The 38th Annual Folk Festival in Juneau is an important reminder of how important it is to renew the bonds of community and fellowship. It’s inspiring to see musicians from all over the state who have come here, sometimes at considerable expense and travel time, to be together for a week to generously share their music and themselves with each other and with this community.
Given the great distances and barriers to easy communication that exist in our state and especially in Southeast Alaska, we have to find creative ways to stay connected with each other. In my own case, I am grateful to be able to meet each week over the phone with the priests of the diocese. Every Monday morning we have a half hour conference call during which we pray Morning Prayer together, remembering the sick and those who have died in the parishes and missions throughout our diocese. It is also a time to talk about the joys and the challenges each of us are experiencing in our ministries.
But even (or especially) in this digital age, there is no substitute for face-to face, personal encounters between people. Over the past three years I have been fortunate to be able to visit all but two of our communities (I still need to get to Kake and Angoon). In each place I visited, I stressed the words of Jesus, who said of himself, “I am the vine, you are the branches” to emphasize the close personal bond of love and communion between each of our communities and universal Church, the Body of Christ. For me as a Christian, and from my perspective, personal presence is essential: after all, we believe that in the person of Jesus we come into the very presence of God.
This coming week, with my brother Alaskan bishops, I leave as a pilgrim for Rome on my first ad limina visit. Ad limina, which comes from the phrase, ‘ad limina apostalorum’ literally means, ‘to the threshold of the apostles’. For over a thousand years, Catholic bishops have traveled to Rome to give an accounting of their work in the diocese. First and foremost we will pray at the tombs of the two great witnesses to Jesus, the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. We will also meet with the successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict in recent weeks has also been a pilgrim, traveling first to Mexico and then to Cuba. Although in both countries he met with the political leadership (including Fidel Castro), and even though he is a head of state, his purpose was not really political but pastoral. He traveled across continents and oceans to personally renew and strengthen the bonds of charity and fellowship between Catholics and their fellow citizens in Cuba and Mexico. No doubt, his journey has been an occasion of hope and encouragement for the people of Cuba and Mexico, who face different but equally challenging difficulties.
Since the earliest days of the Catholic Church in Alaska at the time of Bishop Crimont until the present day, the spiritual care of Alaska has been of care and concern by the Holy See. Pope John Paul II visited Alaska twice and Pope Benedict XVI has been invited to visit.
Nevertheless, while in Rome, I will meet with the heads of various Vatican offices and share with them the good work we are trying to do in the Diocese of Juneau and the hopes and challenges that we see for the future. With the Archbishop of Anchorage and the Bishop of Fairbanks, I will personally meet with Pope Benedict XVI, to assure him of our prayers, fidelity and affection for him, and to share with him the work and mission of the Church in Southeast Alaska.
As our meeting takes place during the Easter season, we plan to give him a memento of our regard for him by presenting him with a copy of the Illuminated Easter Proclamation (also known as the Exsultet). This book, which is used once a year at the Easter Vigil, was signed by all the bishops and priests of the state of Alaska at our March convocation in Anchorage. Designed and illustrated by Juneau iconographer Charles Rohrbacher, one of three Catholic deacons in my diocese, it is intended for use throughout the English-speaking world. Yet it is also representative of our home here in Southeast Alaska – the margins of each page are decorated with blueberries, salmonberries, devil’s club and forget-me-nots.
I am looking forward to that face-to-face meeting with the Holy Father. I am also looking forward to my return when I will meet with the good people of Kake and Angoon, and share with them and others in the Diocese the greetings and blessings of Pope Benedict XVI.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.