Tag Archives: Fr Leo Walsh

A trio of events showcases the vitality of the local Catholic community

Last week I attended two local Catholic activities that indicate a growing and moving church. While attending, I heard about a upcoming third activity of local interest. While not all local churches embrace their Catholic neighbors, due to various theological points of disagreements, it’s important we don’t forget the words of Jesus, from John 10:16: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

Alaska Catholic Youth Conference

Last week, 144 Catholic youth from around the state came to Anchorage for the 16th annual Alaska Catholic Youth Conference. The conference theme, “Boundless Mercy,” tied into Pope Francis’ 2015 declaration that this year be a Year of Holy Mercy, a jubilee year to follow the 50th anniversary the Second Vatican Council.

Each day’s theme was on an aspect of mercy: “What is mercy?,” “Living Mercy,” “Spiritual Mercy,” “Mercy is God’s Name.” Out-of-town youth stayed at Lumen Christi High School or with local friends. Youth participated in events that included workshops, social justice service projects, musical entertainment, and masses.

“The service projects were really good,” said Bonnie Bezousek, director of faith formation for the Anchorage Archdiocese.

“The youth painted bowls for Bean’s Café, wrote letters to military personnel in the family, and discovered how social media raised awareness of issues regarding Catholic social teaching and works of mercy. Junior high youth also painted decorations for St. Benedict’s VBS (vacation Bible school).”

All three in-state bishops were present and available to the youth: Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski, and Juneau Bishop Ed Burns. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was a special guest at the conference. Each bishop celebrated Mass with the youth. Pedro Rubalcava, a musician from Portland, Oregon, performed a concert at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and provided music throughout the week.

The Tuesday evening program, called the “ACYC Tonight Show,” mimicked its broadcast namesake with spiritual trivia guessing games that included the youth and bishops, youth tweets about embarrassing Catholic moments, and a chance to question any bishop about anything. In all my years visiting churches and attending conferences I’ve not seen anything similar. This was an engaged group.

Raising money for Anchorage seminarians

Later that week I attended a fundraising dinner at St. Patrick’s Parish to create an endowment for seminarian education. The archdiocese is experiencing a renewed interest in the priesthood as evidenced by the recent ordinations of the Revs. Patrick Brosamer and Arthur Roraff, and Deacon Robert Whitney. At the dinner, five new seminarians were introduced. Previously, only one or two seminarians were studying at any given time. Now, it has become a healthy career choice.

Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church pays for seminarian training. Due to the expanding base of local seminarians, the archdiocese felt a stronger financial foundation for this training needed to be developed. Currently seminarian education costs are funded out of the archdiocese budget. An endowment to fund future seminarian education makes great sense.

To help achieve this, Catholic Extension, (a canonical institution reporting directly to the pope), and their donors awarded a 2-to-1 matching grant of up to $50,000. Through leadership dinners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Andrew’s and St. Benedict’s parishes, private and public parish dinners, and the $79,000 raised at the St. Patrick’s Parish event, the archdiocese achieved its initial goal of $100,000 matching money.

This initial $150,000 provides the seed money for an anticipated $3 million to 5 million endowment. Catholic Extension financially supports missions in the church, because all of Alaska’s archdioceses are considered missions.

“It’s nice we have young men leading in discipleship. What we can do as disciples is to support them by giving back,” said Laurie Dinneen, the archdiocese’s stewardship and development director.

At my table, composed mostly of Holy Family Cathedral members, I was fortunate to be seated next to one of the new seminarians, Ed Burke, from Kenai, and a recent high school graduate. As we talked I gained a sense of his deep commitment to the Catholic faith and comfort in the symbols and work of the church.

The tasty dinner, fundraising activities, mingling of friends of faith, and the Rev. Leo Walsh’s humorous remarks as master of ceremonies produced a unity of support I seldom see in church events.

Holy Family Cathedral unveils stained glass window project

Just last month, the stained glass windows project “The Joyful Mysteries,” culminated with the completion of the windows’ installation. Pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, the Rev. Anthony Patalano, is joyful this project came to fruition in his third and final assignment here.

“Our ‘windows project’ has been in the works for more than two years and is the culmination, along with necessary renovations and improvements, of our centennial celebration as a parish. It couldn’t have happened without the prayers and generosity of many Holy Family parishioners,” Patalano said.

The cathedral itself was dedicated in a ceremony earlier this month, along with the new windows, sconces, and restored stations of the cross. Patalano has been retired by his Dominican order, and will be moving to Los Angeles in July where he’ll serve as Resident Chaplain to the Cloistered Dominican Nuns in LA.

Noting their themes, Patalano continued, “The Joyful Mysteries seemed especially appropriate for Holy Family as the Holy Family is represented in four of the five windows. St. Therese of Lisieux is the patron saint of missions and of the State of Alaska whose dioceses are mission dioceses.”

Holy Family invites the community to a special showing of these windows frpm 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. June 25 at the cathedral. Volunteers will provide tours and explanations of the beautiful windows, their history in Germany, and restoration. A reception will be held in the Parish Hall. A beautiful souvenir book will also be available for a slight charge.

Anchorage Archdiocese announces series of major clergy changes

Recently, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, who oversees the archdiocese of Anchorage, announced significant changes affecting Roman Catholic clergy and parishes in Alaska. Statewide, about 15 percent of Alaskans identified as Catholic in a recent survey.

