The morning faithful at the 9 a.m., mid-week Mass at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River were in for a surprise on October 4.
Seven hours earlier the Vatican publicly announced that Pope Francis had appointed Bishop Paul Etienne, of the Wyoming Diocese, to be the next archbishop of Anchorage. Unbeknownst to most parishioners, the incoming archbishop was in the back vestibule of St. Andrew’s preparing to celebrate his first Mass in the archdiocese.
Joined by retiring Archbishop Roger Schwietz the two prelates concelebrated Mass on the Feast of Saint Francis, joined by Father Scott Medlock from St. Patrick Church in Anchorage.
“On this beautiful feast of Saint Francis, I got fired,” Archbishop Schwietz quipped as he introduced Archbishop-elect Etienne to a surprised congregation. “It is great to welcome him to this beautiful, wonderful archdiocese.”
Archbishop Schwietz, 76, is retiring after 15 years in the Anchorage Archdiocese.
Archbishop-elect Etienne, 57, will be formally installed as archbishop on Nov. 9 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. He flew into Alaska the night of Oct. 3, however, in order to briefly meet with his new flock.
“I can not even begin to express the gratitude that is in my heart this morning as I begin this day in Alaska as the new archbishop-elect,” he told morning Mass goers.
During his first homily to Catholics of the archdiocese he reflected on a portion of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians wherein the apostle recounts how he was personally called by God to serve his people.
“Hopefully we have all had the experience of God’s nearness — an awareness of the approach of Jesus, who has called us by name,” Archbishop-elect Etienne said.
He continued with a theme close to his heart and one he reiterated the following day during Mass at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage with students from Lumen Christi High School.
“Each of us are loved and our God is near and always loving, always merciful,” he told St. Andrew parishioners.
Speaking of the “nine days of silence” he had experience from the time he was informed that Pope Francis had appointed him to be the next archbishop of Anchorage until October 4 when he could speak publicly, he said the days were a time of “great grace.”
“That silence has been a time for me to reflect on God’s many blessings in my life,” he said. “It is a time of great grace. A time of Jesus revealing himself to me. But it is not some kind of private gift to me. It is to be shared and that will be my primary task as the new archbishop.”
He then urged the faithful to spend time with God in prayer, “to sit under the gaze of Jesus’ love” so that they might know God personally and know what he is calling them to do with their lives.
Referring to Saint Francis, he urged people to set aside time to pray before God as the great saint of Assisi did.
“We all have been given gifts to make Jesus Christ known,” Archbishop-elect Etienne said. “I pray that all of us will know first and always Jesus Christ. That we will know the gifts he gives us.”
Following Mass he attended a press conference in Anchorage where he was introduced as the incoming archbishop. After two days visiting parishes and meeting clergy, religious, staff and others throughout Anchorage he departed back to Wyoming on Oct. 5. He will move to Alaska early next month and prepare for his Nov. 9 installation.