Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Archbishop Roger Schwietz answers call of the wild


On a rare, sunny July afternoon in Anchorage, Alaska, Archbishop Roger Schwietz took to the skies with his assistant, Brother Craig Bonham. Appointed Archbishop of Anchorage in 2000, Archbishop Schwietz regularly flies to parishes throughout the sprawling archdiocese, which includes the Kenai Peninsula to the south of Anchorage and extends to the tip of the Aleutian Island chain to the west. Its size (138,985 square miles) is almost double that of the state of Minnesota (84,402). The archdiocese was created in 1967.

As the two members of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate religious order cruised between peaks of the Chugach Mountains and over vast glaciers, the thought of heaven came to mind.

"I think heaven is somewhat like Alaska," Archbishop Schwietz said, "in that it just seems that God is extravagant in his generosity. I think heaven is going to be that way."

Archbishop Schwietz has many opportunities to see and experience this slice of heaven called Alaska, both from the air and on the ground. He travels thousands of miles each year to visit the 13 rural parishes in the diocese, plus he also serves the eight parishes in Anchorage. Not long after he was named coadjutor in 2000 to succeed Archbishop Francis Hurley, he took flying lessons. Then, four years ago, the diocese bought its own plane at a substantially-discounted price of $50,000. Now 67, he likely will fly that plane until he retires at the age of 75.

Call to the priesthood

This lifestyle was inconceivable to the gradeschool son of Archie and Sophie Schwietz of St. Casimir in St. Paul. In fact, some might have predicted that he would follow in his father's footsteps and run the family tavern on Arcade Street that was started by his great grandfather, Lawrence Schwietz. The bishop's grandfather came to the U.S. from Poland in the late 1800s and worked for Theodore Hamm, founder of the Hamm's Brewery in St. Paul.

Instead, young Roger heeded the promptings of the Oblate Sisters who staffed St. Casimir School.

"I knew I had a vocation to the priesthood as a youngster because the sisters told me so," he said with a laugh. "They were very good vocations recruiters."

In the sixth grade, he went to a summer program run by the Oblates, which further moved him toward priesthood. Later, he went to Cretin High School, graduating in 1958.

"My senior year is when I thought more seriously about priesthood," he said. "I wasn't sure if I was called to priesthood or not, but I decided to give it a try."

This move took him from St. Paul to Carthage, Mo., and the Oblate college seminary. Then, he went to the Oblate Seminary in Pass Christian, Miss., where he met Cardinal Francis George. The two became friends and remain so today. In fact, Cardinal George has made several visits to Alaska since Archbishop Schwietz assumed the post in 2001 after serving one year as coadjutor.

Archbishop Schwietz eventually went to study in Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1967. During his three years in Rome, he got to sit in on sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He considers that one of his life's highlights.

"That was really exciting," he said. "The excitement in Rome was palpable. They had these daily press briefings. Everybody was talking about what was happening that day at the Vatican Council."

Almost a decade later, he was transferred to International Falls to become pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish. Then, he went on to the Diocese of Duluth in 1984 to become pastor of Holy Family. In 1989, he was named Bishop of Duluth, where he stayed until the call came to go to Anchorage.

Out of the blue

Getting the order to serve in Alaska caught him by surprise, just like the call to Duluth did 11 years before that.

"I was just minding my own business in Duluth," he said. "One day, I got a call from the nuncio, who said, 'The archbishop of Anchorage has asked for a coadjutor and the Holy Father wants you to go.' So, we went there the next week on Tuesday for the announcement. That was it. It came out of the blue.

"I was very happy in Duluth. I thought I was going to be there for the rest of my days until I retired."

He now believes the same thing about his assignment in Anchorage. Given the fact that he belongs to a missionary order and that Anchorage is most definitely a missionary diocese, he may be right. So far, he says, he has adapted well. He especially likes the outdoor opportunities available to him in this vast, rugged territory.
With only 14 diocesan priests, parishes in the rural areas rely on visiting priests to say Mass. If they're fortunate, this will happen twice a month. The other Sundays, they will have communion services led by parish administrators, with nuns typically holding those posts. [...Snip] Catholic Spirit

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