The Anchorage archdiocese has needed a canon lawyer since Rev. Tom Brundage, priest at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River and also judicial vicar, returned to Milwaukee a year ago. He had been on loan from the archdiocese of Milwaukee for about nine years. In the interim, canon lawyer the Rev. Pat Travers from the Juneau diocese has been filling in. Schwietz announced the Rev. Leo Walsh, parish priest at St. Benedict’s Catholic Parish would be returning to Rome to study canon law for the local archdiocese tribunal. Walsh has previously studied in Rome, receiving a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum, the pontifical university there.

“Our God is the God of surprises,” Walsh said, when asked about the change. “Such was the case a few weeks ago when Archbishop Schwietz asked me if I would consider returning to Rome to get a degree in canon law with the intent of returning to the Archdiocese in three years to be the judicial vicar and run the marriage tribunal. Before then, the thought had never crossed my mind. Yet after reflection it made a lot of sense. So I agreed.”

Walsh also noted it would provide a change in direction for him. “It is indeed a career change,” he said. “While the tribunal is not a parochial ministry, it is most definitely a pastoral ministry, and a delicate one at that. People do not petition for a declaration of nullity until after they have already experienced the pain of a civil divorce. Therefore the process requires a very delicate, pastoral approach. Pope Francis has said as much in recent times in this regard.”

After three years of study, Walsh will receive a license in canon law or Juris Canonici Licentia, which is somewhat comparable to a J.D.

The Rev. Tom Lilly, who has been parish priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish for 11 years, will replace Walsh at St. Benedict’s, where he will also serve as priest for the parish and Lumen Christi Catholic High School. Lilly is currently the vicar general of the Anchorage archdiocese and will continue in this administrative role. When the archbishop is outside of the diocese, Lilly acts in his behalf and stands in as the bishop would in administrative matters.

“For me, the coming transfer to St. Benedict’s is another opportunity to serve,” he said. “Same church; different part of the vineyard! I begin there on July 1.” He’s looking forward to encouraging spiritual well-being of the youth there in navigating the challenges of acceptance, faith and reason, career path, low self-esteem and our sex-saturated culture.

He will be replaced at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton by Rev. Steven Moore, who’d recently been appointed as parish priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral — “at no small personal sacrifice,” noted Schwietz, “as Father Moore will have physically moved four times in the last three years.”

The Rev. Andrew Bellisario has succeeded Moore at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bellisario is a senior Vincentian, who was previously the head of the society’s Los Angeles province, and and his move there represents the beginning of a fresh effort to reach Spanish speakers. With few local Spanish-speaking priests, the archdiocese had long sought better ways to serve Hispanic Catholics, even provided language immersion training for some priests.

Meanwhile, several priests from that society who have served briefly at the co-cathedral have noted a need for more Spanish-speaking priests to serve growing Hispanic population in Anchorage and elsewhere in the state, and forwarded those concerns to the head of their order in Rome. The society now plans to “establish an outreach ministry to the Hispanic community throughout the Archdiocese with the expectation of a third Vincentian priest arriving later this year,” Schwietz said.

When I talked to Bellisario , he told me the Vincentians were founded for the specific mission of evangelizing the poor. Talking about their order founder, Bellisario said, “St. Vincent noted ‘reading the signs of the times,’ he talked about not getting ahead of divine providence.” Noting there were 50,000 Hispanics in Alaska, he said the Vincentians’ mandate was of outreach to Hispanics in the archdiocese.

“The Vincentians are making a major commitment to the development of Hispanic ministry within the Archdiocese,” Rev. Scott Medlock, priest at St. Patrick’s Parish and the Anchorage archdiocese’s vicar for clergy said.

The Archbishop also announced that the Rev.. Scott Garrett, from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wasilla, would “return to serving the people of Bristol Bay as pastor at Holy Rosary in Dillingham, St. Theresa in Naknek, and the mission in King Salmon where he served prior to going to Sacred Heart five years ago. He is a pilot and will be flying to some of the villages that cannot be reached by commercial airplane.”

Replacing Garrett will be the Rev. Joseph McGilloway who will also serve as canonical pastor for Big Lake, Willow, Talkeetna, and Trapper Creek.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Andrew Lee becomes parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish, and the Rev. Mark Stronach, a Benedictine monk from Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey, will move to Our Lady of the Lake, and serve as parochial vicar under McGilloway.

These are significant changes for the archdiocese. which appear to strengthen the Catholic Church in Alaska.

About the Author

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who has been visiting Anchorage and other local area churches for over 15 years. Go to his website, churchvisits.com, or follow him on Twitter  at twitter.com/churchvisits or email at churchvisits@gmail.com.

If you don’t already observe Lent, consider giving traditions a try

Two and a half weeks ago, Lent began for a large portion of Christianity with Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches begin observing Lent on March 13). Some local Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal clergy brought “ashes to the people” in downtown Anchorage that day. I applaud this approach because it brings clergy to the people, instead of people expecting to have to go to clergy. This may be Christianity at its best.

“Sharing ashes on the street is an opportunity for Christians to practice very public theology, said participant Nico Romeijn-Stout, pastor of discipleship and social justice at St. John United Methodist Church and one of those clergy. “Our practice was to take a moment with each person asking their name and how we can be in prayer with and for them. Even in a short moment a relationship was formed. What was striking for me was that the only people who received ashes from me were a couple of homeless men. One said that he hadn’t been ‘blessed’ in years. When we take the risk to do ministry with people where they are, we meet Christ in profound ways.”

