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Home away from home

By Fr. Bill Zamborsky

I arrived in Alaska Tuesday night, June 25, 2019, for my fourth visit to the Diocese of Juneau. By Thursday the break, the relaxation, the calm seemed to have serendipitously settled into my soul, and I seemed to have embraced it. I realized that I have a sense of homecoming when I come to your diocese, but it is not really homecoming, more of an extension of where I belong. Maybe like returning to a room of relaxation and rest in my home, a room I have not visited for a long time. My home is the Catholic Church wherever she may be. I experience my priestly relationship with the Church most clearly in three places: 1.) The Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. Where most of my family still live; and where I lived eight years in the seminary with a close-knit group of ninth-grade boys becoming young men graduating from college. 2.) The Diocese of Orlando, Florida where I have been a priest for 45 years in seven different parishes and am now pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Ormond Beach. 3.) The Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, your diocese – which is the object of this writing.

I celebrated Mass in the cathedral in the presence of familiar faces and re-meet several familiar faces in the diocesan offices. The familiar faces were all beautiful, reflecting the presence of Christ in His Mystical Body, the Church. The same Mystical Body with which I have become so familiar in the Diocese of Orlando. I was as sure that I was home, just as I was sure that I had left home only two days ago.

I am writing of the people of the Diocese of Juneau, so regardless of the city, town or village in which they live I tend to think of them all as the Juneaueans or is it the Juneauites. The first sounds like a people living on a planet in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and the other sounds like an Old Testament tribe. Either way, the sound is of people who have a special place in my heart and, I trust, I in theirs. Having reconnected with the Juneauites (I’ll go with the biblical sound) in Juneau itself, I was ready to visit around the diocese bringing with me that most amazing gift to and through the priest, the celebration of the Mass. The celebration that, “Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.”

My first stop was in Tenakee Springs. I spent the first night sleeping on the cold floor of the chapel having unwittingly locked myself out of the upstairs apartment when I went out for a late-night walk in the cool air. In the morning I sheepishly got a spare key from a couple, who kindly assured me that I was not the first in this folly. Celebrating Mass with the couple I had met at the dock when I came in on the ferry returned a sense of equilibrium, and brought me back to a state of quiet, relaxation. Mass itself was nothing special – just the usual, amazing, mind-blowing mystery of God’s love incarnate in the suffering, death and resurrection of His only begotten Son, Jesus of Nazareth. During my stay, I celebrated Mass with a lovely young lady who was spending her college break visiting her grandparents, and with a fisherman (who took me fishing a couple of years ago) and his wife. I celebrated July 4th in Tenakee Springs before flying back to Juneau, where I did my laundry and headed out for Yakutat.

Yakutat has become one of my favorite places to visit the Juneauites. From takeoff to landing, the flight to and from is a glimpse of stunning beauty, perhaps a foretaste of heavenly splendor. Remembering a faith-filled grandma with the most precocious little girl and her ever-energetic little brother brings a smile to my heart. The couple who own and operate the Blue Heron Inn B&B has repeatedly welcomed me to their table for great food, stimulating and enjoyable conversation, and the warmth of good friendship. Our celebrations of Mass were enriched by a loaned guitar which added the joy of music to our prayers of praise, petition and thanksgiving. I revisited Harlequin Lake, where I spent about an hour and a half letting the magnificent icebergs surrounded by the magnificent mountains lift up an unspoken and unspeakable prayer of joyful praise to the Lord and Master of all creation.

After a quick turnaround in Juneau, I next found myself in Hoonah. Other than very short stops on the ferry going to and from other places I had never been in Hoonah. Another borrowed guitar fell into the background as a professional, Catholic recording artist provided music for the praying of the Mass. We also had two priests, who were on retreat at the shrine in Juneau but visiting Hoonah for a day of fishing, join us for the celebration of Mass. The little community of Catholic faithful was a joy to meet, to pray with, and to visit. Dinner with a family with two teenagers (one visiting from Juneau) was a most memorable, delightful and delicious affair. Back to Juneau with a short stop in Gustavus on the way.

The flight to Pelican was another display of the amazing beauty and the raw, untamed power of the Alaskan landscape in the Diocese of Juneau. The couple, who have been the heart of the Catholic community there for many years demonstrate the beauty of our Catholic faith as it is lived over a lifetime of adventure and misadventure (thank you Don Quixote and Sancho). Sharing faith and prayer, food and conversation, and especially the Mass with them for three days added strength and joy to the faith of this traveling preacher of the Word of God. A certain balance was achieved by the prayerful presence of a family. The relationship between the sister (about 13 years old) and the brother (about 12) elevated the joy to a whole new level of familial delight. Mass was held at the community church and, after it, I was pleased to lead an ecumenical prayer service for a broader segment of the community of Christians. As I left Pelican on the ferry, I felt a gentle melancholy as I felt a clear tug of my heartstrings to be back in Florida, with the people I loved and was missing. I also felt a clear tug drawing me to stay in Alaska with the people I loved and was enjoying. After a sunset ride on the magical, mystical Inside Passage, I arrived back in Juneau very late that night.

My last time in Kake was for a funeral three years ago. I remembered quite a few people (faces, not names) from that time of grace with the community there. But this time I met and stayed in the home of a couple who had been out of town when I was there before. As has happened so often to me in these little Catholic communities of Juneauites, they were (and still are) a great witness to me of strength in their commitment to and conviction of faith. They were most gracious to me and most generous in providing exceptional food. They shared with me a great deal of their journey of life and faith with its great joys and great heartaches; all lived for the good of others and to the honor and glory of God. As the plane rose from the runway, my heart didn’t know if it should rise at the thought of going home to my parish in Ormond Beach, Florida or fall at the thought of leaving my home away from home in southeast Alaska.

My last scheduled stop among the Juneauites was my first return to the first place I stayed in the Diocese of Juneau six years ago. I did a three month sabbatical in St. Gregory Nazianzen Parish in Sitka. I was eagerly anticipating this return visit. The good pastor met me at the airport and welcomed me to his home. Good friends met me at the parish and welcomed me to their boat for three days of excellent fishing, in what is probably the most picturesque place I have ever been. The faith-filled fisherman who took me out to catch my first salmon invited me over for dinner with his family. Six years ago, when his wife joined him in Sitka, I had the joy of meeting his baby girl who was shy and preferred that I keep at a safe distance. This year she was accompanied by her two little sisters, and all three were eager to get my attention and tell me all about it – whatever it was. Sheer delight! At the daily Masses, I reconnected with familiar, beautiful faces. But the highlight that brought it all together was Sunday Mass. It brought me right back to the first time I set foot in Alaska. I was some 4,000 miles away from home in the midst of strangers. But the moment I stepped into the church and bowed before the Blessed Sacrament, I knew I was at home with the people who are the Bride of Christ and my bride, the Church. Realizing that I was at home with my beloved in St. Gregory’s in Sitka, AK I knew that I was ready to go home to my beloved in Prince of Peace in Ormond Beach, FL. Confusing – not really. As the Diocese of Juneau has become my “home away from home,” God has taught me two things:

  1. The Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, is my home away from home. But then again, the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, is also my home away from home as is the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. My true homeplace is in Heaven, and my joy in this world is to journey there with my spouse, the Church, the Bride of Christ. (I had to get a little southern speak in there.)
  2. Home is indeed where the heart is. My heart is with the people who are the Church and I am at home whenever I am with them; I am at home in their love for me. But my heart, like yours, is never quite settled in any place as stated so beautifully by St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord.” Our true homeplace is in Heaven and we journey there together with each other and with Jesus.
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