One day after stepping down from 15 years as head of the Anchorage Archdiocese, Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz reflected on the joys and challenges of his episcopacy. In an interview with the Catholic Anchor, the now retired 76-year-old archbishop looked ahead to what the future might hold for his successor and what he plans to do as the self-proclaimed “grandpa” of the archdiocese.
Known for his quiet, prayerful and fatherly presence, Archbishop Schwietz oversaw momentous growth in religious vocations in Southcentral Alaska and the opening of a new Catholic school in Wasilla. He also strove to inspire greater friendship and fraternity among his priests and to reach out to younger Catholics whom he sees struggling amid a culture that attacks and undermines faith.
Ordained a priest in 1967 with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he spent his first seven years working with seminarians. From 1975-78, he was an associate pastor in Minnesota. Then in 1978 he became director of the seminary program for the Oblates at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. In 1984 he returned to parish ministry and on Dec. 12, 1989, Pope John Paul II selected him as bishop of Duluth, Minn. (he was ordained a bishop Feb. 2, 1990). Ten years later, Pope John Paul II sent Bishop Schwietz to Anchorage, where he succeeded Archbishop Francis Hurley on March 3, 2001.
Archbishop Schwietz has served on numerous committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including those on vocations, laity, youth, and marriage. He has served as a member of the Catholic Relief Services board of directors and as the episcopal moderator of the Christian youth organization Teens Encounter Christ. He is a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, an ancient order dedicated to assisting the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
The following interview took place on Nov. 10 in his new, albeit smaller, office at the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center in Anchorage.
When you first stepped in as archbishop of Anchorage 15 years ago, you wanted to address the shortage of priests here, especially in remote areas. How successful was this effort?
Well, we have a higher number of active priests now and fewer parishes without a priest. We also have a couple of religious communities like the Oblates (of Mary Immaculate) serving on the western Kenai Peninsula. They take care of three parishes. There was only one priest doing all of that work before.
Also, we have a team building to work on Hispanic ministry with the Vincentian priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. So we are gradually filling the holes.
During your time as archbishop, vocations to the priesthood have risen sharply. Why is this?
We set about trying to create a more positive atmosphere for priestly vocations because there was, at least in some of the areas around the archdiocese, more of a negative view. That was due to the fact that some of the instrumental people in some parishes — people who were not clergy — were not encouraging vocations to the priesthood. There was a certain sense that the laity could do it. So we tried to create a more positive atmosphere towards vocations among families and through the schools. That has made a difference.
Once this trend got started and we got some seminarians, we sent them to the youth to invite others to think about the possibility of the priesthood. We tackled this from several angles. We started vocation dinners, we had seminarians talk to young people, myself and other priests spoke more specifically about vocations. We also built up youth ministry. All of these came together to help support a movement toward more vocations.
In addition to encouraging homegrown vocations you have also invited priests from around the world to serve in Alaska. They came from the Philippines, Korea and Ireland to name just a few places. You also brought in priests from your religious congregation — the Oblates — and continued the long-standing relationship with the Dominican friars serving at Holy Family Cathedral. Most recently you welcomed Vincentian priests to serve at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. Why was it important to bring in outside priests?
We are gradually building up the number of local priests from Alaska but they are only a few right now. There are more immediate needs that can’t be met by that kind of gradual process. That is why a situation like having Vincentians at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral is really great for immediately tackling Hispanic ministry with the many Hispanics who are here in Alaska. We need that kind of specialization right now.
What is one of the most important projects you tackled as head of the archdiocese?
I tried to build up a fraternity among the priests so that they were not isolated from each other, which I think was part of the problem in the larger church that led to abuse issues. Putting energy into trying to create a fraternity of priests has been really important to me. We started the annual priestly convocations for this archdiocese. Then, working with the other two bishops of Alaska, we decided to make that an event for all three dioceses of the state so that all the priests could get to know and support each other.
The other thing that was really important to me was Catholic schooling and finding ways to support and expand Catholic education. We managed to open a new school in Wasilla — Our Lady of the Valley — and we kept the others running during a challenging economic time in Alaska.
What challenges lie ahead for your successor?
The fact that the whole state is really a mission area means that we are very dependent on the generosity of those from outside the state. That will continue because of the economy in the country and in particular in this state. That is going to be a challenge for the new archbishop.