Taking “ashes to the street” did not substitute for the Ash Wednesday services those clergy later held in their own churches.

Many Catholic clergy feel ashes should be applied in the church as a rite.

“We take ashes to the homebound, but the distribution of ashes is best done in the sacred assembly at Mass,” said St. Benedict’s Rev. Leo Walsh. “Catholics understand Lent, and all the associated rites, as a communal act of penance by the whole believing community. “It’s possible those attitudes may change over time, as I’m noticing an increasing numbers of news stories of Catholic and Episcopal clergy taking ashes to the street.

Regardless of how one receives their ashes, on the street, in bed, or at church, this rite is an awe-inspiring moment in which one can take stock and recognize we’re mortal and will return to dust.

During my personal preparation for Lent I came across an excellent guide prepared by the Society of St. Andrew, which sponsors a gleaning ministry for food rescue and feeding the hungry. The society’s 44-page downloadable PDF guide offers a wealth of Scripture, reflections, and prayers for Lent.

During Lent many churches host extra evening services or other activities.

First Congregational Church is conducting Tuesday evening Taizé-style services at 5:30 p.m. through March 22. The services will include music, chants, times of silence and readings from the Bible and other sources, but no sermons or discussion.

Many more churches’ Lent activities are offered on Wednesday evenings. Central Lutheran Church has soup suppers, study, and a service through March 16. All Saints Episcopal Church offers a soup supper at 6 p.m. followed by a lesson on spiritual gifts. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is having Lenten soup suppers at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion on the intersection of Lenten themes and immigration. First United Methodist Church is serving Lenten suppers through March 30 at 6 p.m. with a Lenten study following. Anchorage Lutheran Church offers Lenten worship at 7 p.m. with supper at 6 p.m. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church provides a soup supper and fellowship at 5:45 p.m. followed by Holden Evening Prayer worship at 6:30 p.m. Joy Lutheran in Eagle River serves a soup supper at 6:15 p.m. followed by Lenten worship at 7 p.m. Much can be learned from partaking of these simple suppers, and the brief services connected with them. It’s a time for personal growth.

Instead of Lenten suppers and services, local Catholics, focus on the exercising what the Rev. Tom Lily calls the three Ts: “Time, talent, and treasure are common terms we use when talking about being good stewards of all God has entrusted to us. How do we generously give a proportionate amount of our time, talent and material resources back to glorify God through serving our neighbor?”

For example, Lent projects in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Lily is the pastor, address all three T’s by supporting Catholic Social Services’ St. Francis Food Pantry. Each member is encouraged to participate in the Knights of Columbus’ “40 Cans 4 Lent” campaign, where 40 cans of food, one for each day of Lent, are donated. Members also donate funds for perishable dairy, fruits and vegetables. parish members also provide hands-on assistance at St. Francis house, as well as actively advocate support for the federal SNAP program through after-church letter-writing efforts.

Local pastor, the Rev. Rick Benjamin, raised in a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition that didn’t observe Lent calls himself a non-Lenter but connects with the custom of fasting and prayer as performed as Lenten tradition.

“Many important decisions in our church’s history, and in my own life, came out of times of dedicated prayer and fasting,” he said. Rick’s local relationships made him aware of the liturgical calendar and Lent. He became intrigued, saying, “Lent was similar to fasting, sort of an extended semifast, and a time of self-denial and preparation for Resurrection Sunday.” His experience with Lent has been positive. He points out, “I have benefited from Lent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other ‘non-Lenters’ like me out there, I suggest you give Lent a try.”

My tradition was also a non-Lent observing one. Over the years, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve been exposed to this meaningful time of the church year dedicated to self-examination and rethinking one’s relationship with God. The music I hear in Lent-observing churches during this time becomes more thoughtful and intense. Like Benjamin, I encourage you to explore Lent, by attending any of the church activities I’ve noted above. I think you’ll be glad you went.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Ash Wednesday and Lent open the door to sustaining spiritual practices

My first Ash Wednesday service was in Chicago, some 45 years ago. In a new career position, I’d just been trained by someone who’d formerly followed my beliefs, but had discovered the joys of being Episcopalian. Jack, who enjoyed shocking me with belief practices foreign to my way of thinking, encouraged me to join him for Ash Wednesday services at a large Episcopal church. I was invited to receive the imposition of ashes, but, overwhelmed by the music, liturgy and unfamiliar practice, declined, unable to grasp it all.

Since then, I’ve received the ashes and over time, this spiritual practice became very important to me. The service marks the beginning of Lent, and focuses worshippers on Lent’s meaning and relationship to  Easter. Ash Wednesday falls 40 days, plus six Sundays (nonfast days) before Easter, a period based in part on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Services draw on Genesis 3:19, God’s statement to Adam and Eve about the consequences of their sin.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, based on that Scripture verse and traditionally spoken by clergy, as ashes are traced in the form of a cross on one’s forehead. Traditionally ashes were made from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds  (now they’re often purchased from religious supply stores). Lent is a time for prayer, meditation, reflection, repentance, redirection and sometimes fasting, which culminates in Easter. It can be a solemn time for refocusing one’s life.

