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During these months of serving as administrator of the Diocese of Juneau, some of the greatest challenges I’ve faced, and some of the most wonderful joys I’ve experienced, have occurred in our search for priests to serve God’s people here in Southeast Alaska. As most of us know, our Diocese is critically short right now of the number of priests we need to provide adequate pastoral care in all our communities. We currently have ministering in the Diocese a total of eight ordained priests: six diocesan priests who are “incardinated” (permanently affiliated) in the Diocese of Juneau; and two priests of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a worldwide religious community of priests and brothers. Now, in the “Lower 48,” and even in those parts of Alaska on a road system, having this many priests to serve a total Catholic population of only 15,000-20,000 people would be amazingly wonderful! The problem we face is that our people are scattered in almost twenty different communities, most of whom cannot be reached except by sea or air. The highway “circuit riding” by which many priests in the Western United States each cover several parishes or missions in a weekend is a physical impossibility for us. For reasons of geography and the difficulty and costs of transportation in our region, the ability of our priests to move from one parish or mission to another is very limited, especially in the fall and winter. As a result, the Eucharist is celebrated in some of our smaller communities less than one time a month.

Fortunately, wonderful ministry is carried out in our communities by religious sisters and permanent deacons, as well as by many generous, committed lay ministers. The Catholic Church in Alaska has long depended on these other servants of the Gospel, whose ministries have flourished in the period since the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, the basic responsibilities of the Church—the ministries of preaching and teaching the Word of God, conducting celebrations of the Eucharist and other liturgical functions, and providing for the Church’s government and organization—all require the service and leadership of priests.

The number of our priests has declined by about onethird over the past two years due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, including the death of Father Thomas Weise in 2015. Only 46 years old at the time of his death, Father Thomas was our youngest priest. Of those of us currently in priestly ministry, two are in their fifties, three of us are in our sixties, two are or soon will be in their seventies, and Father Peter Gorges (allegedly retired!) is in his eighties. Thus, in addition to the immediate need of our people for more priests, we must provide for those who will succeed our current priests as we eventually pass from the scene.

As diocesan administrator, I have made it a priority to address our need for more priests in ways that will help our new Bishop to continue this critical effort. I have asked Father Ed Penisten to serve as our diocesan vocation director, and he has energetically devoted himself to this ministry. In addition to maintaining contact with a number of men who are interested in serving in Southeast Alaska, we have developed an informational brochure about priesthood in our Diocese to be distributed in universities and colleges with vocational discernment programs, as well as in our own parishes and missions. We know we have a long way to go in addressing our challenges, but we are also grateful and joyful that the Lord is responding to our needs.

For example, on other pages in this edition of the Southeast Alaska Catholic, you can read about two young men who are discerning a call to priestly ministry. James Wallace has been in the seminary formation process for three years, and has just successfully completed his first year of theology studies at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary. James, who grew up in Southern California, first came to Southeast Alaska as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, serving at the base clinic in Sitka. Many people of our Diocese have come
to know him through his wide variety of summer ministries, most recently on Prince of Wales Island. Luke Daniel is a young man from Washington State who spent some childhood years in Southeast Alaska and has visited from time to time since then. He will begin studies as a college sophomore at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, where he will major in philosophy to prepare for a graduate program in theology. I hope that you can share the joy and sense of opportunity that we priests of the Diocese have experienced with the coming of these two dedicated young men.

We are also looking forward to the arrival of Father Augustine Minn, a priest of the Archdiocese of Seoul, Korea, whom we hope soon to have ministering to our people in Juneau, so that the pastors there can travel more regularly to our small missions. Father Augustine, who has also served as a priest in India, is sponsored by the Korean Mission Society, whose priests have ministered very successfully in the Archdiocese of Anchorage for some years now.

In addition to our young seminarians and Father Augustine, our Diocese has also been blessed by older men who have responded to God’s call to priesthood. Fathers Steve Gallagher and Mike Galbraith each entered the seminary in their fifties, after many years of professional and family life as laymen. Another older man, who completed most of his seminary studies but chose not to be ordained when he was younger, is now actively investigating the possibility of serving us here in Southeast Alaska. And I have received inquiries from three already ordained priests who are interested in transferring their ministries here. Not all these men will necessarily minister as priests in the Diocese of Juneau, but the fact of their prayerful interest in the needs of our people should be a source of encouragement for us all.

While the generous response of these men to the possibility of priesthood in Southeast Alaska is a tremendous gift, all of us are responsible for making it possible for them to prepare for priestly ministry if they are called to it, and for promoting similar responses on the part of the boys and men in our lives. First and most important is a commitment by all of us to pray that more and more of them will experience the vocation to ordained priesthood and respond to that call by undertaking the challenging, but wonder-filled, journey of discernment and formation. More practically, we must recognize that the education of seminarians and their support as priests once they have been ordained requires us to be generous with our money. Like other forms of higher education, seminary formation is very expensive, and the cost of educating one seminarian can easily exceed $30,000 per year for an average of five years, most of which must be paid by the Diocese. Once a priest is ordained, the parish to which he is assigned normally pays for his salary, health and retirement benefits, and housing costs in a rectory, once again exceeding $30,000 per year. While scholarships and grants from Catholic agencies are often available to pay some of these expenses, in the end it is the people of the Diocese or Parish who are responsible for them. Thus, the generosity of our seminarians and priests must be matched by the generosity of our people if they are to receive the pastoral care that they need and desire.

Finally, I call upon our parents, teachers, catechists, and other adults to encourage our boys and men, to consider the possibility that they might be called to priesthood—and our girls and women that they might be called to be religious sisters. The fact that my early childhood interest in being a priest was approved and encouraged by my parents was a critical factor in my ability, decades later, to recognize and respond to the Lord’s call. Priesthood and religious life must not be regarded as reserved for someone else’s children. We must all be aware that our future priests and religious might be right under our noses: in our families, schools, youth groups, sports teams, and scout troops. Most of them will probably be adults before they are able to recognize and respond to a priestly or religious vocation, but the nurturing they receive early in life when they raise that possibility, however fleetingly or casually, can make all the difference in this world, and in the next. Priests, especially, must always be “on the lookout” for those whom God might be calling in a special way, and ready to encourage them by sharing the joys, as well as the challenges, of their lives and ministry. For me, as for so many others, it was happy, dedicated priests, sisters, and brothers who inspired me to undertake the road of priesthood.

While recognizing the importance of all the vocations to which our people are called, let us here in Southeast Alaska do all we can to encourage an increase in the number of our priests, both now and in the future, and to thank our Lord for empowering our priests to teach, sanctify, and govern his people as they follow the path of salvation. Let us also keep praying that the Lord will soon send a holy new high priest to our Diocese—a new Bishop!

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