Finding a way to protect our religious freedom is another issue we have worked on the last several years but it is going to be increasingly challenging. I think the new archbishop will spend some time partnering with others to find ways to preserve our religious freedoms.
What role do you hope to play as archbishop emeritus?
I would like to take on the role of grandpa in the archdiocese and work with people as one who can share what he has learned over the years and help them to see how they are valued — anyone who is willing to listen. If somebody needs to be challenged, to challenge, in particular our seminarians and those thinking of vocations. I think there is a role for grandparents in our society and I would like to fit in somewhere there.
I love to be around young people. They have a spirit of joy that comes from being together as people of faith and learning about their faith, learning that they are deeply loved by God who created them in the first place and responding to that with joy.
I’m hoping I will have more time to spend with young people and be available to those who are struggling in their own lives. It is a challenge for young people growing up these days with the many forces that draw them away from the church. I would like to be a kind of missionary to young people.
I would like to start a group or ministry that somehow addresses the issue of pornography. That is a terrible issue in our society and in the lives of youth, but we don’t really talk about it much and we don’t really have ways of dealing with it or helping them to deal with it. A lot of them are not strong enough to resist the temptations of our world and they need the support of the church. I would like to find a way to help them.
Do you plan to live here in Anchorage full time?
This is really my home. I plan to stay here. I would still like to go down to Florida from time to time to relax and do some reading and visit with my brother and sister-in-law down there. But mainly my faith family is all here and this is where I belong.
It has been nearly 49 years since you were first ordained to the priesthood. In some ways you are returning to the beginning as a parish priest. How do you think you’ll adjust to this new reality?
I think it is the best thing a priest can do. It’s the best thing a bishop can do — to be pastor of souls. I’m very happy doing that. We are called to be ministers to the people — to participate in family life — not to be ministers to desks. Being with the people in their good times and in their bad times. For those who are not married it can be very fulfilling to be part of family life in the sense of supporting them and being there when they come into the world and when they leave the world — to be there helping them come to know the Savior who put us here in the first place and who is waiting for us later on.
At St. Andrew’s in Eagle River I feel very much a part of that community. It is kind of energizing to have this experience of working with Father Arthur Roraff as a team. I wrote an article in the parish bulletin a couple months ago thanking the community for welcoming the ‘kid and the old man’ as I call us. We are doing our best to be of service to them.
If your priestly journey could be broken up into chapters, surely retirement is one of the final ones. What does it mean to embark on this next leg of the journey?
Today is day one of this new chapter and I look at it with joy. Some people don’t like new things in their lives, but I kind of welcome them. I find it energizing and exciting. I take after my mother that way. I’m looking forward to new challenges but also the opportunity to have fun and enjoy the joy of the Gospel in a way that is liberated from the drudgery of administrative issues. Those are important but I’m happy to pass those along to my successor (laughs).
What was going through your mind during the Nov. 9 installation Mass, when you stepped down from the archbishop’s chair and invited Archbishop Etienne to assume the seat as the new archbishop?
It was very moving to know that I’m freely giving up this chair to him, which was so symbolic to me. The nuncio mentioned this to me before the Mass: “Now you must decrease, he must increase.” That’s what came to me. I knew I had to let go.
Probably the most moving moment of the installation Mass yesterday was when Archbishop Etienne came over and gave me a hug. I think we both started crying.
As the archdiocese welcomes your successor, can you share what you found helpful when you adjusted to a new archdiocese 15 years ago?
What really helped me, and in particular because of my personality, were lay people who did not wait for me to reach out to them. They reached out and invited me into their friendship and families. That was very helpful. Then getting the guidance and background from the priests and sisters who were around and hearing their experience — that helped a lot.
What is your role in assisting Archbishop Etienne in the transition process?
Some things are very practical. I just gave him a map of the city. Helping him with a little background with each of the parishes and what has transpired there and giving him a sense of what different guys bring to the priesthood and what deacons bring to their ministry. Then he can have a better grasp of what he has to work with.
He wanted my office right here across the hall so he could run over and ask questions. That’s why I’m here. He has been really good about asking me to stick around and help him go through the transition.
I think back when I first came and the challenges I ran into. What seemed, at times, to be an immense challenge — almost overwhelming — you learn to put into perspective in time. I hope to assist in that sense of helping him put it all into perspective.