Some churches offer Lenten services during the week; Sunday sermons focus on Lenten topics. If you don’t have a regular church home, a quick Internet search will turn up many local services. Churches offering Ash Wednesday and Lenten services mainly include Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran. Some Baptist churches are adopting Lenten practices. A North Carolina Baptist Convention article, “Why the Baptist Church Should Celebrate Lent,” is useful, offering ideas for making Lent meaningful. Author Kenny Lamm writes, “In my opinion, unless we truly experience Lent, Easter is not nearly as great a celebration, but for many who have never been exposed to the ‘real’ church calendar, the idea may seem somewhat foreign.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church offers a similar perspective on Lent. “There are many ways of looking at Lent. One is to view it as a spiritual journey into the wilderness,” he said. “The image works well here in Alaska; we are very familiar with going into the actual wilderness. We also know the importance of getting prepared. Few people would head into the Alaskan wilderness without a tent or a sleeping bag or bug dope or food, etc. How you prepare will be determined by the terrain where you are going and the length of the trip. It’s the same with Lent. The time to start preparing is now, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday. The two themes or goals of Lent are repentance/conversion and preparation for the celebration of baptism. We prepare to pursue these goals by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I usually ask folks to plan to do something significant in each of these three areas. It’s also important to remember the essential connection between fasting and almsgiving. Whatever you are abstaining from, you are supposed to take the money you would have spent on that and give it to the poor. Fasting without almsgiving is called a ‘diet’ and is of limited spiritual or practical benefit.”

Consider adopting a practice during Lent to grow as a Christian. Lax in Scripture study? Consider renewing this life-giving habit. Never fed the hungry or visited prisoners? Many church-led opportunities here can help. Need a break from the constancy of your electronic life? One day per week respite, shutting everything down, might be perfect for you. Sound a bit like Sabbath? Maybe it is, i.e. a cessation of all work for an entire 24-hour day. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Lent could establish some significant change in your life.

As in years past, a group of local Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, to impose ashes upon request. One of those pastors, the Rev. Martin Eldred, says, “It gets us out of our comfort zones. Ash Wednesday in church is easier to set up; you wait for people to come. But taking ashes to the people is very visible; it’s good to shake up complacency and bring the Gospel to the people.”

“Taking ashes into Town Square Park and the downtown area reminds everyone we meet that we’re in the same human boat together,” says another Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour. “We are of the same dust and we are destined for the same end. Church buildings (and, sometimes, church leaders) can be barriers. Out in the open, we are there for conversation, for prayers, and for the reminder that we are all dust-made by God, loved by God, returning to God one way or another.”

These pastors aren’t proselytizing, but serving God’s children, reminiscent of the work of Sara Miles, director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. In her book “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” Sara tells of taking ashes to the people on Ash Wednesday.

“God meets God’s people all over the place: by the side of a lake, in a city square, an upstairs room, a manger, a burning bush, a human body,” she told National Catholic Reporter. “The idea that liturgy should only happen inside church buildings is fairly recent: in fact, faith is practiced everywhere, in homes and public places as well as in temples. Taking ashes outdoors is just one example of contemporary worship beyond the building: you could also look at street churches, unhoused congregations, outdoor processions and vigils.”

I encourage you to explore Lent and its many meanings.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

A fresh look at the ancient tradition of Epiphany

As I write this column, it’s Epiphany, a holiday on traditional church calendars that I’d never previously observed — though for most of my life I understood its meaning. Epiphany celebrates the visit by the Magi, or wise men, to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, a story told in Matthew 2.

Although the gifts of the Magi tend to be linked by popular custom to Christmas, it has little to do with that tradition. The Magi traveled to Jerusalem led by a star. Seeking King Herod, they asked (as rendered the New International Version): “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Herod did not know to whom they were referring and inquired of the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law what this meant. He was told the Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem. Asking when they first saw the star, he was told the exact time. The Magi were asked to report back to Herod after finding the child. The star led them to Jesus’ house, where they bestowed upon him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they’d brought him. Not returning to Herod, they returned home by another way after being warned in a dream.

Searching for Anchorage Epiphany services, I located only two references, both Episcopalian. When I asked the Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Parish about Roman Catholic Epiphany services, he replied, “Epiphany is celebrated in varying ways in various places. In the western states, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on the second Sunday after Christmas. In other, less secular places, it is celebrated on Jan. 6, the traditional 12th Day of Christmas. In the Eastern Church, its celebration corresponds with our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.”

I attended two Epiphany services Wednesday, a personally enriching experience. The first service was held at noon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church downtown. Though sparsely attended, it offered a rich liturgy. It seemed strange to be attending church on a midweek day. The liturgy, primarily spoken without singing was led by the Rev. Katherine Hunt from Christ Church Episcopal. Her brief extemporaneous homily underscored the meaning of the arrival of the Magi and its significance for Christians, mentioning that many of us go home another way after meeting Jesus. The Eucharist service followed, after which a healing prayer was individually offered by her for those remaining at the communion rail to receive it, a Wednesday tradition at All Saints.

An evening service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church capped my Epiphany day. The service was more heavily attended than I anticipated. From beginning to end, the service was warm and welcoming. Rector Michael Burke explained various aspects of the service to keep all worshippers, especially guests, comfortable. Few local churches exhibit the practical hospitality I’ve observed at this fine church. Burke made sure members from another church that use St. Mary’s facilities weekly were welcome, along with other guests.

