Published January 20, 2005
It was a day to celebrate the past and present as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated his first archdiocesan Mass in honor of the man who touched the world, his life and the life of the city he is now calling home.
On Saturday, Jan. 15, two days before his installation as archbishop of Atlanta, Archbishop-designate Gregory celebrated the annual Eucharistic Celebration in honor of the birthday of the late Martin Luther King Jr. at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
In a letter printed inside the program for the Mass, Archbishop-Designate Gregory said that the words of King’s oft-quoted “I Have a Dream” speech need to become more than just lip service.
“Dr. King’s dream was born in the faith of people, faith observed as a child, faith he grew up to live, and faith in the power of God to save us through the gentle love of Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “God has blessed few individuals with Dr. King’s charisma and vision, and with those gifts he was able to touch the lives of countless people, including at least one very grateful Archbishop-Designate!”
Archbishop Gregory expressed his gratitude that his arrival in Atlanta coincided with the celebration of one of its most treasured native sons who had greatly influenced him “as a young African-American growing up in Chicago.”
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled so nobly to obtain justice and freedom for all people to pursue a life founded on fair opportunity. He encouraged me and untold others to develop the gifts God has given each of His children.”
Archbishop Gregory was the principal celebrant of the Mass, which was concelebrated by over 20 priests of the archdiocese and Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue.
In a festive spirit of diversity and unity, the Mass brought together people of many cultures and backgrounds.
The joyful sound of the Archbishop James P. Lyke Memorial Choir and the soul-stirring rhythms of the Lyke House Drummers served as a prelude to the Mass. The Amazing Grace Liturgical Dancers and the Fourth Degree Knights of Peter Claver Honor Guard, along with the Ladies’ Auxiliary in their crisp white garments, led the ministerial procession, which included Bishop Dominic Carmon, SVD, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the homilist for the Mass.
Along with the Catholic faithful who flocked to the Mass in the hundreds—the overflow crowd standing along the back and side walls—were several prominent members of the Atlanta community, including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Karen Handel, chairperson of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.
In his homily, Bishop Carmon expressed his delight in celebrating King’s birthday in his native city. Though King has been dead for more than 36 years, he said, it is not so much the “martyred man” that is remembered, “but an accounting of his deeds—deeds too compelling to be forgotten.”
“We remember him as a man with an unquenchable desire to fulfill a mission,” he said. “He saw a need and responded. He saw evil, and he worked for justice. He saw anger, and he responded with non-violence. He was a man truly in touch with our times.”
Bishop Carmon then spoke of how King reflected the theme of the archdiocesan celebration—“Rooted in Love, Grounded in Peace, and United in Justice.”
In his activities in the civil rights movement, King “demonstrated his love for all people.” He was inspired by Scripture and “wanted human beings to treat each other with love, respect and wholesomeness.”
Each day, King put on the “armor of prayer” as he worked for those in need, Bishop Carmon said.
“Martin was connected to the poor and disenfranchised, to the young and the elderly. He had strong convictions and was untiring in his efforts to bring about peace,” he said. “Peace motivated him, peace drove him, and peace moved him into action. He was an instrument of peace, a means through which freedom and equality for all could flow. He was a true believer in peace—a peace not of this world but the peace that only comes from God.”
King’s birthday should always be celebrated in order to keep his memory alive, Bishop Carmon said.
“We celebrate each year because we do not want his image to die; we want to perpetuate his memory. His dream is not yet fulfilled,” he said. “We must take up the challenge and continue the struggle begun by Martin to fight against and eradicate all those problems that deny people their dignity, especially unemployment, hunger, oppression, lack of proper medical care, mental stress, inadequate housing.”
“Dr. King’s dream must be fulfilled by all of us left to carry the torch. Non-violence, which can be a way of life, must play a major role in the fulfillment of that dream,” he said. “It must grow in our hearts if we are to survive. So let us keep the non-violent movement alive and strengthen it.”
After Communion, Myra West-Allen, a parishioner at Transfiguration Church in Marietta, was awarded the Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award for her commitment to evangelization. Allen’s biography in the program noted that she has “done it all at Transfiguration, as a member of the catechetical team, and the liturgy committee, sacristan and Mass captain, and president of the parish board of education.” She also made history as the first black person to be elected president of the parish council.
“I am truly humbled. I don’t consider myself an evangelist. I just do what I do because it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I do what I do to give glory to God, and I just hope it does.”
Following the Mass, the congregation moved to the parish hall, where many lined up to eagerly meet Archbishop Gregory.
Sonya Strider, a parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Atlanta said she felt honored that the archbishop came to the MLK Mass.
“I’m just thrilled that he had the time so early on in his appointment and that he took the time, not only because this is an Office for Black Catholic Ministry function, but because it’s an archdiocesan function,” she said. “It really shows that theme of unity.”
Charles Prejean Jr., whose father, Charles Sr., is the director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, said he is excited about Archbishop Gregory’s appointment.
“It’s great. In my opinion, the city of Atlanta is traditionally an African-American city, and being an African-American myself, I’m really happy about the appointment,” he said. “I think it’s great he came here today when it’s so close to his installation.”
Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, said that having Archbishop Gregory celebrate his first archdiocesan Mass in his parish seemed appropriate given the long history of the Shrine, the oldest Catholic church in Atlanta.
“The Shrine has always been an important part of history, and I’m happy to offer that same hospitality to a man who himself has been so welcoming,” he said.