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For the first time in 20 years, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been appointed a bishop.
On Oct. 19, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, announced that Pope Benedict XVI had chosen Father Paul D. Etienne, pastor of St. Paul Parish in Tell City, to become the new bishop of Cheyenne, Wyo. He will be ordained a bishop on Dec. 9 in Cheyenne. (Related story: Father Paul Etienne appointed new bishop of Cheyenne)
The day after the announcement, Bishop-designate Etienne, still in Cheyenne after meeting with the diocese’s pastoral staff and local members of the media, spoke with The Criterion in a telephone interview.
Q. I understand you learned about the appointment a couple of weeks ago.
A. [I learned about it on] Monday, Oct. 5.
Q. What was that like for you?
A. Well, it was bizarre. I don’t know what else to say. Archbishop Sambi called the office at the parish and it was my day off. We had to play phone tag. I was up at the [family] farm with a chain saw, working in the woods. And, when he called, I was just getting out of my pickup truck.
I was in my Carhart jeans and in my work boots, and had nothing to take notes with. I was just sitting there in my truck listening to him tell me that I’ve just been named [a] bishop. And he had to say ‘Cheyenne’ four times before I could understand what he was saying.
I still just can hardly believe it. It’s a very unusual experience. What can I say?
Q. I understand that you could not speak about the appointment until just shortly before you left for Cheyenne. That must have been difficult.
A. It was very difficult. I was just an emotional wreck Saturday night [Oct. 17] during Mass at Tell City. I just really had a difficult time getting through the eucharistic prayer and the rest of Mass. I’m sure the whole congregation was wondering, ‘What is wrong with him?’
And then I left from Mass to go out to tell Mom and Dad because I was leaving town on Saturday night. While I was there, we called the rest of my brothers and sisters.
It was very emotional: lots of joy, but also the sorrow of knowing that there was going to be a greater separation now between us. I was filled up with emotion. And I still am. I still have a little emotion each day, kind of being a little overwhelmed with it all.
Q. How does the phone call from Archbishop Sambi represent a point in your life after which everything changes?
A. There’s a liturgical song called ‘Canticle of the Turning.’ It’s a song [about] Mary. And the refrain of it [says], ‘The world is about to turn.’ That hymn was in my mind for the next two days after I got that phone call.
That phrase sums it up. My world turned with that one phone call.
Q. Does it bring into a different perspective the idea that, ultimately, when you’re ordained a deacon you’re not your own man at that point?
A. I was telling the [Diocese of] Evansville seminarians when I gave them a retreat this summer, ‘Guys, our lives are not our own. Our lives belong to Christ. Our lives belong to the Church. And we have to keep praying for the freedom that we need to be who the Lord needs us to be, to go where the Lord needs us to go, and to say what the Lord longs for us to say on his behalf.’
And now, as I got this phone call and made this journey to Wyoming, it’s just all the more clear and evident that my life is not my own anymore. I will now have someone else keeping my calendar and telling me where to go. It is no longer my own. It’s more and more the Church’s.
But the theological understanding of the bishop is that it’s the fullness of the priesthood. And that’s what all this emotion translates to for me. It’s almost like a physical pouring in of the grace and the fullness of that spirit of this office of bishop. I feel it in an almost physical way.
That’s what this abiding sense of peace is all about [that I had] yesterday. It’s just the presence of the Spirit and the fullness of God’s presence saying, ‘I am with you. Do not be afraid. I’ll give you the words to speak.’ It’s a physical experience of what this fullness of the priesthood is going to be on that ordination day.
Q. When you have the fullness of the priesthood, you’re being conformed, as much as a man can be conformed, to the fullness of the image of Christ. That, necessarily, means carrying the cross.
Q. I would think that leaving your hometown four months after you began serving as the pastor there would potentially be a heavy cross, at least as you might consider how other people are taking it— your parents and other people that you know there in town.
A. The weekend before … I kind of lost it in my homily. [In the Gospel], Jesus told Peter when he asked, ‘Lord, what’s in it for us? We’ve been following you?’ And [Jesus] says, ‘You, know, Peter, there’s no one who’s left everything behind for my sake that will not receive a hundred-fold more: family, friends, possessions, lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.’