I was surprised to find the Rev. Martin Eldred — who pastors Joy Lutheran Church in Eagle River — had been invited to deliver the homily. (Lutheran and Episcopal churches enjoy a full communion relationship, where each can officiate in the other’s churches.) Martin’s extemporaneous homily began in Old Testament times when, post-exile, Jews rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and created purity laws that were driving people away. He fast-forwarded to the New Testament, which found the people of Israel under the yoke of Roman oppression, yearning for the king foretold in Isaiah. Eldred described the shepherds, who celebrated the birth of Jesus, as being social outcasts. Later, the Magi came, found the young Jesus, and brought him their gifts. The embracing message of these foreigners visiting Jesus was that other cultures recognized the significance of his birth, coming to pay royal homage to him.

Walsh says we can draw two lessons from the visitation of the Magi: “First, like the Magi, one has to be looking for Christ in order to perceive him. Faith is about relationships. When our relationships are rightly ordered, then we can see God is at work. If not, then it is unlikely that we ever will. Second, we often want to understand everything all at once. But life and God’s plans unfold slowly. Life is a journey, and one for which we don’t have a map. Rather, the spirit is more like a GPS, which barks out one instruction at a time.”

Celebrating Epiphany, I found new meaning in the gospel narrative of the Magi. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his poem Epiphany, writes in part, “Give us the imagination like theirs to go home by another route on the path where foolishness is wisdom and weakness is strength and poverty is wealth. Make our new foolishness specific that the world might become — through us — new.”

It’s unfortunate that more local churches, which tend to pull out the stops for Christmas, don’t incorporate the lessons of Epiphany at this time of year, underscoring the universality of the gospel.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Ash Wednesday, Lent are growing more popular – 2/14/15

Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, has traditionally been observed by mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. Other churches have now begun to observe this ancient practice. Many scholars and biblical historians trace Ash Wednesday and Lent to the 10th century. While it is not biblically designated, neither are Easter and Christmas, though most Christian traditions observe those holidays.

On Ash Wednesday — which falls on Feb. 18 this year — clergy apply ashes in the shape of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, intoning “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” from Genesis 3:19, or something similar. This reminds us of man’s ultimate fate without forgiveness. The 40-day period of Lent then begins, ending on Holy Saturday (April 4 this year). Lent is observed as a time for reflecting on our spiritual condition, foreshadowing Easter, which signifies forgiveness.

Many local churches offer Ash Wednesday services to observe the beginning of Lent. ADN’s Matters of Faith notices (below) mention some, while a simple Google search reveals many others. Use search terms “2015 Anchorage Ash Wednesday.”

Ash Wednesday innovations

Some local pastors have begun a wonderful practice of taking the ashes to the people. Several Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park to apply ashes to the foreheads of those who desire them. Other clergy take ashes to the people, notably the Rev. Sara Miles, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco, whose experiences are described in her book “City of God.” (You can see an interview here at tinyurl.com/mwdgx2y.)

Christ United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, offers drive-thru ashes with “Ashes to Go,” moving an activity of the church to where the people are. This is a most basic Christian concept. Didn’t Christ minister to the people where they were? I encourage this concept for Anchorage.

I was intrigued by an account by Richard Beck, chair of Abilene Christian University’s Psychology Department, of an initial celebration of Ash Wednesday last year. ACU is a conservative school of the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist denomination. In response to my amazement, Beck said, “There are a lot of CoC congregations that are exploring Lent and the liturgical calendar. It’s an increasingly common thing in our denomination.”

Rabbit Creek Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, will celebrate Ash Wednesday for the first time with services at 6:30 p.m. They join a growing number of Baptist churches embracing this meaningful practice.

Muldoon Community Assembly, an Assemblies of God Church, will be imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday. Pastor Kent Redfearn said, “Very few AG churches give Ash Wednesday and Lent any consideration. I like the symbolism and practice of repentance, abstinence, fasting and prayer, so we dabble in both Ash Wednesday and Lent.”

Traditionally, Lent has been seen as a time of giving up certain things. Some pastors now encourage congregations to adopt something new during this period of reflection, such as volunteering, spending more time with family, or renewing prayer life.

Orthodox Lenten practices differ from Western Christianity

The three Orthodox traditions in Alaska follow Eastern Christianity practices. For example, the Rev. Vasili of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox advises they do not observe Ash Wednesday but that Great Lent begins on Monday, Feb. 23 or Sunday evening with “Vespers of Forgiveness — in which all the members of the parish greet each other to ask, and to grant, forgiveness for all the ways that we have ‘missed the mark’ (Greek word for ‘sin’ means to miss the mark) in the previous year. We ask for forgiveness not only for the things that have directly affected others, but also for our sins that indirectly affect the entire cosmos.”

Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey said, “Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition has six weeks and five Sundays, and Holy Week is in addition to this fast and is considered a separate fast of its own. Since there are 42 days in the six weeks, we drop off the first Sunday, which is called forgiveness Sunday and all the faithful gather to begin Lent in the afternoon by asking each other for mutual forgiveness. We greet each other with the phrase, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ and we reply, ‘God forgives, and so do I.’ Or something similar. (Actually the phrase ‘God forgives’ is sufficient). We also drop off the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which is observed as ‘Lazarus Saturday’ in the Orthodox Church, a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, and the fasting is relaxed on this day.”

