By: Bishop Edward J. Burns

This past year I had two significant trips. First, I went to Kraków, Poland for World Youth Day to celebrate with our young people from Alaska the major world gathering of Catholic youth with Pope Francis. It was my first trip to Poland. Secondly, I went on a trip to Mexico City with Deacon Steve Olmstead in order to study Spanish, do mission work with Hope of the Poor, and to renew our Diocesan working relationship with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) to assure their continued work here in Southeast Alaska. But, I did not think I would come back from these trips with a renewed awareness of the sanctity of life and the dignity of every human being.

While in Poland, after World Youth Day, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz concentration camp. As I started to absorb the atrocities that took place there, I raised my iPhone to take a picture of a billboard filled with the faces of Jewish men, women, and children executed in the gas chambers. What was amazing is that the iPhone recognition feature put yellow rectangles around each of
the faces identifying them as human and focusing on them in order to take the picture (many of you may have experienced this feature as you take pictures of someone). It dawned on me that my iPhone recognized they were human but the Nazis did not. It truly caused me to think of the evils that can occur in our society when we do not recognize the sanctity of life.

As the Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau I am heartened by the outreach to the Hispanic community in Juneau at St. Paul the Apostle Church and in Sitka at Saint Gregory’s Parish. In my interaction with the growing Hispanic community, I promised the good people of St. Paul’s that I would celebrate the Mass for them in Spanish by the next celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12); the sad thing is, I told them that two and a half years ago. With regards to my trip to Mexico City with Deacon Steve Olmstead, this trip helped in my attempt to celebrate the Mass in Spanish and grow in my use of the Spanish language as well as grow in understanding their culture in order to better serve
the community here.

Deacon Steve and I stayed with the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. They were most patient with our efforts to celebrate the Mass in Spanish and converse with them. Our efforts were aided by working every morning for three hours with a Spanish professor.

In the afternoon we set out to offer assistance to the missionary works of Hope of the Poor. Prior to the trip I gathered up some decent clothes to give to the homeless we would meet. We visited residents of a shelter for women and their children, met the Missionaries of Charity who operate a soup kitchen, assisted young kids who live on the street, shared a meal with a small group of homeless men who live next to a bridge, and encountered the women who are residents at a state run facility for abandoned women.

There were approximately 375 residents at the facility for abandoned women. Many of the women seemed very distressed and most were suffering from mental illness. The sights, the sounds and the smells of this facility were disturbing. My heart ached for them as I saw the lack of human dignity given them as a number of them were sitting in their own waste.

In my attempt to put on a good face and greet as many as I could, a number of them asked for a blessing. One short woman was so appreciative of my giving her a blessing and laying my hand on her head that she gave me a big hug and buried her head into my chest. It was then that I recognized the food on the front of her was now on the front of me. As she pulled her face away I saw the strings of saliva from her mouth to my clerical shirt. At that moment, I knew that I had to get over it and recognized that I was once again called to stand in persona Christi. I knew that I had been embraced by a child of God in need of His love and compassion. That became for me a liberating moment – and my desire to reach out to them increased.

My heart continued to ache and my prayers in the convent chapel were filled with the images of those I encountered. I raised all of them up in prayer. I prayed that they would be strong, and that God would send his holy angels to watch over them and that men and women of good will would help them.

In our world we see the faces of those who are persecuted or abandoned. Christ calls us to recognize them as being created in the image of God and He blessed them with the gift of life. It is our mission in the Church to uphold the dignity of their lives and safeguard each of them as sacred. As faithful disciples of the Lord, let us always recognize the sanctity of every life, the dignity of every person, and the presence of Jesus Christ in each of them.