By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Executive Editor | Published January 20, 2005
An ecumenical, diverse crowd gathered with joy for the Mass of Canonical Installation on Monday, Jan. 17, at the Georgia International Convention Center, to witness the installation of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory as the sixth archbishop of Atlanta. Archbishop Gregory was formerly the bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., and recently completed a three-year term as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The altar at the convention center shone, transformed into a gleaming white cathedral trimmed in vivid red. And as the installation of Archbishop Gregory progressed, the white served as the backdrop to accentuate the brilliant, beautiful colors of Atlanta, as people from all over Georgia, the South, and the United States came to witness the shining moment as Archbishop Gregory publicly assumed the leadership of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The flock of Atlanta’s faithful glowed in all the colors of the rainbow, from the children of all countries resplendent in their native costumes, to the plumage of the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Columbus, to the pale green of the dresses of the young women in the Cung Viet choir and the bright primary colors of the Our Lady of Lourdes choir.
The approximately 8,000 people in attendance included dignitaries from around the United States, including five cardinals: Cardinal Francis George, OMI, of Chicago; Cardinal Edward Egan of New York; Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia; Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore; and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. Fifty-two bishops attended, including Bishop William Skylstad, of Spokane, Wash., who became USCCB president in 2004.
Dom Francis Michael Stitler, abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, also attended, as did Dom Bernard Johnson, abbot-emeritus of the monastery.
In addition, 340 priests, both archdiocesan and visiting, participated in the liturgy, which lasted almost three hours. Serving the Mass were 34 of the nearly 50 seminarians studying for the priesthood for the archdiocese.
Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, apostolic nuncio to the United States, concelebrated the Mass along with Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue and the cardinals, abbots and priests present.
In addition, numerous civic leaders and representatives of other religious communities were on hand to welcome Archbishop Gregory to Atlanta, including Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and his wife, Mary.
Helen Brown waited patiently for the start of the first installation Mass she had ever seen. The Louisiana native, who is now a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Church in Norcross, was very excited about having Archbishop Gregory in Atlanta.
“When all the sex abuse cases came out in the news, which was about every day for awhile, I became impressed with his abilities.”
As the procession began, the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Columbus lined the long aisle with their swords held aloft. The solemn procession included the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver, the Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulchre, seminarians, priests, bishops and cardinals. At the back of the vast hall, as Archbishop Gregory entered, a ripple of applause began, growing louder, moving as a wave of sound through the people gathered there in hope and prayer.
The rite of canonical installation began with Archbishop Donoghue warmly welcoming Archbishop Montalvo, the official representative of the Vatican. Archbishop Donoghue asked him to “convey our gratitude and prayers to the Holy Father.”
Archbishop Montalvo addressed the congregation, beginning with the reminder that the Lord asked Peter to “feed my sheep.”
“The Holy Father,” he said, “takes great care in assigning suitable shepherds so that people of faith can grow in … faith, hope and charity.”
He thanked Archbishop Donoghue with “sincere gratitude for many years of dedication.”
Archbishop Montalvo then read the apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II, which stated that Archbishop Gregory had done “outstanding work as bishop and as president of the bishops conference,” work that demonstrated his gifts. This letter was the formal acknowledgment of Archbishop Gregory’s appointment as archbishop. After the letter was read, Archbishop Gregory presented it to each of the priests who serve as members of the archdiocesan College of Consultors.
Archbishop Montalvo then seated Archbishop Gregory in the cathedra, the bishop’s chair, and presented him with the crosier, the symbol of his role as shepherd of the Lord’s flock. At that moment, the new archbishop took up his role.
Archbishop Gregory then stood as the applause swept through the convention center. He appeared deeply moved by this epochal moment and accepted a warm embrace from his predecessor, Archbishop Donoghue.
The next part of the rite, the welcoming by representatives, took place as more than 200 priests, people from the archdiocesan community, ecumenical and interfaith representatives, and civic officials came up to say a few words of welcome to the new archbishop.
