Archbishop Schwietz smelled like his sheep

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The changing of the guard at a pastoral center is a major life event for any archdiocese.

If we were talking about a family, which in a sense we are, we’d be talking about a new baby, or a big move. Or maybe a marriage bringing in a new family member that only one of us has chosen. Or burying the family patriarch.

Fortunately, we’re not burying anyone right now, but you get the picture. The cards in the archdiocese have shuffled. The family dynamic shifts.

Major life events like these are times for retrospection.

This issue of the Catholic Anchor shines a spotlight on Archbishop Roger Schwietz’s years. Our editor, Joel Davidson, who gives columnists great leeway in their choice of subjects, gently nudged us to reflect on our memories of him.

My latest memory goes back about two days. I was shopping at Costco when my cell phone rang. Friday is often face-timing day with my granddaughter, so I pulled out my phone expecting a curly-haired two-year-old to appear.

Instead it was a call from Anchorage. Archbishop Schwietz returning an inquiry. This was so typical. Archbishop Schwietz is unfailingly kind about returning calls. I had been reluctant to bother him. It was the week of the installation, no doubt lots of visitors in town, and he had a scheduled a flight out for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting.

I had apologetically emailed his secretary, saying that if he wanted to relay a comment through her, I would be grateful but would understand if he couldn’t.

Now he was on the phone, so I quickly steered my cart into a snack aisle. Once, a nun in Anchorage had called while I was shopping, and when I confessed I didn’t have anything to write on she scolded me.

“I thought journalists always carried paper and pencils.”

Yes, Sister. Lesson learned. I pulled out pen and paper in Costco and set up shop on a large box of popcorn. Heck, if I hadn’t had paper I would have written on the box and then bought the whole thing.

As usual, Archbishop Schwietz was courteous and thoughtful. His answers are never all about him. They come from a deeper perspective enlivened by a broad sense of church.

When he first came to Anchorage, then Anchor editor John Roscoe somehow inveigled a free trip to Rome for a journalist to cover the ceremony in which Archbishop Schwietz received his pallium. In a stroke of good fortune, I was assigned the job.

I learned things about Archbishop Schwietz on that trip. Many people from Duluth, his old diocese, came along and they obviously loved “Archbishop Roger” as they all called him. His whole family — I remember lots of sisters — came, too.

When, at dinner after the ceremony, one of his sisters borrowed the pallium, which is essentially a narrow stole, and placed it around her shoulders announcing she was the archbishop of Maui, I knew we had found an archbishop who came from good people.

He is a traditionalist with a great deal of dignity who took his job seriously. But he came from a background that always reminded him not to take himself too seriously.

When people speak of Archbishop Schwietz, they invariably describe him as “pastoral.” I like to think of Pope Francis’ words: priests should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Anyone who’s lived on a farm knows that’s a dramatic statement.

I think it’s traditional in Alaska that our bishops have lived with the smell of their sheep. Archbishop Schwietz became a wonderful example of this tradition. We owe him our heartfelt thanks.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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