Bishops welcome challenging questions from Alaska teens


Teens from across Alaska took full advantage of their chance to question Alaska’s three bishops. Ranging from what led the bishops to the priesthood, to how should they respond to issues of abortion and same-sex attraction, the June 5 question and session answer at the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC) was lively.

The event at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage featured roughly 165 youth and adults, who were participating in the weeklong conference.

Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski and Juneau Bishop Andrew Bellisario took the teens’ questions, which were presented by emcees Katherine Angulo of the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, a project dedicated to forming faithful Catholic leaders, and Lisa Gomes, director of youth and young adult ministry from the Diocese of Honolulu.


As for “how” he became a priest, Archbishop Schwietz recounted an age not unlike their own when he bid good-bye to a girlfriend and left St. Paul, Minn., to give seminary a shot.

“I said ‘see you next year’ — I thought by then I would be done with that,” he said of his priestly discernment. Instead, the future archbishop joined the priesthood at a key moment in history, during the Second Vatican Council in 1964. He was ordained Dec. 20, 1967. Later he was named bishop of Duluth, Minn., in 1989 at age 49. About a decade later, he was named archbishop of Anchorage, succeeding Archbishop Francis Hurley and preceding Archbishop Paul Etienne.

“Now back full-circle,” Archbishop Schwietz serves as a priest again, at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River.

“I like Alaska’s recycling program,” he said as the audience clapped. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

At age 79, he encouraged the young Catholics to seek their own calling to lead them on a life that will surprise them.

The question provided a chance to get to know Alaska’s newer bishops. Juneau Bishop Bellisario, on June 7, was named the apostolic administrator of the Anchorage Archdiocese by Pope Francis until a replacement can be found for Archbishop Etienne.

For Bishop Bellisario, the calling came at a young age. By seventh grade we was considering the priesthood. He was born in the California town of Alhambra in 1956 to a large Italian family.

“My parents volunteered in the church and were involved in ministry,” he told the youth. “I attended Catholic schools.”

As a child he learned about the Congregation of the Mission (or Vincentians), founded by Saint Vincent de Paul in 1625.

“I fell in love with the community and over the next 35 years, I never fell out of love,” he told the audience.

Bishop Bellisario entered the congregation in 1975 and was ordained a priest on June 16, 1984. He has ministered as a parish priest in parishes across California and served as dean of students at St. Vincent’s Minor Seminary at Montebello. In 2017 Pope Francis appointed him to lead the Juneau Diocese.

Bishop Zielinski recounted his youth growing up on a 120-acre farm in Alpena, Mich., the eldest of five children. He was ordained to the priesthood June 8, 1996, at St. Mary Cathedral in Gaylord, Mich. Since 2014, he has led the Diocese of Fairbanks.

After the Twin Towers terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, Zielinski felt called to minister to soldiers. In the course of his military career, he served three tours of duty in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He has received numerous military awards for his service, and was promoted to the rank of major in July of 2013.

Young people can look to those around them for models in what they want to become in their life with Christ, Zielinski said. “The world needs so much healing right now,” creating a vast need for all vocations.


A bishop may have precious little spare time, the emcees acknowledged, but teens wanted to hear about hobbies or interests.

Bishop Zielinski said he loves to cook. The other night, he prepared a meal of caribou tenderloin with morel mushrooms and wild rice.

“I love travel to villages,” he added. “You want to talk about 100 percent organic — salmon, fish, muskox, caribou, moose, whale and seal, walrus. It’s such a bounty.”

Archbishop Schwietz, while acknowledging he cannot get out as much as he used to, remembered growing up hunting and fishing in Minnesota.

“I like just getting out in nature, hiking,” he said.

“I grew up in a city,” Bishop Bellisario said. “I love movies and spent years as a movie buff. That’s probably the most satisfying thing. Not just watching but talking about movies, analyzing movie direction, watching their ratings.”


On to other topics, Archbishop Schwietz answered a question on whether it is okay for a priest to take confession on Facebook or during video-graphed FaceTime?

“No. That wouldn’t be a valid absolution,” he said.


The bishops were asked how youth might respond to peers in same-sex attraction or struggling in that direction.

Archbishop Schwietz said the way men and women were created was “God’s idea.”

“When you sit back and look at how he created them … the very nature of the body is ordered for the opposite sex as a gift to one another,” he observed.

Each of the bishops has “walked and talked with” people struggling in same-sex attractions. Bishop Zielinski advised them not to “unfriend” anyone based on that struggle. He suggested that those with same-sex attraction seek out a priest or religious sister because nowadays they are experienced in such guidance. He added that every human carries the dignity of God, which means the young people should focus on respecting that dignity because all human beings are created “in God’s image.”

Bishop Bellisario suggested they respond from “a place of love,” not force.

Another way to look at the struggles, he added, is to remember that all are called to chastity outside of marriage. The challenge is to be chaste.


Advice for responding to peers and friends who support abortion was also high on the question list. What strategy should be used?

One of the biggest contributions, Archbishop Schwietz said, is the ultrasound machine, which shows images of an unborn baby as it grows. “I think that has changed the discussion quite a bit,” he said.

Bishop Bellisario suggested “putting God into the discussion. A lot of times, we leave him out, and I think that’s detrimental to all of us.”

Bishop Zielinski noted that this is another area, like same-sex struggles, where priests have gained a lot of experience. He recalled a young woman considering abortion. He spoke with her, spent time with her and celebrated when she announced later “she had given birth to a beautiful baby.”

“We’ve all walked and talked with women who have had abortions,” he said. “The pain they carry is very real.”

The youth then asked how they could help end abortion.

“Talk to, write to, email legislators and representatives,” Bishop Zielinski said. “Especially right now the voices of young people are more important than those of us 50 or over.”


The bishops also talked about how a new bishop is appointed.

Archbishop Schwietz outlined the process that begins with the United States nuncio – or pope’s ambassador — by which an investigation is launched on the needs of the particular diocese in need of a bishop.

The nuncio talks with “local people about who they believe will be the right kind of person for the position,” he said. Then he narrows it to three possibilities and forwards the names to Rome. A cardinal in Rome eventually takes the nominations to the pope, Schwietz said.


What is being done to end sexual abuse by priests was also a matter the teens raised.

“There is a role for every one of us to play,” Archbishop Schwietz responded. “I think if we all keep that in prayer, all together, that can help us as a church grow in holiness.”

New policies and procedures are in place now, Bishop Zielinski noted. “We are doing everything in our power to make sure the church is a safe environment.”


Then inquiry changed direction and the bishops had a chance to query the youth on how they might be of better service.

More events allowing young people and bishops to interact, one person said. Another suggested low cost or free events that young people can afford.


'Bishops welcome challenging questions from Alaska teens'
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