Archbishop Schwietz was a loving father to his priests

I write this reflection during a 32-hour plane trip from Anchorage back to Magadan, Russia. I just came from a very moving week in which Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz stepped down as head of the archdiocese and gave way to his successor Archbishop Paul Etienne.

I attended the retirement dinner for Archbishop Schwietz. His comment after the many kind words was “Now I don’t have to attend my own funeral because I know what you will say.” He is truly loved and respected. For me, our relationship has been one of brother to brother.

There was a real sadness in me during the dinner. He is moving on and I will miss the care he has shown me through his deep support and love for our small mission in Magadan.

He traveled twice to be with us and brought with him the last time some great friends to share in the joy of our 20th anniversary. I felt his fatherly care for me and the mission I love here in Magadan.

Someone once said the most important part of life is just showing up. I think the most important gift a bishop can give to his priests and really to his people is to show up in the midst of our lives and ministry. To show up means to be interested and share the mission.

I was blessed, just recently, when Archbishop Schwietz invited me to give the annual retreat for the priests of the archdiocese. The men on retreat impressed me.

I remember one priest responding to a question about where he gets his joy to keep pressing on.

“I love what I am doing,” he responded. I sensed that was generally the attitude of all priests there. The gift of being together with Archbishop Schwietz was evident through the sense of fraternity we shared.

I mention this because I believe good priests need the support of good bishops.

A few years ago Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti gave a report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops based on his interviews with nearly 2,500 priests from 23 dioceses around the country. The study aimed to find out what makes for a happy priest. He looked into their mental and spiritual health and also asked them about their relationship to their bishops. The findings are important.

First, the survey clearly showed that priests, by and large, are a happy, committed group. They enjoyed being priests and were generally psychologically healthy and fulfilled in their celibate lives. Their average mental health scores are as good, even slightly better, than their lay male counterparts.

But the study found a few surprises. One involved the importance of the relationship between priests and bishops. One of the most powerful predictors of a priest’s happiness is how he perceives his relationship to his bishop. If he says he has a good relationship with his bishop he is much more likely to be a happy priest.

The relationship of priest and bishop is, of course, much more profound than simply that of employer-employee. It is a deep sacramental bond visibly demonstrated during the ordination rite.

The bishop, with the laying on of hands, imparts the gift of the Spirit and then the priest, placing his hands inside those of his bishop, promises perpetual obedience. To the secular world this must seem horribly arcane but not to priests.

According to the study, 73 percent of the priests surveyed affirmed that obedience to religious authority is an important value for them. The strong majority of priests consciously affirm and practice obedience to their bishop.

I personally know the gift of obedience through my relationship with the late Archbishop Francis Hurley and his successor Archbishop Schwietz.

Obedience helped to form me, crush my will a bit, and let the call to come to Magadan as a missionary priest from Alaska mature.

I am considered one of the older priests these days. With real joy, I see some of the younger ones and the great potential they have of being good and holy priests.

I pray with gratitude for Archbishop Schwietz’s support and wish our new archbishop many fruitful years of service in our Alaskan vineyard of the Lord.

All we really ask of him is to show up.

The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.

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