During an especially moving part of the rite, children dressed in native costumes formed a line and walked up, one by one, to greet the archbishop. As each one stood on tiptoes to whisper in his ear, Archbishop Gregory listened gently and blessed each child individually.
The Mass continued with the Liturgy of the Word. Sister Maria Goretti, OP, the principal of St. Catherine of Siena School in Kennesaw, read the epistle from Hebrews 5:1-10.
The Gospel, Mark 2:18-22, was proclaimed in Spanish by Deacon Tony Nerio.
A highlight of the Mass occurred as Archbishop Gregory began his homily by speaking in Spanish, “Quisiera dirigir mis saludos primeros a la Iglesia local de Atlanta, especialmente a los que se sienten mas cómodos hablarle a Dios en español.” (“I address my first greeting to the Church in Atlanta to those who speak to God most comfortably in Spanish.”)
He went on to assure the Hispanic attendees that they are “always close to the heart of this local Church and to the heart of its new Archbishop. We are enriched by your presence, through your many gifts, by your family life and in the gift of your children.”
Archbishop Gregory’s decision to open his homily speaking in Spanish touched Hispanics in the congregation deeply.
“It wasn’t so much what he said. It was his preference in opening his sermon this way that speaks to the heart,” said Dilia Gomez of Norcross, who is from the Dominican Republic. “I think it was unexpected. I tell you honestly, I wanted to get up and just start clapping.”
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory also addressed the priests of the archdiocese. “The ordained ministry is a gift that none of us ever merits but that continues in the Church, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, as a unique and irreplaceable expression of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. To the presbyterate of Atlanta, I welcome the opportunity to serve with you the needs of the faithful in this local Church and to carry on the rich heritage of pastoral dedication that those who preceded us have established as a hallmark and a goal.”
He expressed his devotion and his commitment to his brother priests with the words, “You mean everything to me.”
Archbishop Gregory also noted the “rich opportunity to serve this growing, exciting, and youthful Church in Atlanta.”
He said, “Together, laity, clergy, religious, we must work for the coming of the Kingdom of God here in North Georgia. The Church and her mission belong to all of us. We must be about our tasks and individual responsibilities with confidence in God’s Holy Spirit in our midst to enable us. We must do so with the zeal of those who are confident in God’s power always working within us.”
Archbishop Gregory also referenced the importance of the day on which he was being installed, the memorial of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Today, which is a moment of historic importance for the Archdiocese of Atlanta and of personal joy for me, is also a day of great significance for all the peoples of our nation. We gather in prayer and festive joy on Dr. King’s Memorial Day and in a city that holds a special place among all American cities that reverence this great man’s legacy.”
He went on to say that he hoped the “values of racial justice and harmony” that were so powerfully espoused by Dr. King would continue to be an enduring legacy.
At the end of his homily, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged the great diversity of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “We come from many different backgrounds. We represent many different ages, races, professions, and cultures, but we are all Christ’s people and we must work to proclaim with joy and conviction the treasures of our Catholic Faith and to respond to the challenges of tomorrow.”
And within the theme of the multicultural celebration, the prayers of the faithful were spoken in many different languages, including German, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Tagalog and Korean.
After the Mass, as the numerous bishops and priests processed out of the massive convention room, well-wishers stood as if on a parade route, waving and taking photos. Now the applause began in the front of the room and washed over the crowd like an increasing rainstorm.
Standing with her sisters, Mother Rose Marie, OP, Prioress General of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn., said that the Mass had been an experience of the universal Church.
“It was a beautiful picture of the diversity of our church,” she said. “I thought it was very inspiring.”
Father Pat McCormick traveled from Hawaii to see his new archbishop and leader installed. A priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta serving as a Navy chaplain, he remarked on the beautiful liturgy and the new archbishop’s demeanor.
“He exudes a tremendous amount of energy and will have the priests running.”
