‘I’m a pastor at heart’: Introducing Coadjutor Archbishop Paul D. Etienne

Archbishop Paul D. Etienne, who was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Seattle April 29, is pictured at the Pontifical North American College in Rome during a reception after a Vatican Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul June 29, 2017. Archbishop Etienne was among archbishops from around the world to receive their pallium from Pope Francis at the Mass. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring Archbishop Paul D. Etienne, who was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Seattle April 29, is pictured at the Pontifical North American College in Rome during a reception after a Vatican Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul June 29, 2017. Archbishop Etienne was among archbishops from around the world to receive their pallium from Pope Francis at the Mass. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

SEATTLE – Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, was preparing for Holy Week on the morning of Saturday, April 13, when he got a call from the apostolic nuncio to the United States saying that Pope Francis had appointed him coadjutor archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

“To say I was caught off guard would be an understatement,” Archbishop Etienne (pronounced “AY-chin”) told Northwest Catholic. “You just never expect these phone calls.”

Nevertheless, he said, “My answer was immediately to say ‘Yes.’”

In his nearly 27 years as a priest and 10 years as a bishop, he’s learned to trust in God’s providence when the Holy Father asks him to take on a new responsibility, “to follow the Lord to another land.”

“My life is at the service of the church,” he said. “I’m a pastor at heart.”

‘A wonderful shepherd’

Archbishop Etienne’s appointment was announced by the nuncio April 29; a “Rite of Reception” Mass will be celebrated June 7 at St. James Cathedral.

As Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain explained in a letter to the people of the archdiocese, a series of spinal issues prompted him to write to Pope Francis last September requesting the appointment of a coadjutor archbishop, “with a view toward retiring much sooner than typical, because of my health.”

“To say that I am delighted by the Holy Father’s choice would be an understatement,” Archbishop Sartain wrote. “Archbishop Etienne is a wonderful shepherd whose love for the Lord is expressed through a deep life of prayer and devotion to the sacraments, as well as contagious enthusiasm for the proclamation of the Gospel and service to those in need in the name of Jesus.”

As coadjutor, Archbishop Etienne will automatically become the head of the archdiocese when Archbishop Sartain steps down.

“Archbishop Etienne and I will finalize the date later this year on which he will formally succeed me as Archbishop of Seattle,” Archbishop Sartain said.

Archbishop Etienne told Northwest Catholic he’s excited about the transition to Seattle.

“I’ve had great esteem for Archbishop Sartain,” he said. “We’ve known each other since we were priests, before either one of us were ever named bishops, and he’s just a great, great man. And I have no doubt that I’m inheriting a church that’s in fine shape, having been under his guidance.”

Family of faith

Paul Dennis Etienne was born June 15, 1959, in Tell City, Indiana, to a “very Catholic family,” the second son of Paul and Kay Etienne.

His family’s roots in southern Indiana’s Perry County go back generations on both sides, he said. He grew up knowing all his grandparents, “and they were all Catholic.”

“That Catholic heritage has been a tremendous grace and blessing in my life,” he said. One of his aunts is a Benedictine nun; an uncle was a diocesan priest.

“We just had priests and nuns and seminarians in and out of our house as regularly as we had family — and they were family,” he said. “So it’s just no wonder that four out of the six kids in my family chose religious vocations and that the other two have remained as close to the church as they have.”

Two of his brothers, Bernard and Zachary, are priests of the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana. His sister Nicolette is a Benedictine nun at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana.

Answering the call

The future archbishop’s vocation, however, was not a foregone conclusion.

“No, I did not want to be a priest,” he said. “I spent my young adult years fighting a call to priesthood, quite honestly. And it took God a period of years to slam a number of doors in my face to finally point me in his direction.”

After graduating from Tell City High School in 1977, he spent five years managing the local Siebert’s Clothing Store.

“I had my own plan for what my future was going to look like,” he said. “I just wanted to be a self-made businessman. I wanted to be married and have a big family and raise horses and beagles.”

But, he said, “God eventually started stripping away, piece by piece, my dream to replace it with his. And his dream is far better than anything I could have come up with on my own.”

He attended Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky (1983–84); then the University of St. Thomas/St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota (1984–86), graduating with a B.A. in business administration.

