The next archbishop of Anchorage had a simple message for Alaska’s youth: “God wants to be personal with us.”
This was the theme Bishop Paul Etienne highlighted in his first address to Alaskan youth during an Oct. 5 Mass at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage.
The former bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming, visited Anchorage for two days last month after Pope Francis appointed him to succeed retiring Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz on Nov. 9
Addressing students, Archbishop Etienne focused on the Gospel reading that stated, “Jesus went to a certain place to pray.”
“Who was Jesus praying to?” he asked the attentive youth. “I mean, after all, he is Jesus — he is God.”
“God the Father,” one student chimed in.
“Why is that important?” Archbishop Etienne responded. “First of all God is Trinity — God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and prayer is conversation with God.”
As Catholic Christians he said “we are called to have a relationship with all three persons of the Trinity,” but to do that we must take time to converse with God.
“We need a special place where we like to pray,” he suggested. “For a lot of us it is in our homes. Maybe it is a place in nature or right here in church.”
He then shared about his own favorite place to pray.
“I love to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament — that is where I go to encounter Jesus,” he said. “I like the image of Jesus praying to the Father, because there is a lesson in that that helps us be relational in our prayer with God.”
Just as children voice their needs and concerns to parents, the faithful must approach their Heavenly Father by “putting our needs into words,” he continued.
The same goes for fostering friendship with God.
“How many of you have friends?” Archbishop Etienne asked. “What do we do with our friends to grow in that relationship? We share our lives, don’t we? We talk to them. Anybody have a friend who you never talk to?”
No hands were raised.
“Prayer is conversation with God,” he emphasized, adding that it is not enough to merely believe in God as an all-powerful force in the universe.
“Jesus had encounters with people and knew them by name,” he said, and it is by knowing and following God that each person receives salvation.
“What is the common need of each one of us?” he asked. “To be forgiven of our sins.”
God “forgives our sins over and over and over again,” but we must ask, he said.
Once people encounter God and receive forgiveness, they come to realize that God has a plan for their lives and there is an awareness of “how much we need God, so we go sit before God,” Archbishop Etienne continued.
Prayer is not always easy, he observed — it requires an act of faith.
“Every time I sit down to pray, I say, ‘God, I believe in you and I believe that no matter what happens in this time of prayer I believe you are present and you are active and that my prayer is heard and you already know how you are going to answer my prayer, whether I recognize it or not,’” he said. “That is an act of faith.”
Archbishop Etienne said his experience of being named the new archbishop of Anchorage was not without some anxious moments.
“Yesterday was a big day for me — I woke up with a very nervous stomach,” he said. “But there was a phrase in my prayer yesterday that I kept repeating all throughout the day and it was simply: ‘My God is at my side, I trust in him.’”
The homily ended with a call to join him in spreading the hope of the Gospel to the rest of Alaska.
“I as your new archbishop love you and I need you to help me do what the Psalms today say: ‘Go into the world and tell the Good News,” he concluded. “Together, please God, let us accomplish that simple, constant mission of the church.”