Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne’s homily during the evening prayer service on Nov. 8 at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage. The vigil service took place the day before Archbishop Etienne was installed as the fourth archbishop of Anchorage.
Good evening! Thank you all for being here for this moment of prayer.
I wish to welcome in a special way His Excellency, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, and representative of our Holy Father, Pope Francis.
I also wish to give a warm welcome to this cathedral tonight to Archbishop Schwietz. Archbishop, our reading this evening makes appropriate reference to the fact that we build upon the foundation laid by the Apostles and the prophets. I am profoundly aware this evening of the work you have done to build upon that foundation here in Anchorage during your sixteen years as archbishop, and I wish to thank you for your pastoral generosity, love and fidelity.
I am most grateful that you are remaining in Anchorage, and I look forward to your ministry as pastor at St. Andrews and especially to the fraternity that we will share in the years to come.
I am grateful for the presence of my brother bishops, and to all the other religious and civic leaders who have joined us tonight, along with the clergy, religious and laity from around the Archdiocese. To all the family and friends who travelled to be with us for these installation ceremonies, God bless you all!
With the greetings out of the way, the first thing I wish to say is: “Hello, Archdiocese of Anchorage!”
As mentioned at the front doors of the cathedral this evening, I come to you as your new Archbishop. I come to you as a pastor, a brother, a friend. I come with an open heart; a heart filled with gratitude for the wonderful and surprising ways of God.
St. Paul reminds us in our reading this evening that we are ”strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are citizens of the saints and members of the household of God.” It is up to us to make this theological mystery a reality in our church and world today. Even in the face of this truth, and with the warm reception I have received upon my arrival here, you are still wondering, ‘Who is this new archbishop?’ and I assure you, your new archbishop is curious about who all of you are?
What a comfort it is to know that our starting point in this new relationship is Jesus Christ, and our faith in him. Sunday morning, I celebrated Mass at the Native Hospital here in Anchorage. Even though I knew none of them, nor they me, I felt at home with them, around the table of the Lord. ‘Being at home’ and helping others to ‘be at home’ is to be our hallmark as church, and one of the first things I wish to say as I take the helm of this Archdiocese of Anchorage is that ‘all are welcome.’ All are meant to find their true home in the midst of this portion of God’s family.
As we have known the warm reception of Jesus in our life of faith, it is our duty now to extend this warmth and receptivity to others. We all long to be a welcome guest of Christ, so may we be Christ in warmly welcoming others to this, our home of faith.
Saint Paul reminds us this evening that Christ is not only the capstone of this edifice that is the church, but it is “through him that the whole structure is fitted together and takes shape as a holy temple in the Lord; in him you are being built into this temple, to become a dwelling place for God in the Spirit.”
It is Christ who makes us members of God’s family. It is Christ who makes us one. It is Christ who calls us to holiness. Christ has incorporated us into his body, which makes us capable of helping others who feel isolated and separated from the church to experience his divine love. This is what it means for us to be fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God.
Christ built his church upon Rock, the faith of Peter and the Apostles. And, as the Master Builder, the Lord did the necessary work for laying a foundation for a structure that would eventually become a kingdom to fill the whole earth. The Lord shows us the way to continue this construction project, and it is his way.
Jesus came humbly and obediently into the world, taking on our human condition, while yet retaining his identity as the Son of God. He was born into a human family. He accepted the will of the Father to become one of us, to preach the Good News, to heal the sick, forgive sinners, accompany the lost, and ultimately to lay down his life upon the cross for the salvation of the world. Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection were the excavation work by which he prepared the construction site of the temple that was to become the new and eternal Jerusalem.
“In Christ we are being built into this temple to become a dwelling place for God in the Spirit.” As laborers in this building project, we are to be humble, obedient to the Father’s will, members of the human family, accompany one another with patience, mercy and understanding. We are to be people of faith and hope, willing to make a gift of our lives for the building up of others, and especially of the family of God. As laborers in this project, we may even be asked to lay down our lives as the Master Builder incorporates each of us into our rightful place in the structure.
Unlike many building projects, this work of Christ carries on for centuries and millennia, until the time that only the Father knows, all is ready and the work complete. We know that this kingdom will have no end, and that the jaws of death will never prevail against it. As with any ancient buildings, there is need at time for renovation. There is also the wear and tear of storms such as the damage of scandals. Even in such moments, the Master Builder is always there to help us heal, to forgive, and to restore each member of this Body of Christ to the glimmer that is ours as living stones. We are the Church that is ever ancient, and by God’s grace, through our meager efforts, ever new.
I could not help but recall the words of Jesus as I reflected upon my seven years of service in Wyoming and took my leave last week: “Lord, I am an unprofitable servant; I have done only what I was obliged to do.” Please, God, all of us will do what God is asking of us on behalf of his church.
My dear friends, we have work to do in this great project of building church. It is Christ who calls us. It is Christ who commissions us as laborers on this great building site that is the church. All we need do is focus upon the Lord. He is the Master Builder and the Great Architect. In reality, he is the Primary Worker, and we are the material he is using. Every building site needs many different crafts and skills, and the more intricate and elegant the design, the need increases for even more and greater craftsman. My friends, there is nothing more intricate and elegant than the Church of God, and all our skills are needed!
I noticed in my office a poster which lists the various values of the different tribes of the native people of Alaska. I think these are the values we are called to immolate in our faith life; these are the skills necessary to build this elegant church:
TRADITIONAL VALUES OF ALASKA: Listen with your heart and mind; Honor family
Help Others; Hard Work; Sharing; Humility; Respect For Elders; Respect and Care for Nature; Gather knowledge and Wisdom; Unity; Village Cooperation.
We need only find our ‘place’ in the Church, and joyfully carry out our task. And when we make a mess of things, we have our Mother, Mary to turn to.
I wish to share with you a story about my own mother, who cannot be with us for these installation ceremonies. My Mom has been battling Alzheimer’s for the past eight years or so. Before flying to Anchorage last month for the announcement of my appointment as your new archbishop, I made a visit home to Tell City, Indiana, to personally tell my parents. I knew I would not have to figure out how to tell them, because inevitably within about 15 minutes of every visit home, Dad asks if there have been any new appointments regarding bishops. True to form, he cued up the conversation. Sorry, I cannot tell you here what Dad’s response was, but I can tell you he eventually came around and I’m very glad he is here with us tonight!
Back to Mom: I was watching Mom as I told them that Pope Francis had appointed me the next Archbishop of Anchorage. As usual, she was holding her rosary. And, as is usual for these days, it was in several knots. So, when I finished telling them the news, Mom simply looked at me, held out her rosary to me and said: “Can you straighten this out for me? It is all in knots.” I said, “Sure, Mom.” Of course, my sister, Nicolette, the rosary maker, was the one who eventually straightened out Mom’s rosary.
I could not help but think of our Blessed Mother, Our Lady, Untier of Knots. I knew in that moment, that Mom’s life with Alzheimer’s was in knots. I knew as well my own life and that of my family had been turned upside down with the news of my transfer to Anchorage. And I eventually began to discover that Mary was working to undo these knots. In this cathedral of the Holy Family, I ask Our Lady tonight, to continue to accompany this local family of God, to untie the knots that we make along the way, and through her intercession to draw each of us closer to her Son, Jesus Christ.
My dear friends, my new family in Christ, may God bless you, and all of us together, as we continue to build up the Kingdom of God which is the Body of Christ, the Church.