Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz is a busy man, serving as head of the two most geographically vast dioceses in the nation. He serves both as archbishop of Anchorage and as the temporary apostolic administrator over Fairbanks until it is assigned a new bishop by the pope. Combined Archbishop Schwietz oversees a geographic area that spans 550,000 square miles, or more than twice the size of Texas.
Despite his added duties and frequent flights to small villages across Alaska, Archbishop Schwietz is now less than a year away from his 75th birthday. On July 3, 2015, he will reach the age at which all bishops must submit their resignation letter to the pope.
Last month Archbishop Schwietz spoke with the Catholic Anchor about the realities of shepherding two dioceses and the implications of approaching his 75th birthday.
What are some of the challenges in keeping the faith alive in these northern-most hinterlands of America?
ARCHBISHOP: One challenge is that there are far fewer ordained priests out in the villages from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. As a result, people don’t have the opportunity to attend Mass as often, and there are a lot of Communion services. There is a need for more lay leadership. That is a growing reality. People are stepping up to be lay leaders and the challenge for us is to help them get the training and the educational background needed for that kind of work.
Despite your new responsibilities, you are now less than a year away from turning 75, the age at which according to church law all bishops must submit their retirement letter to the pope. How are you preparing for this huge transition?
ARCHBISHOP: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what my life would be like after the Holy Father accepts the letter of resignation, which I will submit when I turn 75. Normally, the process takes a year or two before it is accepted and then someone else is named as the bishop. But given the fact that 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of the Anchorage Archdiocese and we are doing a lot of things to prepare for that, I’m presuming that my letter of resignation will not be accepted right away. In fact, Cardinal Marc Ouellet who is in charge of the Congregation for Bishops has said as much to me about that. Unless things change I will probably be here to celebrate the year of thanksgiving and the year of grace in 2016. After that it is kind of an open question.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would do after that. If the Lord continues to give me good health, I hope to stay active. Some of it will depend on who my successor is and what they would like me to do here. I have roots here now, and I would like to continue those roots. But also I have been thinking about other things that I might be able to do. I did a lot of work with the formation of seminarians in the past; maybe I would be able to work in that way.
Why is the age of retirement set at 75?
ARCHBISHOP: It was set in Canon Law. I suppose it was thought that after 75 people start declining in their abilities. That is not as true today as it was in the past, and it varies from individual to individual. It’s kind of a fluid number. I was joking with Cardinal (Orlando) Quevedo [of the Philippines] when he was here recently because he was supposed to send in his resignation about a month after he was made a cardinal. I told him, well, send it in but don’t worry about it.
How do you prepare the archdiocese to transition from one archbishop — one shepherd — to the next? What does that entail?
ARCHBISHOP: It is important, as much as possible, to have the diocese in good shape to be handed on to the next man. I think any bishop who is coming to the end of his tenure would want to do that. For me, it means trying to set up a good solid financial situation for this archdiocese.
The other thing that has been a great concern of mine is to leave the archdiocese in a healthy situation in terms of vocations and pastoral ministry. I have put a lot of energy into that and I am very grateful that we have a number seminarians now and other young people who are interested in the priesthood and religious life. That is very encouraging and I’m hoping to be able to continue fostering that while I am still able so that there is a positive atmosphere in the archdiocese when a new archbishop comes in — an atmosphere that is welcoming and supportive to people who want to think seriously about a life of service to the church. We have five seminarians now and one ordination to the priesthood last summer.
How will your successor be picked? Can you walk us through the process?
ARCHBISHOP: Normally the process is in the hands of the nuncio who is the ambassador from Rome to the local country. So the apostolic nuncio initiates the process. Most of the time, in my experience, they don’t initiate the process until a diocese is empty. Then the nuncio sends letters around to various people who might know the situation of a diocese and the people related to it. He will ask them for recommendations of who might serve as a bishop or an archbishop and also ask for the status of a particular diocese or archdiocese. So the nuncio has to do research and it’s all under secrecy so it does not become politicized.
It’s my understanding that the nuncio then puts together a list of three possible candidates and sends in the files of the three men that he thinks are probably a good fit for a particular place. Then they have a committee at the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops that goes over the list. If all three names survive, then Cardinal Ouellet will take the list to the Holy Father who will make the final choice. The pope can choose any of them or reject them all.
The pope chooses directly at the end?
Do you expect to receive an auxiliary bishop to assist you during the transition, similar to how then Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley did back in 2000 when you first came up?
ARCHBISHOP: Archbishop Hurley asked for a coadjutor bishop, which is different from an auxiliary. An auxiliary is a bishop who is sent to help out the bishop. A coadjutor is a bishop who has the right to succession. Archbishop Hurley was granted a coadjutor. One of the issues involved in getting a coadjutor is that it is a budgetary issue. You have another bishop joining the staff and you have to take that into account for the archdiocese. I figure as long as my health is holding out and with the constraints of our budget, it would be better for me not to ask for one, so I have not asked.
According to the church, once a bishop, always a bishop. How do you envision continuing to exercise your ministry once you step down as the head of an archdiocese?
ARCHBISHOP: One of the realities here in Alaska is that we are really strapped for clergy and it seems to me that if my health holds up I could be of assistance, not only with the new archbishop of Anchorage but with the new bishop of Fairbanks, too, in terms of confirmations and other ceremonies. That might make life easier for the other bishops and I would be happy to do what I could, and maybe also help in a parish.
On a global scale, when the church has an upheaval like when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down as pope, there is a kind of mini crisis in the church as we wait for the next pope to emerge. This phenomenon is also true on a local level. What should the faithful keep in mind during a transition like this, especially since the archbishop is so prominent in the life of an archdiocese?
ARCHBISHOP: It’s inevitable that there will be some unease, some fear that sets in when the leadership is gone for whatever reason. We are a church that is used to having its shepherd — on the local level with the bishop and then on the universal level with the Holy Father. It is important to accept the reality of the uneasiness and the fear and what sort of person will be sent by the church. But it is really important to trust in Providence. The Lord continues to care as the Chief Shepherd of each diocese and each person and the church continues to do her best to surface pastoral leaders.
In light of what the church experienced after the resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, it was a marvelous transition to an unexpected pastor who brought some new light to the church. That should be a lesson to all of us that the Lord has lots of surprises and we have to trust that the Lord is going to do good things for us when the new archbishop is named. Trust in the Lord is really important.
In Alaska it seems like we have many opportunities to trust because there are so few priests. A lot of communities have to band together and pray and wait for a priest, sometimes for months.
ARCHBISHOP: There is a certain sense, when there isn’t an archbishop in Anchorage or a bishop in Fairbanks that there is something missing, even people who are far away in small villages, they have that certain sense that something is missing. Part of that comes from the reality that we all have an ingrained sense of the way the Catholic Church is. That kind of feeling can be a gift that we can give to the Lord in prayer. I think the Lord appreciates when we look honestly at ourselves and then turn our concerns over to him.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ARCHBISHOP: As I look back on my 14 years in Anchorage I still remember very clearly the phone call from the nuncio telling me I would be coming to Anchorage as the archbishop. It was quite a shock. I certainly didn’t expect it and didn’t know what to anticipate. But as I look back, I see that it has been a truly graced time with wonderful people and such beauty in nature. It’s hard to describe. It fills my heart with gratitude to look back on so many good things that have happened.
The challenges have been there, of course, but the people here know how to band together and support each other, even after squabbles. It is beautiful.
We’ve come through some very difficult times but the faith of the people is strong and people have a hunger to know their faith better. The young people are phenomenal in their support of each other and the church. So there is something really good happening here.