After that, he worked for the U.S. bishops’ conference as an assistant coordinator for Pope John Paul II’s 10-day visit to the United States in September 1987.

From 1988 to 1992, he was a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College; he earned a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis on June 27, 1992.

He returned to Rome in 1994, and in 1995 he received an advanced degree in spiritual theology from the Gregorian, where he wrote his thesis on “The Christian Meaning of Suffering in the Writings of St. Catherine of Siena.”

In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Father Etienne served as pastor of several parishes, vocation director, vice rector of Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary and spiritual director of St. Meinrad School of Theology.

He was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, by Pope Benedict XVI on October 19, 2009, and consecrated December 9, 2009.

Pope Francis appointed him archbishop of Anchorage on October 24, 2016, and he was installed November 9, 2016.

‘A much bigger experience of church’

Both Cheyenne and Anchorage are vast, sparsely populated “home mission” dioceses, meaning they require outside help to provide basic pastoral ministries.

The 33 parishes and missions of the Archdiocese of Anchorage are spread over more than 138,000 square miles (more than five times the size of the Archdiocese of Seattle). The estimated Catholic population there — 32,000 — is about 5 percent of Western Washington’s.

So while Archbishop Etienne is a seasoned administrator, taking on the Archdiocese of Seattle will be an adjustment.

“I have no illusions: This appointment is going to require me to learn new ways of leadership. It’s a much bigger experience of church than I’ve ever been a part of.”

Other than flying through SeaTac, Archbishop Etienne has spent little time in Western Washington, so he’s excited to explore the area.

“I love nature, and that’s one part that I’m really looking forward to, with the Cascades and all the other beauty of the waters — it just looks like a beautiful part of God’s creation.”

He added, “I do love to get out and walk the trails, and I’ll be doing a lot of that, I hope, in my first several years.”

‘I love to preach’

Archbishop Etienne will bring a passion for proclaiming the Gospel to the Archdiocese of Seattle.

“The primary place in my ministry as a priest and bishop where I experience the grace of God most is in preaching,” he said.

“I love to preach. I love the challenge. I’m still intimidated by the challenge of preaching. But I’m convinced that, more and more in our world today, our people need to hear the good news of the Gospel. They need to hear of Jesus Christ and the gift of salvation and mercy that he brings to everyone.”

Shortly after becoming a bishop, he started a blog called “Truth in Love” (his episcopal motto, from Ephesians 4:15) as a “virtual pulpit,” and he uses Facebook and Twitter to try to reach more people with the good news.

As online platforms wax and wane in popularity, he said, he’s asking, “Where are people going on social media today that I need to explore as the next frontier for my efforts in the digital world?”

In addition to offering reflections on Scripture, theology and spirituality, Archbishop Etienne has used his blog to address the clergy sex abuse crisis. He is a former member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, and he has been outspoken about the need for greater accountability and transparency.

Last summer, he posted seven proposals “for further study and review,” including updating the Dallas Charter to hold bishops to the same standards as priests, and creating a national review board to handle accusations of abuse against bishops.

As bishop of Cheyenne, he placed restrictions on the public ministry of one of his predecessors, Bishop Joseph Hart, and asked the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate claims that he sexually abused minors.

“I promise the people of God of Seattle that I will continue to be transparent and responsible,” he said.

‘I am who I am by the grace of God’

Archbishop Etienne acknowledged his excitement about his appointment to Seattle is “tinged with mixed emotions” about leaving the people of Anchorage. But wherever the Lord leads him, he is at peace.

He recalled an experience he had during a retreat a few years ago.

“I went to the chapel and opened the Bible, and the very first line in the Letter to the Ephesians says, ‘I, Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.’ And I just shut the Bible. And it’s like, ‘OK, God, you’ve got my attention. I am who I am and where I am solely because of your grace, your call.’

“And so I’ve learned to trust that, and I rest in that when the demands of the office seem to be more than I can handle any given day, or when the decisions that need to be made seem to be more difficult than I can deal with. I just go back to that — that’s my safe base, that’s my orientation, that’s my refuge, that’s my shelter, that’s my strength.

“I am who I am by the grace of God, and that’s all I really need to know, and that’s the true source of any good that I do.”

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.