Saint John Paul II famously said that “the church must breathe with her two lungs,” referring to the eastern and western rites of the Catholic Church.
Catholics in Southcentral Alaska have the opportunity to take such a full breath, due to the presence of St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Church on Arctic Boulevard in Anchorage, where Father Joseph Wargacki has been serving as pastor for the past eight months.
Father Wargacki grew up in the Roman tradition, the largest of the 22 ritual churches that make up the universal Catholic Church. All these ritual churches are united in communion with the pope.
Father Wargacki is a married priest with children, which is allowed for clergy in the Byzantine rite.
“In the early 1990s, my wife and I were expecting our fourth child,” said the 63-year-old priest, who described himself then as a somewhat casual Catholic.
“We decided maybe we should start going to church more often so we headed to our local Roman parish one Sunday,” he recalled, “and it just so happened a Byzantine rite was going on. We looked at each other and said, ‘Wow. This is great.’”
Father Wargacki said he and his wife were struck by the beauty and reverence of the liturgy and felt “an awe that God was with us. We rediscovered our Catholic faith within the Byzantine Church.”
It wasn’t long before the family became active congregants in a Byzantine parish, and in 2002 the future priest, who was then a registered nurse working with oncology patients, became a deacon. Like many vocations to religious life, Father Wargacki’s was encouraged by others.
“People would ask me, ‘have you ever thought about becoming a priest?’” he said. “I mentioned it to my wife, explaining that I’d be away studying for about two years.”
To his surprise, his wife Lori looked at him and said, “Joe, if you’re being called, you’d better listen.”
He was ordained to the priesthood in 2016 and spent time at a parish in Texas before being assigned to St. Nicholas of Myra in July of 2018. He replaced Father Michael Sidon, who served in Alaska for five years.
The Wargackis have their roots in Washington State, and lived and raised their six children, now all adults, in the Olympia area. The couple has seven grandchildren with two more on the way.
Part of the change that priesthood has brought to their life is that due to the Anchorage move, they sold the 4.200 square foot family home in Olympia and moved into the Anchorage parish’s 800 square foot rectory.
“My wife and I drove to Anchorage with all of our belongings in a 5×8 trailer. All of our things accumulated over 42 years of marriage we gave to our six children,” Father Wargacki said.
He noted that assignments in the Byzantine rite are usually not for a specific period of time and often last many years. He said he’s delighted with Anchorage, and one of his children has already visited Alaska.
Historically, the ruptures that brought about various rites came as a result of centuries-old disputes between the Latin church in the West and the Greek church of the East. Differences in liturgy, theology, culture, language and governance brought about schism between “Orthodox” and “Catholic.”
But over time, many Eastern Orthodox Christians made their way back to communion with the pope. The largest of these, and the one most Americans are familiar with, is the Byzantine.
Today, these ritual churches have the same theology, doctrine and sacraments as their Roman counterparts; they are loyal to the pope, and attendance at their liturgies fulfills a Catholic’s Sunday obligation.
However, there are differences in liturgy, customs, theological emphases and canon law. One obvious example: a Byzantine bishop may choose to ordain a married man to the priesthood.
Father Wargacki said that about 20-30 active families worship at St. Nicholas, and many of these are from the Roman tradition.
“I encourage all Roman Catholics in the Anchorage area to come and experience a Byzantine liturgy,” he said. “Don’t worry about me ‘converting’ them. But, it is a way to ‘breathe with both lungs’ as Saint John Paul II said, and experiencing another liturgy may deepen your own Catholic faith.”
There are some differences from a Roman service. A visit to St. Nicholas of Myra quickly reveals the importance of icons, with an iconostasis, or wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary. The liturgy itself is entirely sung — actually chanted by congregants in responses to the priest — and there are no musical instruments. Incense is used at all liturgies, and processions are a part of normal worship.
St. Nicholas of Myra was founded in 1957, and boasts a beautiful 24-foot-tall dome, which Father Wargacki said is “called the jewel of the north and the only internally illuminated copper dome in the world.”
Alaska is part of the “eparchy,” or diocese of Phoenix, and the head of the church in the U.S. is the metropolitan who resides in the archeparchy of Pittsburgh.
St. Nicholas of Myra is the only eastern rite parish in Alaska, and has had a mission at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Wasilla where Father Wargacki celebrates liturgies twice monthly.
In Anchorage, in addition to Sunday liturgy, Divine Liturgy is usually held on Wednesday evenings, after which an adult class, “Byzantine 101” is offered. On Tuesday, a class on patristics – the Church Fathers – is taught by Dr. Lisa Unterseher, professor of religious studies and Cardinal Newman Chair at Alaska Pacific University. Unterseher is a parishioner at St. Nicholas.