It may not have been the Deadliest Catch, but Bishop Edward Burns, the Pittsburgher at the helm of the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, certainly had an impressive one. He went fishing with a parishioner from the Knights of Columbus and snagged a 165 pound halibut.
“It took a half hour to pull it up. It was exhilarating. I thought for sure I would find Jonah in there,” said Bishop Burns, 53.
“I love Alaska. It’s adventurous. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. It’s fulfilling,” said Bishop Burns, formerly a diocesan official and seminary rector in Pittsburgh who spent a decade as executive of the U.S. bishops’ office on vocations. He’s been in Juneau since 2009.
His diocese is the size of Florida, but has just 12,500 parishioners. That’s about the same Catholic population as Immaculate Conception parish in Washington, Pa., where he once served, he said. He has nine priests and three permanent deacons.
“We have the best priest-parishioner ratio on the country,” he quipped. “But the challenge is that they are scattered among 1,000 islands in the diocese.”
There are no roads. He travels by plane and ferry.
Realizing that his priests were very isolated from each other, he began a regular Monday morning conference call for morning prayer. Each priest can call in from an 800 number from anywhere in the world. One priest who was released for service as a chaplain in Afghanistan still calls in from there. Another called from the Republic of Congo in Africa.
Bishop Burns, who was on the visitation team that Pope Benedict appointed for Irish seminaries after the sex abuse scandal erupted there last year, called from Ireland. When it was 8 a.,m. in Juneau it was 5 p.m. in Ireland, so he did morning prayer one hour before evening prayer.
The seminary visitation team was led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who has submitted the report to the Vatican. Bishop Burns won’t say anything about the matter other than “The church in Ireland is in need of our prayers.”
Back in Alaska he’s built something of a media presence with a regular column in the Juneau Empire, the major daily newspaper in Alaska’s capital. He also does a lot of radio programming, which is especially important in a state where radio is the most accessible form of mass communication. He’s built an online social network for a diocesan youth group, and is looking at conducting future training for permanent deacons via Skype.
Of all that he has accomplished, he may be proudest of a pastoral letter, “Strengthening the Church through a Strong and Holy Presbyterate,” which is about the priesthood. It is unique in that it was signed not only by him, but by every priest of the diocese.
“It is the first pastoral letter in the history of the church in the United States that is from the entire presbyterate,” he said, adding that he checked with a prominent church historian to make sure that was correct.
The letter, he said, is part of a continuing response to the sex abuse scandals.
“It is only through good, holy priests that the church can thrive,” he said.