On Feb. 2 Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz will stand behind the altar in the very parish where 25 years ago he was ordained a bishop at age 49.
There at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in Duluth, Minn., he will celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving for his vocation, first as the bishop of Duluth and later as the archbishop of Anchorage.
While the inside of the Duluth cathedral is basically as it was 25 years ago, the 74-year-old archbishop has changed considerably. His episcopal ministry began in a time of relative calm for the Catholic Church. Over the past several decades he has experienced many blessings but also substantial heartbreak and pain in the church. Through everything he says his ministry has “been a great joy.”
With his 75th birthday approaching in July — the age at which all Catholic bishops submit their resignation to the pope — Archbishop Schwietz knows his time leading a diocese is ending. Depending on when Pope Francis names a new archbishop for Anchorage, Archbishop Schwietz may have several more months or perhaps a little more than a year before his life, once again, changes dramatically.
In an interview with the Catholic Anchor he expressed gratitude for his time leading the Duluth Diocese and his past 14 years heading the Archdiocese of Anchorage. He began the interview by recalling the events immediately preceding his appointment by now Saint John Paul II to become a bishop.
A SHOCKING CALL
In 1984 Archbishop Schwietz had spent 17 years as a priest for the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In concluding an assignment overseeing the formation of seminarians at Creighton University in Omaha he asked his superiors for some pastoral experiences working in a parish. They assigned him to serve as a pastor in Duluth, Minn.
Following a summer road trip to Alaska, where he would one day return as the archbishop of Anchorage, he settled in as a local pastor in Duluth in 1984. Immersed in parish life and promoting vocations to the priesthood, his life took a sharp turn on Dec. 6, 1989.
“It was a Monday morning and I had just finished Mass at the parish there,” Archbishop Schwietz recalled. “I was in my office and my secretary buzzed me and said, ‘There’s a man with a funny accent who wants to talk to you.’”
“He started asking me questions to ascertain that it was really me on the phone, Archbishop Schwietz recalled. “I thought it was kind of funny that he didn’t tell me at first who was speaking. I began to get suspicious and thought it was one of my priest friends from the Oblates pulling my leg. So I started asking him questions and we were bantering back and forth.”
In actuality he was talking to Pope John Paul II’s personal ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Pio Laghi.
“Finally he said he is Archbishop Laghi and was ‘calling on behalf of our holy father who has chosen you to be the next bishop of Duluth,’” Archbishop Schwietz recounted.
He was shocked but still not totally convinced.
“I still thought he might be a friend who liked to pull those kinds of tricks,” he said.
But the papal nuncio persisted and informed him that Pope John Paul II wanted him to accept this new responsibility.
“That’s when it struck me and I realized that my life would never be the same again,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “I said, ‘If this is what the Holy Father wants, I will do whatever Pope John Paul asks of me.’”
Upon hanging up, Archbishop Schwietz “was just shaking.”
“You’re never prepared for something like that,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Less than three months later he was the new bishop of Duluth.
TRANSITION TO BISHOP
The initial transition was smooth, Archbishop Schwietz recalled. He was familiar with the diocese and had worked extensively with local priests.
Beginning in 1990 he spent his initial years doing what many bishops have done through the ages: visiting parishes, administering the sacrament of confirmation, strengthening Catholic education and promoting vocations to the priesthood.
In the early 1990s the church had not yet encountered the harsh impact of the priest sex abuse scandal.
“It was a pretty calm church,” Archbishop Schwietz said.
“That was the focus the first few years and then the scandal broke,” he said, which meant refocusing his energy to address safe-environment policies, background checks and protocols to ensure the safety of both the laity and the vast majority of dedicated priests, church workers and volunteers.
In all his years as a bishop and archbishop, that has been the hardest,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “Especially meeting with victims.”
As a Catholic bishop he was the face of his diocese and personally met with victims, listened to their painful stories and tried to bring some healing and restitution in cases that occurred long before he ever took the helm of his first diocese.
As archbishop of Anchorage he has also met several times with victims of abuse.
“That has been the most wrenching experience I have had as a bishop,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “It is very difficult to think about how to bring about healing.”
While being with people in their moments of pain and suffering is part of leading the church, there are also times of great joy, Archbishop Schwietz said. In particular he has been blessed by working with young people and seminarians who want to give their life for the service of Christ and his church.
His first real foray into youth work was accompanying a group of young adults to the 1994 World Youth Day in Denver, Colo., to meet with Pope John Paul II.
“Young people are full of life,” Archbishop Schwietz said, noting that they long for authentic interactions. “There are so many good young people and they have been a great support and a challenge for me in my spiritual life.”
Another blessing has been ordaining priests to serve the church.
“One of the greatest joys for a bishop is to ordain a priest and beyond that, to ordain a bishop,” he said.
Most recently, Archbishop Schwietz ordained Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski this past December.
“That was especially moving for me,” he said.
Having cared for the Fairbanks Diocese for more than a year as it awaited the appointment of a new bishop, Archbishop Schwietz felt a special connection.
He said the moment of ordination brought back memories as he laid his hands on Bishop Zielinski’s head just as 2,000 years of successive bishops have done since the time of the Apostles. The experience of participating in the succession of church leaders overwhelmed him.
“It is just a moment of silence — a wordless moment,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “God was there doing this through me and there are no words to express it. It was very moving.”
RETURN TO THE BEGINNING
When he returns on Feb. 2 to his own place of episcopal ordination, Archbishop Schwietz anticipates he will be in a reflective mood.
He expects that a number of friends and family who were there 25 years ago will be on hand as he celebrates the Mass at the same altar, preach from the same ambo and preside in the same chair.
“That will be a wonderful experience to relive that grace-filled moment,” he said. “But I can’t just look back. I have to carry on the present ministry as bishop so I can pass on the Archdiocese (of Anchorage) in decent shape.”
Once the torch passes, Archbishop Schwietz hopes to continue his ministry as a bishop to whatever capacity possible.
“I don’t want to leave ministry,” he said. “As long as I have my health I hope I can continue to be a minister of the sacraments.”