The archbishop’s sister, Elaine Swenson, who came from Vacaville, Calif., was overjoyed to watch as her brother was installed, particularly in such a multicultural ceremony celebrating the diversity of cultures in the archdiocese.
“The fact that it was a multicultural expression of this ceremony was profound because it is such a gift to be able to celebrate other people’s realities,” she said. “What Wilton has been able to do so successfully is to show people you can have your own traditions while still celebrating the traditions of others. That has been his gift, to truly celebrate the realities of other cultures.”
The proud sister recalled the roots of her and her brother’s Catholic faith in the nurturing and loving St. Carthage Catholic School in Chicago where they were profoundly influenced as they experienced the beauty of Catholicism and the love of Christ. Archbishop Gregory and his sister converted to Catholicism at a young age.
The installation “is a validation of the power of love as it exists on this earth, how Wilton was raised in a community of very loving people, very special souls who showed such compassion and support of him and all the people in that community … Being loving comes very easily for him because we saw so many people model that behavior.”
Their father, Wilton Sr., whose matter-of-fact demeanor seemed to soften during the emotional ceremony, said the event was “the sunshine of my life.”
“I was weeping throughout the whole thing. I was very, very proud.”
While he is a non-denominational Christian, he added that he’s considered joining the Catholic Church, but his son “is not pushing. He’s leaving it to me if I want to.”
Roberto Herrera, a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, likes the archbishop’s emphasis on unity in the church. “Especially at vespers he was asking priests to be united in order to do a good job in the diocese and to have hope and faith,” he said. And when he started his homily in Spanish “it was amazing for me. I said, ‘wow.’ It means a lot because he’s able to understand the language and culture.”
Friends Lori Ashford and Lisa Blair, of St. Anthony’s Church in Atlanta, have a good feeling about their new shepherd. “The pope did a good job,” Ashford said. “He picked a good one for us.”
They hope the archbishop will promote the Knights of Peter Claver and also see the need for another Catholic elementary school on the south side of Atlanta.
“We hope he gets that in motion,” Ashford added.
Many children who attended with their families watched the festivities with wide-eyed attention.
Dutch Holland, a parishioner of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, came to the Mass with his two sons, Jamie, 11, and Patrick, 9.
“They brought me, really. They were the ones who wanted to see it,” he said.
“I thought it was exciting and really incredible seeing the archbishop retire,” Jamie said, adding that though the Mass was long, he wasn’t bored. “It was really interesting.”
His brother also paid close attention.
“It was really exciting when the archbishop put the hat on and sat in the chair,” he said.
Both boys had the opportunity to meet Archbishop Gregory in early December when he visited Queen of Angels School in Roswell which they attend.
“He seems really cool and really nice,” Jamie said.
Their father was glad that his sons asked him to bring them to the installation.
“I was really impressed with the size,” he said. “I was also really impressed with all the different languages. It reminded me of when the pope came to (Washington) D.C., years ago, and I was there.”
Anthony Le came dressed in a U.S. Army sweatshirt and was one of those asked to officially welcome Archbishop Gregory on behalf of that branch of the military during the installation. The officer, who speaks five languages, has been stationed at Fort McPherson for the last eight months and has attended Mass at various churches in the archdiocese. The Mass this day was “full of the Holy Spirit,” he remarked.
Standing next to the military intelligence officer was his aunt, a petite woman who recently came to the United States from Vietnam as a political refugee. A Catholic, Dao Truong had to attend Mass in secret back in the communist-controlled country. People there could only find out when a Mass was being held by word of mouth and could have been arrested if the local government found out about it.
She basked in the freedom to worship openly and felt the day’s event was filled with “amazing grace,” according to Le.
Even though she speaks only Vietnamese, she called the Mass “the holiest ceremony” she’s ever attended.
Priscilla Greear, Gretchen Keiser, Suzanne Haugh and Erika Anderson contributed to this story.