As thousands of Alaskans began celebrating the birth of the United States, nearly a thousand others packed Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral on July 3 to celebrate Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz’s 75th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his Episcopal Ordination.
A well-orchestrated liturgy, marked with grandeur and solemnity, began with the sound of a solitary skin drum and several Alaskan Natives purified the worship space with burning sage in a ritual known as smudging.
A crescendo of voices, led by a combined choir representing several archdiocesan churches, heralded the start of the Mass. Dozens of Knights of Columbus and Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher in full regalia led a lengthy procession. Several altar servers, seminarians and most of the deacons and priests of the archdiocese in turn followed them.
Eleven bishops, four archbishops and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, of the Archdiocese of Cotabato in the Philippines, were among the invited dignitaries who processed to the altar. Among the group were Bishop Edward Burns and Bishop Chad Zielinski of the Dioceses of Juneau and Fairbanks, respectively. Bishop Mike Warfel, formerly an archdiocesan priest in Anchorage and now the bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana, was also present as was former Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler, now the bishop of St. Cloud, Minn.
Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley also attended, as did Bishop David Mahaffey, Orthodox Bishop of Alaska and Sitka.
Archbishop Roger Schwietz, the principal celebrant, welcomed those assembled by thanking God for the many gifts he has given.
Also on hand were Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, Castries Archbishop Robert Rivas, Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample, Portland Archbishop Emeritus John Vlazny, Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire, Baker Bishop Liam Cary, Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly, San Angelo Bishop Michael Pfeifer, Yakima Bishop Joseph Tyson, Portland Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith, Spokane Bishop Emeritus William Skylstad and Orange Bishop Emeritus Tod Brown.
The first reading from Isaiah, proclaimed in Spanish, announced a year of favor from the Lord, who sends his servant to “bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.”
Philippians, the source of the second reading, admonished, “Do nothing out of selfishness, or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” The concluding words of the cited passage were the Archbishop’s motto: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The Gospel acclamation was highlighted by a procession of Samoan men, in traditional garb, bearing the Book of the Gospels on a raised platform known as a “fata.” The reading from Saint John reminded the assembly to “Love one another.”
Archbishop Schwietz began his homily by thanking all who gathered and thanking God, “for the privilege of serving God’s people for the past 25 years.”
Referencing his episcopal motto, he said. “Jesus Christ is the only one who can be our Lord, the only one who can bring lasting peace.”
Citing the scripture passage, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat,” he reflected, “This teaching of the Lord, it seems, is becoming more and more prophetic as we look toward the future in our country and our world. I pray that we may never lose sight of the great commandment Jesus gives in our Gospel, ‘this, I command you, love one another.’”
With obvious emotion, the archbishop recalled the words of his recently deceased mentor and friend, Cardinal Francis George. He recalled a homily proclaimed by then Father George at the archbishop’s first Mass following his priestly ordination, and quoted: “The priest is a man who celebrates, who has a vision of something unseen, the reconciliation of God with man and men with each other…. He effects this reconciliation for those who have come to believe through his preaching. The priest is a mediator, a communicator, a celebrator. Despite all difficulties of life in the time of change, more than ever, it is good, a good time to be a priest.”
Following the homily the Mass continued with the presentation of gifts by Archbishop Schwietz’s family members. Samoan women placed leis over the shoulders of Cardinal Quevedo, the presiding ministers and other priests and bishops. A lei was also placed around the top of the altar.
Following communion, an adaptation of a prayer for Archbishop Schwietz, written by Reverend Rudolph Pakis, was sung. Before the Mass’s conclusion, Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey presented the archbishop with a reproduction of an icon of the Virgin Mary, revered by the Orthodox people, known as the “Sitka Madonna.”
A lavish reception hosted by the Catholic Daughters and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishioners, followed the liturgy.
Vicar General, Father Tom Lilly, feted the archbishop, quoting words from Pope Francis, “The episcopate is not for itself but for the church, the flock, for others.” Father Lilly added, “Archbishop Schwietz, thank you for being a humble evangelist, a man of prayer, a priest who has willingly and joyfully sacrificed for those entrusted to your care.”
Bishop Mike Warfel, a former pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, commented on the occasion.
“From the looks of things, every nationality of the archdiocese is represented,” he said. “If you want to know what heaven is like, look around.”
Rousing choruses of “Happy Birthday” were then offered in English, Polish and Samoan.
Those who attended the event were thrilled to be a part of the festivities.
“The celebration is something to be truly thankful for,” said Laurie Boelter, of St. Andrew Church in Eagle River.
“It was so beautiful, it was heartwarming. It makes you feel so good, so special, so blessed,” added JoAnn Berna of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Following the event, Archbishop Schwietz expressed his thanksgiving.
“I found it really overwhelming,” he said. “It was kind of hard to absorb.”
He said the number of bishops in attendance amazed him, and his family was impressed by the diversity of people and all the work that was done in planning and executing the event.
“It certainly gave me a great sense of gratitude for people’s generosity,” Archbishop Schwietz reflected.