By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
JUNEAU, Alaska — During an emotional evening filled with tears and laughter, hundreds gathered Jan. 19 at St. Paul Catholic Church for Bishop Edward J. Burns’ farewell Mass as their bishop.
In his homily, the Pittsburgh native expressed gratitude to parishioners for his time as their bishop, recalling his trepidation after receiving the Diocese of Juneau as the first assignment of his episcopal ministry.
“It was difficult for me to come here,” Bishop Burns said. “I now stand before you to say it is difficult to leave.”
Despite that difficulty, he said, saying yes to God in any vocation is essential to finding fulfillment and joy. He encouraged those listening to eschew the temptations of the secular world and develop their relationship with God through prayer.
“It’s not easy to reflect the Gospel message in today’s society when there are so many voices out there that are contrary to the Gospel message,” Bishop Burns said. “The challenge is that we stay strong, faithful and close to Jesus Christ. It’s important that we witness to him and we give testimony to him.”
Testimony by example is how parishioner Daniel Piscoya said he was drawn to Bishop Burns, who he credits for accompanying him at a critical moment in his life.
“Being at a secular college as a Catholic, I felt really in combat with the rest of the secular world,” said Piscoya, a student at the University of Alaska Southeast who first encountered Bishop Burns at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013. “His gesture towards me to remember me, to invite me out to dinner, to get to know me, made me remember that I wasn’t alone.”
Neither was Steve Olmstead, who after 16 years as a Presbyterian minister, began feeling the tug to join the Catholic Church. It was Bishop Burns, he said, who served as a gentle guide towards his conversion and his eventual ordination as a deacon.
“He has truly helped to shape me personally,” said Deacon Olmstead, who was ordained by Bishop Burns in 2015. “He shepherded me, was patient with me and encouraged me to continue my journey and get closer and closer to Jesus.”
For Bishop Burns, accompaniment has been a critical component of his priestly ministry.
It’s something he said he tries to drill into the heads and hearts of young seminarians.
“I’ve always told young men that while the seminary will provide them with the necessary dimensions of priestly formation, don’t ever underestimate the formation of the kitchen table,” Bishop Burns said. “It’s when you sit with the people you serve — they truly help instruct you in what it is to be a good pastor or a good shepherd.”
That presence is something Heather Shaw said she will miss.
“I think we kind of take it for granted sometimes,” said Shaw, who now serves as the diocesan youth minister. “But now realizing that he’s going to be gone — I’m really going to miss that loving support and the true shepherd that he is to us.”