On June 5, all four of Alaska’s bishops gathered with teens during the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC). The occasion was the annual “Tonight Show with the Bishops,” a popular feature of ACYC.
In a late-night talk show setting, Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne was joined by his predecessor Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, Bishop Chad Zielinski of Fairbanks and Bishop Andrew Bellisario of Juneau. The four prelates bantered with emcees Craig and Katie Gould, fielded questions from teens and asked a few of their own.
The bishops shared how prayer was an integral part of their daily lives.
“Our greatest prayer really is the celebration of the Eucharist,” Archbishop Etienne told the youth. “My most powerful encounters with Christ are the celebrations I have with you, the Masses I celebrate for archdiocesan events and with parishes — these are a profound encounter with the person of Jesus for me, because I encounter it in the church — the living body of Christ that we all make up.”
Bishop Bellisario said meditation is an important part of his life.
“I learned how to meditate in seminary, to the point where I can meditate very easily on an airplane while everybody else is watching videos,” he said. “We need to be connected to each other, and that’s one way to experience Jesus in a very profound way.”
He noted that he also stays connected to Jesus “through persons who are poor, who are hurting. We are able to reach out and assist, but also be evangelized by them and their lives.”
Bishop Zielinski spoke of the need for silence.
“In this culture of technology, the world fears silence,” he said. “I’ve found as I get older — as I grow in my call as a priest — that I crave silence, in the Mass, praying the rosary.”
He noted that his travels to the northern villages of the Fairbanks Diocese are filled with silence.
“There’s a lot of silence out there,” he said. “It really helps you meditate on God’s creation. The Eucharist is the heart of our faith: it’s the most intimate encounter with Jesus we can ever have. We can only come to understand that through silence that’s needed in our world.”
Archbishop Schwietz spoke of how the sacraments bring him close to God.
“One special moment for me is when I hear confessions at the parish,” he said. “I have a very real sense of Jesus and his mercy, being there with me and welcoming people who receive absolution. It’s very touching and helps me to appreciate the love Jesus has for every person who comes to confession.”
The bishops challenged the young people to be greater leaders in their communities.
“We need young people to take on leadership roles,” Bishop Bellisario said. “You bring a particular perspective that is sometimes lacking, because we don’t have, or haven’t made the opportunity for young people to come take part in leadership roles.”
Bishop Zielinski wanted the youth to know that each person matters and is sacred in the eyes of God.
“We need you in our parish councils, inviting our youth to serve in leadership capacities,” he said. “You will make a difference in the church, and you are making a difference in the church, so thank you.”
Archbishop Schwietz urged the teens to boldly approach the bishops.
“Talk to us — don’t be afraid to come up and share your ideas with us,” he said. “You have good ideas, and you can help us be in contact with you more.”
He also called the youth to deliberately befriend others, who perhaps need friends, noting that “perhaps your priests and bishops need friends too.”
“We need you most as leaders just to live your faith,” Archbishop Etienne said. “And don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t be afraid to live by the values of Jesus, the values of the church: that is the greatest leadership. Be a role model from the pews, for your peers. They are looking for others to support them, to give them courage.”
To conclude the evening, the bishops asked two questions to the teens: What are some challenges you face as young people? What can we do for you?
The teens asked the prelates to be present to them, to visit their parishes, classes, youth groups and schools. They asked the bishops to help them learn more deeply about their faith. Another youth invited the bishops to talk to them as adults, to challenge them with deeper faith and teachings, even with things that are difficult.
One student asked the bishops how young people might stay connected to faith while going to college.
“Go. To. Church,” Archbishop Etienne emphasized. “Stay close to Jesus. Stay close to his mother. Pray the rosary. Practice the sacraments and you can’t go wrong. Form a group of friends who will support you in that.”
Teens also shared some of their struggles. They expressed challenges in getting friends to come to church with them and they spoke of dealing with peers who see Christianity as a stereotype of negativity. Others expressed the difficulty of living their faith in a way that is integrated with every other aspect of daily life, including technology and hot-button moral issues.
“We find Christ in the midst of our challenges, in our crosses,” Archbishop Etienne responded. “We don’t resent those moments, but understand that Jesus is there, too. I heard a line that made tremendous sense: ‘If you’re going to wear a cross around your neck, don’t complain about the one on your back.’ That really hit me. Even in the cross, we are called to find Christ.”