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Sede Vacante: “While the Chair is Empty” The Diocese of Juneau in a time of transition


Now that Bishop Edward J. Burns has been installed as Bishop of Dallas, Texas, we of the Diocese of Juneau find ourselves in a time of transition that the Catholic Church refers to as “sede vacante”—meaning, in Latin, “while the chair is empty.” The “chair” in this expression is the Bishop’s Chair or “cathedra,” located in and giving the name to our Cathedral Church. With Bishop Burns’ departure, that chair will remain empty until our new Bishop has been named by Pope Francis and has been installed in that ministry, symbolized by his taking his place in the Bishop’s Chair. But the emptiness of the chair symbolizes the much more important “emptiness” that the Church of Southeast Alaska now experiences during the time we are without a Bishop of our own. In the life of any local Catholic Church, the role and ministry of the Bishop as successor of the Apostles, the sign of our unity with the Universal Church,and the shepherd who sanctifies, teaches, and governs God’s People cannot be replaced. The life of any diocese like our own that lacks a Bishop is, to that extent, incomplete. This is why it is so important for us to pray that Pope Francis will, before too much time has passed, appoint a new Bishop to lead our Southeast Alaska Catholic Church.

The incompleteness symbolized by the empty chair does not, of course, mean that the life of our Church comes to a complete halt. It simply means that, for the time of the vacancy, the Church’s activities must be conducted in ways that preserve continuity with the guidance previously offered by Bishop Burns, while also avoiding any actions that would unnecessarily limit the future leadership of our new Bishop. The canon law of the Church provides for this in some detail, to ensure the proper functioning of the Church during times of transition. Among other things, it provides for the election of a “diocesan administrator,” a priest who will serve as a “caretaker,” leading the Diocese temporarily and under carefully defined limits. That is the ministry in which I currently serve, having been elected by my brother priests to undertake its responsibilities. The other priests serve as a “college of consultors” with which the diocesan administrator discusses important matters affecting the Diocese, and the consent of which he must obtain for certain very significant actions.

In a diocese as small as ours, we can’t afford to have a full-time diocesan administrator, so I will also continue my ministries as pastor of Holy Name Parish in Ketchikan and overseeing the canon law tribunals of the three Alaska Dioceses. Fortunately, I have many wonderful ministers available to help me with all these responsibilities: the priests, sisters, deacons, and lay ministers of our Diocese and parishes; and the many faithful members of our Church who collaborate with us in so many ways. I will humbly be calling upon all of you during the coming months—for your pastoral and leadership talents and, most of all, for your prayers!

We don’t yet know how long the time of transition in our Diocese will last. For most dioceses, it seems to last around a year, but it might also be significantly shorter or longer. It all depends on the process needed to help Pope Francis make the best choice of
a new Bishop.

There are a number of aspects to this time of transition that, at its outset, I suggest that it would be good to recognize, in order to discern the ways in which the Lord is calling us. First of all, it’s important for us to recognize that it is a time of loss, even mourning. The presence and ministry of Bishop Burns were tremendous gifts to us: the joyful enthusiasm with which he shared with us his vision of the Church will be greatly missed by all who knew him. Now those gifts are being enjoyed by the people of the Diocese of Dallas, and we should rejoice for them, even as we recognize the pain of our own loss, in the Spirit that unites us all as brothers and sisters. This time of transition can also be for us a time of hope and, indeed, of growth. We in the Juneau Diocese have not been left helpless and rudderless by Bishop Burns’ departure. We continue to be guided by the Diocesan Pastoral Plan, and by our Parish Pastoral Plans, that were developed by us and approved by Bishop Burns after our Diocesan Synod of November 2013. I am asking all our people to continue implementing these plans in accordance with the goals and objectives that they contain for almost all areas of our life as a Diocese. By doing so, we will continue to grow in our capacity truly to live as God’s People, and will provide our new Bishop with a solid foundation for beginning his ministry when he arrives.

There are two areas in which our Diocese has special needs that I hope we can begin to address during this time of transition: our shortage of active priests and our need to develop new means of providing for the material support of the Church. The recent losses to death and other circumstances of one-third of the nine priests previously active in Southeast Alaska has had serious effects on the lives of our people. Our missions and smallest parishes have seen their opportunities to celebrate the Eucharist and other Sacraments drastically reduced, despite the inspired efforts of our deacons, sisters, and lay ministers to fill the breach; and even our larger parishes have experienced a significant reduction in pastoral services due to lack of priestly coverage when their own pastors are necessarily absent. Those of us who remain in active priestly ministry are all rapidly advancing in years, and we currently have only one seminarian in theology studies for our Diocese. A sufficient number of priests is essential for the life of any Catholic diocese, and we simply cannot delay our efforts towards providing for this. I have asked Father Ed Penisten to undertake the role of vocation director for our Diocese, with a special emphasis on identifying and establishing contact with individuals and groups of men who might be interested in priestly ministry with us, and of men and women who might be interested in professed religious life as sisters, priests, and brothers. It is equally important for our parents and grandparents to encourage our young people to consider seriously the possibility of a priestly or religious vocation, and I hope that Father Ed will help provide them resources with which to do this. Finally, during this Lenten Season, I ask that the celebrations of the Stations of the Cross be carried out for the specific intention of an increase of priestly and religious vocations in our Diocese.

Before his departure, Bishop Burns had discerned the need for our Diocese to develop means of obtaining material support for our ministries beyond those on which we have long relied, which have been significantly reduced in recent years. With the help of advisers whom Bishop Burns was able to retain, I plan to continue this effort for the long time financial health of our Diocese, parishes, and missions. While no major construction projects will be undertaken during the time of transition, it will be possible to continue planning efforts for possible future construction. My hope is that, when our new Bishop arrives, he will find an array of options for our material support from which to choose.

The Season of Lent, with its themes of death to self and Resurrection to full life, will, I hope, inspire us to embrace both the challenges and the opportunities of this time “while the chair is empty” in the Diocese of Juneau. Let us pray that the Lord will help us during this time to grow in our knowledge and love of God, in the wisdom we need to discern his will, and in the strength to follow him wherever he might lead us!

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