In an ongoing effort to put his finger on the pulse of the Catholic Church in Alaska, Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne is continuing a series of listening sessions at parishes across Southcentral Alaska.
Recent stops in Wasilla and Eagle River have all included opening comments by the archbishop, followed by candid comments and suggestions by area Catholics.
In a recent swing through Eagle River, some 35 to 40 Catholics navigated heavy snowfall and icy roads to attend a Feb. 26 session at St. Andrew Church.
“I don’t want anyone to think that I and I alone am setting the future for our church. That would be very arrogant,” Archbishop Etienne said in explaining the purpose of the gatherings. “I want to hear from you who are the church. It has to do with the sense of the faithful. I want to hear from you about the life of the church today.”
Reiterating a message that is part of all his stops, the archbishop asked parishioners to help him prayerfully discern what God is asking of the church in Alaska.
“What is God calling us to do?” he asked, noting that the “primary mission of the church” is to “go out and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them.”
Accomplishing this work will require the entire parish, Archbishop Etienne emphasized.
“We can’t just let father or deacon do this,” he said.
Parishioners need to look around and say, “Who’s not hear anymore? Who’s missing? And then we need to go out and find them,” he said.
Before handing the microphone over to parishioners Archbishop Etienne laid out five approaches he hopes will guide the church in reaching Alaskans — encounter, accompany, dialogue, discern and integrate.
Encounter entails helping “people know Jesus personally, intimately,” he said. On one hand that means helping people realize exactly what is happening during the Mass.
He pointed to some recent surveys indicating that more than half of all Catholics do not believe in “the real presence of Jesus” in the Eucharist, which is celebrated at each Mass.
“We have some real work to do to help our people understand what we do here,” he said.
Beyond the walls of the church, parishioners must be willing to “accompany” people in their faith journeys.
“How are we helping married couples live their life of marriage? How are we helping families live the life of the domestic church?” he asked. “How much are we aware of the shut-ins and those in hospitals?”
Archbishop Etienne also highlighted those who may “not feel welcome because they are divorced or disabled or someone told them ‘they are not good Catholic.’” Reaching these populations involves welcoming and helping them take the next step in the life of faith, he said.
Dialogue is another key. That means being willing to address real concerns and lead people into a fuller understanding of the truth of Christ and his church, the archbishop explained. Discernment is part of that, he added, as Catholics need to be open to what God is asking of them.
The last aspect of evangelization is to integrate people “more fully into the life of the parish” and “connect the dots” between what is in the Bible and the Catechism and their lives.
Following the archbishop’s opening remarks, attendees then shared their hopes, challenges and needs. Chancellor John Harmon, who attends the listening session as a moderator, passed around the microphone and encouraged comments and insights.
Comments typically cover a wide swath of issues. In Eagle River parishioners spoke of the need for the church to better teach and promote Catholic morality. Others wondered how parishes might encourage a greater sense of reverence during Mass. Family education opportunities and parenting classes were suggested as well as the desire for more small-group settings for faith formation — especially for teens and young adults who need a sense of belonging.
Outreaches for divorced Catholics or those in broken marriages were mentioned as part of the need to reach formerly practicing Catholics.
Archbishop Etienne thanked those in attendance and closed the meeting by acknowledging there are a “variety of gifts for building up the Body of Christ.”
“One person’s passion is not going to everyone’s passion and that’s okay,” he said. “We have to empower people to go after what they are passionate about.”
Archbishop Etienne said he hopes to complete the first round of listening sessions by June and then follow with a more focused round of sessions in the fall.
Not every parish will host a session but each region of the archdiocese will be covered to allow Catholics in surrounding parishes to attend.
UPCOMING LISTENING SESSIONS
March 17, 7 p.m., St. John the Baptist Church, Homer
March 20, 7 p.m., St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Anchorage
March 22, 7 p.m., St. Patrick Church, Anchorage
April 7, 7 p.m., St. Joseph Church, Cordova
April 18, 7 p.m., Our Lady of Guadalupe, Anchorage
April 27, 7 p.m., St. Christopher, Dutch Harbor
May 6, 7 p.m., Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Soldotna
May 24, 7 p.m., St. Mary, Kodiak