be with the people.
The second thing is prayer — just pray for me that I can be the shepherd that God has called me to be for this local church. Pray that I will be generous in sharing myself and my time, my energy and my talents with the people.
Your family and friends describe you as an avid outdoorsman. What do you enjoy about the outdoors?
Well, to some extent I feel the record needs to be set straight. I’m a churchman way before I’m an outdoorsman. Somehow or another this public persona has gotten out that I spend all my time in the outdoors. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had to scratch and claw to get time in my calendar the last seven years to do a little bit of fishing and a little bit of hunting. Certainly there was excitement in knowing that I was coming to this great land of Alaska and being able to explore these mountains and this wilderness and these lakes and streams. I am anxiously awaiting that, as I am anxiously awaiting my first view of the northern lights. I love creation. I have a great appreciation for the grandeur of what God has created and it moves and stirs my soul.
You mentioned in some earlier interviews that you regularly spend time in Eucharistic Adoration? Why do you take time to pray this way?
As a kid I loved going to Mass and that never waned, even as many of my classmates that went to the same Catholic school began drifting away from the church and the practice of their faith. I could never understand that because I just feel so at home in the church. In my first month here, where I feel very disoriented, the most comfortable moment of my day is when I am celebrating the Eucharist. I don’t think adoration itself really began for me until I went to college seminary. I was already 25 years old at that point. I can very much remember going to Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul and thinking, “I need to spend more time here. I want to spend more time here. I am at home here.” That’s where a regular time began — pretty much daily after that — spending time with the Lord, even if it was just popping in for a visit. Certainly since theology, which would have been 1988, I think a holy hour has been a part of just about every day. I know that for me to be able to do what God is asking me to do, I have to give myself completely to him. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is how I do that. That is pretty much where I begin and end every day.
You have a quite active Twitter account, a regular blog. When did you delve into these mediums and why?
I didn’t get into social media until I became a bishop, but within two months, I got a blog up and running after I was ordained a bishop. I have been very faithful to the use of that blog. I started using a Twitter feed just three or four years ago and Facebook is very new for me. But I don’t let these things consume me. The way I look at social media, it’s not for my convenience, but it is a part of my ministry. It’s part of my effort to reach people who are not coming to church. It is a way for me to preach the Gospel, which is my primary goal as a priest and as a bishop.
Where do you live?
I’m living in the apartments at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. We’ve been looking at homes and have gone down a couple of paths that haven’t worked out yet. I still haven’t gotten into all my personal goods. For the last six weeks I’ve been living out of two suitcases.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I was asked a pretty direct and poignant question recently — “Is there joy in your life right now?” The honest answer is that there is probably not a lot of joy in this transition. But what I want people to know is that I am very much at peace. The joy will come but the transition and just the instability of having a place to call home and being bombarded with so many new faces and names and things — there is an excitement in it, but there is a draining that is involved. But I am very much at peace. I know this is where God wants me. This is where I am making my home. That’s what I want the people to know. I am here and I am yours.