By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published October 9, 2008
I was on a recent flight from Washington, D.C., to Chicago when a lady in the seat in front of me turned around and remarked, “You’re that bishop aren’t you?” Well, I was wearing my collar, and I did look the part. She told me that she recognized me from television and was very happy to meet me. We completed our flight, and as we were de-planning, I asked what was her home diocese. She replied, “I’m just a Catholic!”
There was not time to continue our conversation, but I thought about her response for most of the rest of that day. “I am just a Catholic!”
There are no such people as “just a Catholic.” We all belong to some parish, diocese or community. One may be an active Catholic, an occasionally practicing Catholic, or an inactive Catholic. I am sure she must have thought that her name and background were irrelevant, but I can’t dismiss our conversation from my thoughts. I have had similar experiences in the past with people that I have met. Catholics belong to parishes or worshiping communities in a given location—and they have names and backgrounds—even if they don’t care to reveal them to itinerant bishops.
Parishes are the places where most Catholics find and practice their faith. These communities are near “the top of the pastoral food chain” when it comes to importance in the lives of our people. Parishes are the locations where most of us live out our Catholicism. Bishops should never forget that fact—and we usually don’t.
Our services at the Chancery must be geared to building up, assisting and serving the needs of our parishes. Parishes, in turn, must also remember that they belong to a larger community of Faith in the local churches wherein they are located and to the universal Church that embraces believers throughout the world—and in the world to come!
During the past two years as we have been engaged with our strategic planning process, a recurrent theme has been that of focusing the energy and the efforts of the Chancery on the needs of our parishes, and I agree wholeheartedly with this design.
Parishes, in spite of their centrality in the life of our people, can never accomplish the entire mission of a local Church. There are services that the Chancery provides that are unique to the central offices: marriage tribunal, personnel services, human resources, safe environment procedures and implementation, vocation coordination, financial services, and the Bishop’s administrative duties are among the activities that are beyond the capacity of any individual parish.
Nonetheless, all of these services, as well as so many others, need to focus on the parishes wherein our people encounter Catholicism on a day-by-day basis. In a growing community like the Archdiocese of Atlanta, our future development needs coordination and focus. We need the agencies that see beyond and across parish boundaries so that we can build, strengthen and maintain the structures that will serve these vital local communities of Faith.
Parishes do not exist for the diocese—but they cannot achieve their mission apart from the diocese within the world of Catholicism.
There are no people who are “just a Catholic.” There are no communities that are “just a parish.” There is no diocese that can function well without bearing in mind and responding to the needs of those local places where every Catholic comes to encounter God’s Word and Sacraments in union with neighbors, friends and new people—registered as well as unregistered—who become parishes together. There is no diocese that can fulfill its mission apart from the Church universal. We all belong to one another from top to bottom and from bottom to the top.