The Rev. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River says they follow the same basic practices described above.

Local Catholic practices support the faith

Archbishop Roger Schwietz offered his insights about Ash Wednesday. “The imposition of ashes on the forehead seems to speak powerfully to people today and is very popular. It reminds all of the temporary nature of our life on this earth and is perhaps more relevant in a world filled with insecurity. This is true even for young adults. We have a group of students at UAA who are organizing a service on campus, at which I will preside at 2 p.m. on Ash Wednesday.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh, of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, says his parish has embraced the “New Evangelization” movement by focusing on “whole community catechesis” “to evangelize and form disciples for witness in the community.” He further notes Ash Wednesday and Lent provide opportunities “to educate and celebrate this holy season of 40 days so that we will be prepared for the celebration of the Resurrection.”

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his book “Remember You Are Dust,” writes, “Our life is a gift from God. We are dust, we are creatures. And God remembers that. We need to be humble, and yet at the same time remember that God remembers our creatureliness and gives us grace and love and forgiveness. We are dust, our lives are not our own, we serve a greater power.”

I strongly believe Ash Wednesday and Lent can help to focus our minds on a deeper understanding of the riches that culminate in Easter’s celebration.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits. Contact him at churchvisits@gmail.com.

The Rev. Norman Elliott, an Alaska clergy legend, turns 96 on Monday – 1/31/15

National data indicate the average tenure of a pastor is between three and four years. Many pastors retire in their 60s and 70s. One local pastor clearly beats these norms. The Rev. Norman Elliott, who is still going strong, turns 96 on Monday.

During my first 10 years in Anchorage, I didn’t know of Elliott. This changed in 2010, when Mark Lattime was consecrated as the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. A clergy friend invited me to the post-consecration banquet that evening. The Rev. Norman Elliott was the master of ceremonies, regaling attendees with humor, narratives of the history and growth of the Episcopal Church in Alaska and many introductions. Since then, I’ve talked with him after services at All Saints Episcopal Church in downtown Anchorage. Each time, he shared thoughts about religion and insights into the history of this wonderful church. Recently he gave insights about the wonderful Kimura-designed stained glass in All Saints.

In 2013, 25 years after his official retirement from All Saints, he was thrust back into a leadership role when their rector abruptly left. Currently he serves as priest-in-charge until a new rector is selected. But that’s not all. He is a volunteer chaplain, making almost daily visits to all local hospitals, some resulting in long stints through the night. Elliott is regularly asked to speak to civic groups about his life and experiences in Alaska.

Born in England, he and his family moved to Detroit when he was four. A lifelong Anglican, he made a momentous decision when a middle school teacher pressed him to make a career choice so he could guided into the appropriate high, commercial or technical school. Indecisive, but pressured to decide quickly, he decided one night to choose the ministry. At once he was at peace. After serving as a commissioned officer during World War II, another source of marvelous stories, Elliott finished college. Then it was on to Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal institution, whose primary focus then was training missionaries.

During his final year, his VTS homiletics professor assigned a project researching the life of a famous preacher. Uncharacteristically, for that professor, he suggested Elliott write about World War I English chaplain Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. Elliott feels this was a life-changing experience, especially Studdert-Kennedy’s poetry, which he often recites while telling this story and in his homilies. Elliott is especially taken with “Indifference,” “Woodbine Willie” and “The Sorrow of God.” He credits Studdert-Kennedy with shaping his theology and approaches to people. Graduating in 1951 from VTS with a master of divinity degree, Elliott was ordained a deacon of the Episcopal faith.

Elliott had a burning desire to go to India to serve as a missionary, but no positions were open. Consequently, he accepted a position to go to Alaska, arriving in 1951. Initially serving at St. Mark’s Church in Nenana, he was ordained a priest in 1952, and has served as a priest, rector or archdeacon since.

Dr. Loren Jensen, a longtime member of All Saints, gives the Rev. Elliott this tribute: “I am more than a little biased toward the guy. He is as unique as Alaska itself. Where else would you find a priest that used to fly his bush plane and run a dog sled team to minister to congregations in the villages? He then settled down in Anchorage to be the rector of the oldest Episcopal church in Anchorage, and served his congregation for 27 years until he reached mandatory retirement at age 70. That was 25 years ago.

“Unable to do something as quotidian as retirement, he felt the call to step back into the pulpit when an interim leader was needed for All Saints. That was a year and a half ago. He has been our full-time pastor since then.”

One cannot talk about Elliott’s ministry long without hearing flying stories. In order to get around in the territory he served, he learned to fly and flew until he was transferred to Ketchikan in 1958. The airplane was a tremendous asset to his work. Elliott has pastored at St. Mark’s Church in Nenana, St. Stephen’s Church in Fort Yukon, St. Matthew’s Church in Fairbanks, St. John’s Church in Ketchikan and All Saints Church in Anchorage. He also served as archdeacon of the Interior Deanery in Fairbanks, and currently serves as archdeacon of the South Central Alaska Deanery.

As he is a volunteer hospital chaplain, I was curious as to his experience with death. Elliott says dying people he’s been with have settled faiths and are ready for the next phase of their journey. Deathbed confessions? No, he’s never heard one.

