The Archdiocese of Anchorage added another priest with the ordination of Father Robert Whitney on June 23 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage. The newly ordained priest was born and raised in Anchorage, attended both Catholic and public schools here, and his first assignment will be to minister alongside of Father Tom Lilly in service to the people of Saint Benedict Church in Anchorage, the same parish where he was baptized.
For the ordination, an overflow crowd spilled into the chapel and vestibule of the co-cathedral. A growing level of joyful chatter, instruments being tuned, and voices practicing scales was silenced at noon as combined choirs of the archdiocese led the assembled in singing “Shepherd of Souls.”
A grand procession led by a dozen Knights of Columbus began. Servers bearing incense and the processional cross were followed by seminarians, a dozen deacons, more than two dozen archdiocesan priests, and 13 clergy members invited by the Whitney family. Archbishop Paul Etienne and Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz followed Deacon Whitney who was dressed in a simple white robe. As all entered the sanctuary and took their places, Deacon Whitney sat with his mother, father, and other family members.
As the Ordination took place on the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the readings, were customary for the day. The reading from Deuteronomy noted that God has chosen his people out of love, ransomed them from slavery, and enjoined them to keep his commands. The second reading recalled that we must love one another because love is of God. It is through the Son that we know the Father, a theme continued in the Gospel reading from Matthew, that exhorts the faithful to take up the yoke of Christ, which is easy and not burdensome.
After the readings, the ordination rite began with Deacon Felix Maguire calling forth Deacon Whitney who answered, “Present” upon hearing his name. Father Tom Lilly then presented Deacon Whitney to Archbishop Etienne and the assembly by stating that, following the rigors of preparation for the priesthood, “He has been found worthy.” Archbishop Etienne affirmed Deacon Whitney’s election to holy orders and the people gave their consent with thunderous applause.
What followed was an intimate moment as Archbishop Etienne delivered his homily seated, face-to-face, before Deacon Whitney. He first expressed gratitude to the young candidate’s parents, Randy and Kerry Whitney for the gift they are making to the church.
“The ordination ceremony of a priest is indeed a blessed moment in the life of the church,” Archbishop Etienne said. “Blessed, because it reveals to us the providential care of God for his people.”
He then urged Deacon Whitney to “always remember that the people entrusted to your care as a priest already belong to God, already enjoy God’s faithful, intimate love. Indeed the people of God are God’s gift to his priests and because the priest shares in the one, eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, our love for God’s people must be the very love of his Most Sacred Heart.”
“Robert, know and understand that the Father loves you, and has called and formed you,” he added. “Yes, you have also undergone a formal priestly formation in the most recent years of your life, but it is ultimately the formation of God throughout your life that is and will be your greatest strength.”
He reminded Deacon Whitney that “stirring” the faithful to “a fervent and active faith life is at the heart of the church’s mission and priestly ministry today.”
At the homily’s conclusion, Deacon Whitney stood before his archbishop and made promises to discharge his priesthood faithfully and to consecrate himself to Christ and the service of God’s people.
He then placed his hands within the archbishop’s hands, and professed an oath of respect and obedience. Each of the priests in turn spent a brief moment, laying their hands on Deacon Whitney’s head and praying for him.
The laying on of hands by Archbishop Etienne, the prayer of ordination and anointing of Deacon Whitney’s hands, and the presentation of the paten and chalice came next. The rite concluded with each of his brother priests offering the new Father Whitney a fraternal kiss of peace.
Following the celebration, a reception was held in the Lunney Center where, for more than three hours, people lined up to receive the new priest’s blessing. Father Whitney took no break to sit or have something to eat.
The first to receive his blessing was his mother, Kerry Whitney, who said, “This is the only time I am going to be first from now on.”
Recalling the events of the day, she said, “Words cannot describe it. There is so much overwhelming love and support.”
She said many of those in attendance knew her son since he was a little boy.
“Looking around the church, there is a story behind every face,” she said, adding that people came not just to support her son, but her family, the priests, and the church as well.
Father Whitney remarked at the “overflowing reservoir of grace” the day entailed. He expressed gratitude to Archbishops Etienne and Schwietz for their support and guidance, and said he was especially moved by Archbishop Etienne’s homily.
He also noted that he was deeply touched by the imposition of hands and prayers for him by his brother priests.
“I truly felt the presence of Christ,” he said.