And I can hear that now more with a sense of peace. This is a part of the playing field. There are many blessings. But the cross is right in the middle of everything that is about Jesus Christ. And to ignore that is to be unrealistic. That’s why Jesus was so freely open and speaking about [this] with his Apostles and any Christian that follows him.
So leaving Tell City behind after just arriving there again is a part of the sorrow of this new turning of the world for me. But it doesn’t change the joy that is a part of the call either.
Q. How would you say that your 17 years of priestly ministry in the archdiocese prepared you for the ministry that you’re now being asked to undertake?
A. I think everything I’ve done in my life, plus the 17 years of priesthood, has prepared me to do this. More than anything, what I think it’s done is it’s taught me how to rely upon God’s grace. It’s taught me how we have to be men of faith and men of hope to be good shepherds in the Church, whether that’s as priests or bishops.
It’s a part of that reality, again, of the cross being in the midst of the ministry. Are we going to focus just on the cross? Are we going to focus just on the joys? Or are we going to focus on the reality of it all as a whole?
I think that’s a part of what 17 years of priesthood has been teaching me. The Lord’s in the midst of it all. And we just have to be realistic and embrace the reality.
Q. Are there particular bishops that you have looked up to that might serve as a role model for you as you go forward into this new ministry?
A. I received a tremendous amount of paternal love and support from [the late] Archbishop [Edward T.] O’Meara because I was just a seminarian in those days. He was a real spiritual father to me.
And then, with Archbishop [Daniel M.] Buechlein, he’s been my bishop. And there’s been that fraternal bond between a bishop and his priests that has grown over our 17 years together. He was appointed just a month after I was ordained. I appreciate that relationship that I have with him.
And then Bishop [Robert N.] Lynch in St. Petersburg and I have been friends since he was ‘Father Bob’ [when they worked together at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington in the mid-1980s]. He’s been a model of priesthood and episcopal life from a different vantage point for me.
And I think there’s something to take away from each of the numerous other bishops that I’ve known at one point or another—more before they were ordained bishops than as bishops—and their unique gifts as priests and bishops.
Q. How did you come to choose your motto, “Veritas in Caritate” (“Truth in Love”)?
A. Right, Ephesians 4:15. It’s just been something that’s been very much on my mind. I’ve been making notes in my own journal over the years. This reality of truth, any time the Scriptures speak of truth—it’s just one of those things that captures my mind and my heart and my preaching.
It’s something that I spoke to the seminarians about a lot when I was vocations director and vice rector [of Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis]. [We] can’t beat people over the head with the truth. You have to present the truth with love.
It was a no-brainer with me when this call came. I went immediately to that passage as my motto.
And I think the fact that the pope’s recent encyclical was the inversion of that, “Love in Truth,” was another confirmation to me that this is what it is. I didn’t even think about it [that connection]. That’s just what it was going to be.
Q. What’s going to be happening in the next few weeks before you are ordained a bishop on Dec. 9?
A. The next few weeks are going to be given to my people at home. We’re going to enjoy being together for whatever time we have together now. And that’s parishioners, family and friends. They will be my focus now until I move and begin my ministry here.
Q. Do you have any particular hopes or areas of focus for your episcopal ministry and for the Church in Wyoming as you look forward to being their shepherd?
A. I will continue to be a strong advocate for priests as well as recruiting seminarians. I want to do two [other] things. I want to spend time in each of the deaneries of the diocese to celebrate with the people.
And then I want to spend a good amount of time in the diocese—an evening, an afternoon, a night, a morning—with my priests just so that we can be together and visit. They can share with me what it’s like to be a member of this presbyterate, their hopes and dreams for the future. And after 12 months of listening, then we’ll bring everybody together in a planning process for the future.
Q. You’re quite a hunter as an avocation. It seems like Wyoming would be a hunter’s paradise.
A. It is. Quite honestly, I’m looking forward as much just to hiking and being in the mountains and just being in the beauty of God’s creation out here. The hunting—if that happens—will be great. I just want to enjoy the outdoors more than anything.
Q. You’re going to a diocese that’s even more spread out than the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Is that a daunting task in some way? Or is it something that you just take as it is and you’ll travel wherever God leads you?
A. All you can do is embrace the reality. You can’t change terrain. You can respect it. You have to just embrace it and do the best you can to be in touch with your people and communicate.
But the years of running along I-65 and I-64 back and forth from Tell City to Indianapolis has been a good preparation for this. †