Asked about major village issues, Elliott feels key ones are suicide, alcohol and bringing people to faith. He recounted a village story in which a wife shot her husband. He was taken to the airport to be medevacked to Fairbanks. The Wien plane was in, unloading a major shipment of alcohol. It wouldn’t leave until the alcohol was all unloaded. The man died on the runway.

Asked when Jesus will return, he responded, “Jesus talked of an immediate return. So did the apostle Paul. All I know, it’s in God’s hands.” Asked about changes he’d like to see in religion, he said, “I’d like to see more witness of the faith by clergy and parishioners.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh, pastor of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, offered an explanation of Elliott’s secret. “Father Elliott is one of those unique pastoral personalities that, when he speaks to you, makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world at that time. He gives you all of his attention, not just part of it. In this way, he is a perfect reflection of the God who calls us each by name and loves us individually. You don’t just know Father Elliott, you are known by him, and that makes all the difference.”

Elliott is a major spiritual force in our community. The Episcopal Church today has its critics, but All Saints’ members and its leaders, Elliott and the Rev. David Terwilliger, are jewels in our community. I praise God for Elliott’s service. If you’re a person of faith, pray that God will strengthen him and keep him in the palm of His hand. Thank you for your 64 years of godly service, Elliott.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

Blessing can be a beautiful gesture – 8/30/14

Last week’s pictures Erik Hill took of Father Leo Walsh blessing a float plane flooded my mind with the many kinds of blessings we Alaskans are fortunate to have offered on our behalf, or things we consider important in our lives. This week I’ve been thinking about blessings, both those offered by clergy and the kind we bestow to others our lives may touch.

In my contact with churches and clergy recently, I’ve been touched by the blessings I’ve seen given, and saddened by missed blessing opportunities. Some time ago, when meeting with Father Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Parish, I asked him about blessings. He said, with a twinkle in his eye, “We Catholics bless everything.” Later, Father Leo offered this reflection.

“A blessing is a way of reminding us that God is present to every aspect of human existence. In the life of the Church we sanctify (​bless​) three things​:​
* people​, such as clergy, married couples, consecrated religious, etc.;
* time, holy hours, holy days, such as Sunday​s, Christmas, Easter (that’s where the word “holiday” comes from);
* places, such as churches, shrines, cemeteries, and homes.​

​“In addition we bless various objects for prayerful devotion such as rosaries, crucifixes, medals of saints, holy water, etc. We also bless various items for daily use such as tools, boats and fishing gear, and of course, aircraft. When blessing an aircraft (or any means of transportation) the priest asks for God’s protection on those who will use it.

“When a new family moves into the parish, I am often asked to bless the house they live in. This makes sense because the Church exists in its most basic form at home in the life of the family. Thus, it makes sense to bless the home as the sacred place where the domestic Church lives out its primary existence.”

 “A most touching blessing story happened a couple of years ago when I blessed Scott Janssen’s dogs before he ran the Iditarod. You may recall that was the year when one of his dogs collapsed and he revived it with mouth to mouth resuscitation. Scott said that there was just something that would not let him give up on that dog. Perhaps the blessing at the start was part of the mix.”

Recently, I’ve spent considerable time with Orthodox Christians in Alaska. As a result, I’ve come to respect their beliefs and traditions. I asked Father Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River for his perceptions about blessings. Here’s his response:

 “There are many blessings prayers in Orthodoxy. These are found in our ‘Book of Needs’ or in Greek, ‘Euchologion.’ The idea is that every part of a Christian life — everything, every event, every deed — is to be offered to God and filled with His grace. Special prayers of blessing can be requested by people according to what the people are used to. For example the beekeeper in our parish often asks one of our priests to bless the hives at the beginning of the season. At Transfiguration you saw the blessing of grapes, traditionally done on this day. But all Orthodox especially enjoy the Blessing of Homes following the Feast Day of Epiphany (or Theophany) which is celebrated on January 6. This Feast Day remembers Christ’s Baptism. At this service Water is blessed and then the church building and the people are blessed with it. In the weeks following the priest brings this same water into every home of the Church and the family and the priest say and sing prayers together while they go from room to room sprinkling the holy water.”

I grew up in a home where we followed the example of our parents and said a blessing before each meal, thanking God for the food and asking for his blessing upon it. Many Christian families have fallen away from this habit but it sets a powerful example for our children and is passed from generation to generation. Often, when eating in public, folks are embarrassed by doing so in an open manner, but why?

Pastor Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church traditionally ends his services with the following blessing: “Lord, I want to pray a blessing over every person here, every man, woman and child. I pray Your grace would rest upon them, and that they would feel Your presence in their lives. Give them wisdom so that they can make good decisions and wise choices, keep them safe and bring them safely back to us. And in Your name I pray, amen.” Mather notes if he doesn’t pray this prayer, people tell him they really like this prayer of blessing and want him to continue.

St. John UMC choir has a beautiful tradition at the conclusion of each practice. Each member stands facing the rest of the group and sings: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace, and give you peace; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you, be gracious; the Lord be gracious, gracious unto you.” It’s sung a cappella and gives one shivers. It’s based on Judeo-Christian blessings found in Numbers 6:24-26 (RSV).

Regardless of our individual religious traditions, blessings form an important glue in binding us to God and to one another. Every faith has them. Incorporate them in your life and you will be blessed.

