Alaska News

Chris Thompson: Archbishop Schwietz honored in extraordinary gathering

Last Friday was an unusual day in the Anchorage Archdiocese. Catholics from all over Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and across the Pacific, converged on Our Lady of Guadalupe, the local co-cathedral, to celebrate Archbishop's Roger L. Schweitz's 75th birthday and his 25th anniversary of elevation to the episcopate. Eleven bishops, four archbishops, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo from the Philippines, and a representative from Schwietz's order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, were present and participated in the celebration of the Mass. Former Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey of Sitka and Alaska, and numerous parish priests rounded out the group.

The co-cathedral was packed with celebrants and well-wishers. At the start of the service, an Alaska Native contingent went through the church fanning incense, contained in large shells, using bird wings. The long procession of clergy entered led by the Knights of Columbus. A Samoan man blew a conch shell, and a procession of Samoan men, in traditional garb, entered bearing the scripture on a raised platform. (A Samoan contingent also presented leis to the assembled clergy and draped the altar with an extremely long lei.

A special printed program was prepared for this Mass of Thanksgiving, which contained the music and readings. The front and inside cover contained an interesting description of the archbishop's coat of arms (tinyurl.com/pcq78a9 ). The music was heartfelt, at times spectacular. Much of the music used was taken from the Mass for Renewal composed by Curtis Stephan. Piano, organ, percussion, trumpet and choir blended harmoniously, adding great dignity and joy to the service. The singing of the "Alleluia" by the Samoan Catholic Community was beautiful. All music was linked to specific portions of the service and was done well. I particularly liked "A Prayer for Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz" performed by Kevin and Regina Barnett. In rhyming couplets it depicted various attributes of his service. For example, "A person who can hear and cure, The sighs of rich and cries of poor," and "A spiritual man who never spares, His ministry of pastoral care."

The archbishop's homily, brief but charged with thankfulness, reflected upon early priestly memories and his appointment as bishop of Duluth by Pope John Paul II. The calling papal nuncio's instruction to select a ministry-guiding motto was followed by Schwietz in choosing "Jesus is Lord" from Philippians 2:6-11, which contains an early Christian hymn. The archbishop's priestly ties are with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, (oblatesusa.org) which has close to 4,000 missionaries working in 60 countries around the world. After his ordination, noting the reality of the world in which he was ministering, he observed, "It soon became evident that so many people were so busy chasing after so many different gods, that they had little time or interest for our calls to conversion in the following of our self-sacrificing Savior." Striking at the heart of emulating the life of Christ, he continued, "... it has become more and more clear to me that the life of service for Christ in His Church is not about self-aggrandizing, but about self-giving." (It's unfortunate more Christian pastors and leaders can't avoid the temptation of self-aggrandizement.) He ended with a warm memory of his first Mass as a priest, presided over by the Rev. Francis George, a future cardinal, whose homily encouraged then priest, but future Archbishop Schwietz. He said he'd recently received that homily from Cardinal George's former secretary.

The Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated in a traditional manner, but contained gestures and music presented specially for the day. All bishops and archbishops were present at the altar as the Mass was consecrated. It was a sight many of us will probably never see again in our lifetime. The bishops of Juneau and Fairbanks, and deacons Mick Fornelli and Jim Lee participated in the preparation of the sacraments.

Mahaffey presented a beautiful gift to Schwietz on behalf of the Orthodox people in Alaska (formerly known as Russian Orthodox). It was a reproduction of an icon which is one of the most revered by Orthodox in North America, the Sitka Mother of God, also known as the Sitka Madonna. The original is permanently located in the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Sitka. It depicts the Theotokos (mother of God), Christ child, and the image of God the Father blessing from above (antiochian.org/node/18929).

During the service the archbishop said that according to church law, he'd mailed his resignation to Pope Francis that morning. When bishops reach the age of 75, they're required to submit their resignation. The pontiff will ultimately appoint a new archbishop of Anchorage, but Schwietz will remain in the position until his successor is announced.

It's my understanding that after Hurley submitted his resignation, it was two years until his replacement, Schwietz, was announced. Schwietz is a very active archbishop, maintaining a vigorous schedule of visiting parishes and ministering to people. He recently told me after retirement, he plans to minister in a local archdiocese parish.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits Anchorage-area churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

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