16 July 2019

Current State of Affairs in Alaska

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

When I was in the 4th grade in 1974, I wrote a book report on Alaska. I was deeply fascinated by the wilderness, wildlife, richness of natural resources, and indigenous peoples who had inhabited that land for hundreds of years. This drew me to read more stories about the souls whose thirst for adventure had led them to make the trek to the far north.

Eventually, this fascination led me and a friend to drive from Michigan to Alaska two days after my high school graduation in 1982. Some longtime family friends in Palmer graciously put us up and helped us find work at a fish processing plant in Valdez. As a young man, working 12+ hours a day and living in a tent (with almost daily rain) just seemed like an expected and normal part of our Alaskan venture.

 I noticed Alaskans had that “farming toughness,” as we call it in the Midwest--an unrelenting work ethic, willingness to embrace nature’s challenges, and a resolve to survive in the worst of conditions. Most “cheechakos,” however, only needed to observe the Native Alaskans’ way of life to know they could not survive in this vast state without helping one another. There was--and still is--an incredible generosity among Alaskans, who don’t hesitate to reach out to neighbors, providing food, tools, or other assistance to help each other survive in this rugged land.

Back then, the summer of 1982 passed quickly, and I soon had enough money to return to Michigan and pay for my first year at the local community college. As I departed this beautiful state, I never thought I would be back permanently. Then the U.S. Air Force assigned me to Eielson Air Force Base in 2012 and I again saw that same dichotomy in Alaskans--a toughness that was tempered by a deep compassion for others. Of course, assignment was extended when God used Pope Francis to appoint me bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks in 2014. It is hard to believe this December will mark five years as your shepherd.

In the past few years, I have traveled to nearly every corner of this vast diocese, including most of the native villages where our rural parishes are located. I have been kindly welcomed time and again by Native people and other Alaskans I now call true friends. There is a resilience, will to survive, and deeply-rooted cultural tradition among our Native brothers and sisters that has sadly not always been honored by the Church. As a people, they have endured far worse than state budget cuts and we would do well to emulate their steadfastness and faith in the face of adversity.

It seems inevitable that Alaskans will soon face major reductions in state funding that will eliminate services and jobs in charitable organizations and the University of Alaska. The careers and lives of many residents are being deeply affected and many difficult adjustments will be necessary. As Bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks, I wish to offer spiritual support to those affected. With no intention to re-debate what has happened, I simply ask all Catholics to join with me in praying for and offering practical assistance to those most affected.

First and foremost, the Catholic Church offers her prayers for all Alaskans. The founders of our nation frequently called upon Divine Providence and believed life’s trials can stimulate virtues and curb vices. I believe that, too, and am encouraged by the unity I have witnessed among people from all walks of life. People are thoughtfully considering what truly matters and expressing their hopes for our state. While they may have different ideas about how to build a just and prosperous society, many at least are still able to maturely acknowledge that they share the same goal.

The Catholic Church also has a special relationship with the university system. The modern university grew out of the Church and both pursue truth using their own proper methods. I would like to see our local churches renew and strengthen ties with the university community in Fairbanks. In August, Fr. Robert Fath, a graduate of UAF, will return from Washington, D.C., where he has been studying for his canon law degree at Catholic University. Once home, he will take on duties as the Catholic chaplain at UAF. If budget cuts reduce the educational offerings at the University of Alaska, I hope our best minds can find a way to make the Catholic intellectual tradition available to students and scholars in another capacity. Finally, I look forward to offering a gold Mass for all UAF’s students, faculty, staff, administrators, and supporters.

For more than a century, from the founding of Fairbanks, the Catholic Church has been committed to serving the spiritual and practical needs of the people in northern Alaska. The Church has been a beacon of stability in boom times, financial depressions, war, and political upheavals and she will be for the current crisis, too. I ask Catholics in our diocese to recommit to praying for our community, trusting in Providence, and helping their neighbors. Yes, living in Alaska affords us the freedom to practice our religion freely in one of the most beautiful places on earth. But we must respond to these challenges with a united resilience that reflects our commitment to honor the sacred dignity of every person. We are all children of God, so let us work together honoring what God has provided by building up the human family.

Sincerely in Christ,

†Most Reverend Chad W. Zielinski
Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska
Diocese of Fairbanks


File: Current State of Affairs in Alaska, 16 July 2019.pdf