Original ADN Article

Lenten Reflections: A Catholic Perspective

As part of an ongoing series of Lenten Reflections, I asked Fr. Leo Walsh, Pastor of St. Benedicts Parish, to share his thoughts. He kindly pointed me to his brief Ash Wednesday homily which can be heard, in its entirety, by clicking here .

Father Leo presents a clear, Catholic perspective on Lent in this homily which is delightfully introduced by his recounting the Irish joke below.

There was an Irishman in Dublin, which you’ll find a lot of Irishmen there I’m told. And he walked into the pub one evening, and he walked up to the bartender and he says, “I’ll have 3 Guinness” and the bartender says “sure”.

So the bartender pours 3 of them, and he takes about 7 minutes to pour Guinness, you know, properly, and then he notices the fellow does something particular and he goes over by himself to a table. He puts 2 on the other side of the table and 1 in front of himself and takes a sip of 1, and then the other, and he continues this pattern until all 3 are complete and then he goes up to the bartender again, and he says “I’ll have 3 more Guinness”.

And the bartender says, “Sure! I can pour them individually… that way they’ll be fresh.”

The guy says, “Oh no, you don’t understand”, he says. “ I’ve got a brother in America, and a brother in Australia. We used to come here when we were lads, and uh, and this is my way of remembering them.”

He says, “Ah, grand, you’ll have them.” So he gives them the 3. And this goes on for several months.

And finally one day, the fellow comes in, kind of a hang-dog look on his face, and he says, “I’ll have 2 Guinness.”

The guy looks at him with that sad face and says, “Ach, you’ll have them, and with my sympathies.”

He says, “What’ya mean?”

He says, “Well, I can only assume that one of your brothers has died.”

He says, “Oh no, that’s for me. I gave up Guinness for Lent”.

Thanks to you Father Leo for sharing your excellent Lenten thoughts with Church Visits readers.

Enjoyable St. Benedict’s Visit

I’ve visited many of Anchorage’s Catholic churches, but don’t visit as often as I should. This is due, in part, to the fact my religious orientation is not Catholic, and there are actually relatively few Catholic churches in our area. This is because those churches are intensively used by various age and ethnic groups.

The result is that there doesn’t seem to be as much reason for me to return to experience the various flavors of services offered, and that I can’t fully experience the services in all their differing linguistic forms. So far I’ve visited all but one major Catholic church in the area.

During one of my Bean’s volunteer stints recently, I served lunch with a volunteer group from St. Benedict’s and had an agreeable conversation with them about their church which sparked my interest in visiting.

October 7 found me trudging through the rain from their large parking lot to the sound of a chiming carillon. Entering the church I was not greeted by anyone nor received a bulletin. The church was quite full already with a wide range of ages represented. I proceeded to the front pew, in front of the pulpit and altar. The church has a contemporary feel with beautiful wood accents. It could have been any modern church in Anchorage except for the statuary and stations of the cross around the sanctuary. The altar is beautifully carved with Alaskan scenes tastefully represented. [img_assist|nid=162799|title=St Benedict’s Altar, Podium, & Stained Glass|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

St. Benedict’s pastor is Fr. Leo Walsh. Dressed in green, the color for this period in the church calendar, he gave a friendly greeting to all visitors, even mentioning one by name. It’s amazing how often churches forget to give even such a greeting, a true disservice to their religion, whatever it is.

The theme for the day was Marriage which was preceded by a reading from Genesis regarding Adam and Eve. The homily was delivered by Deacon Green, one of St. Benedict’s two Deacons. He talked about marriage and divorce in Jesus day. His remarks were clear and well-spoken, on a topic few churches these days are brave enough to deal with.

Green threw out several thought questions. First, “How do we value our spouses?” Secondly, “What are we doing in this parish to support marriage?” Deacon Green’s remarks were clear and well-spoken. He also mentioned that the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, was convening a conference on October 11 (50th Anniversary of Vatican II) with regard to Catholics sharing their faith. He challenged those present to be able answer the question, “Why are you Catholic?”. Deacon Green’s homily can be heard by clicking HERE.

The music at St. Benedict’s is augmented by organ, piano, and choir, all positioned in mid-sanctuary, a most pleasing effect. The choir special was beautiful, accompanied by piano and a vocal solo.

The Eucharist took approximately one-half of the service time with its various readings and rituals. During Fr. Leo’s celebration of the Eucharist, his singing parts and chants were rendered in a clear mellifluous voice, a real treat compared to other Catholic services I’ve attended locally. During the actual serving of the Eucharist many in the congregation waited to be served by Fr. Leo instead of the lay servers. The service was quiet and respectful except for a number of crying children present who might have been more comfortable in the cry room. For whatever reason their parents chose not to use it resulting in a quite noisy sanctuary at times.

At the end of the service I almost fainted when Fr. Leo gave another warm welcome to all guests adding his hope that we had been blessed by attending. This is such a rare occurrence by clergy in their churches. I’m overjoyed just to note it. It sure felt good!

If you are of the Catholic persuasion and looking for a church, treat yourself to a visit to St. Benedict’s. Something wonderful is working here and is worth seeing first-hand. I hope to feature Fr. Leo Walsh in an interview in the not-too-distant future. Finally, their website is fully functional and a treat to look at. It offers those critical items prospective guests or members need and is developed and maintained by a member.