Editor’s note: The following column was adapted from the July 3 homily given by Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz during a Mass that coincided with his 75th birthday and 25th anniversary as a bishop. The Mass took place at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage.
“Jesus Christ is Lord.” These words of Saint Paul in the Letter to the Philippians seem all the more poignant today as we gather in this beautiful co-cathedral church away from the increasingly violent and hostile world around us.
I am deeply grateful for your presence here, joining me in thanking God for the privilege of serving God’s people as a bishop these past 25 plus years. The memories of the beautiful people I have encountered and the astounding experiences I have had, come flooding in on me as I reflect on these graced years.
I remember well when I first received the call from the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio at the time, Archbishop Pio Laghe. After finally accepting the fact that it was really him on the phone and not someone playing a trick on me, he informed me that our Holy Father Pope John Paul II was appointing me to be bishop of Duluth, Minn. Among the other instructions he gave me was to choose a motto that would be my guide in my ministry.
I thought back over my experiences in my vocation up to that point: my call to be a missionary priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the excitement of studying theology in Rome during the last two sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Once we were ordained priests, my classmates and I felt well-armed to conquer the world for Christ, filled with enthusiasm that emerged from that ecumenical council.
It soon became evident that so many people were busy chasing after so many different gods, that they had little time or interest for our calls to conversion in the following our self-sacrificing Savior. We have witnessed some of these efforts at recreating creation these past few weeks. And so the beautiful hymn in the Letter to the Philippians which we just heard became one of my favorite Scripture passages and inspirations. So it was not too difficult for me to choose my motto from that hymn. Jesus Christ is the only one who can be our Lord, the only one who can bring lasting joy and peace.
I continue to be inspired by the reality that our God cares so much that he chose to empty himself and take on the form of a slave in order to be able to give himself fully and completely for us in his Paschal Mystery. And over these years it has become more and more clear to me that the life of service for Christ and his church is not about self-aggrandizing, but about self-giving.
In my little chapel here in the rectory I have a small bunch of wheat under the altar which someone gave me a while ago. It constantly reminds me of what Jesus taught and lived: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat…” This teaching of the Lord 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 command of Jesus given in today’s Gospel: “This I command you, love one another.”
A couple weeks ago, Father Dan Flens, who was the priest secretary for Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, sent me something he found in the cardinal’s files. It is the homily that the then Father Francis George preached at my first Mass as a priest some 48 years ago. In that homily, Father George comments: “The priest is a man who celebrates. He is a man who has a vision of something unseen — the reconciliation of God with men and of men with each other — and by his actions he makes this vision present and real. By his preaching he tries to persuade all men of the reality of this vision found in the Gospel and the creeds; by his example he tries to live it himself; and by his sacramental activity he makes really present this vision, he affects this reconciliation for those who have come to believe through his preaching. The priest is a mediator, a communicator, a celebrator.” Then he adds: “Despite all the difficulties of life in a time of change, more than ever before, it is a good time to be a priest.”
So let us celebrate in thanksgiving and, under the protection and inspiration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, let us move toward the future filled with trust and with the joy of the Gospel.
The writer is archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska.