By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 3, 2005
In his first month in office, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has made it a priority to hold a series of listening sessions with priests of the archdiocese to learn their concerns firsthand and establish a framework for his working relationship with the presbyterate.
Organized by deanery, three meetings were facilitated by Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, on Feb. 7, 8 and 14. At a fourth meeting with Spanish-speaking priests on Feb. 22, the archbishop asked Father Fabio Sotelo-Peña to assist with translation as needed, although, Father Sotelo-Peña said, “his Spanish is good.”
Archbishop Gregory, in his first homily to priests the night before his installation Mass, said that he wanted to develop a collaborative relationship of mutual respect with them.
Priests said holding the listening sessions so soon after his installation has communicated to them that this really is a high priority. They’ve learned that the archbishop is a good listener.
“It was clear he was truly interested in listening to us in making this opportunity available to us so early,” said Jonesboro pastor Father Greg Hartmayer, OFM Conv. “It was very much a listening session. It was clear the archbishop was there to listen and not necessarily to comment . . . I really found he was genuinely interested in what the priests had to say and what they are experiencing as spiritual leaders in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. I think he will address these issues as he can.”
The listening sessions began with the priests and archbishop praying the Liturgy of the Hours together and included lunch. The sessions lasted until everyone who wanted to speak had the opportunity.
“This was an open agenda. There was no limitation on what we could talk about. There was no time limit. We were there until the last person had time to speak,” Father Hartmayer said, adding the archbishop was “very sensitive to the priests.”
“Father Silva pretty much was in charge with the archbishop sitting back and listening,” said Father Richard Morrow. “All the priests were encouraged to get up and say what they wanted the archbishop to hear. Most of the time he would not address what the priests had to say until the end of the meeting. Then he might give us some ideas of his approach.”
Father Silva said that facilitating listening sessions is one of the services offered by the NFPC. The sessions were “placed in the context of the Vatican Council document Presbyterorum Ordinis,” which describes the relationship that a bishop and priests have with one another that forms a presbyterate, Father Silva said.
“The council calls the bishop to act as brother and friend to his priests and as such he is to consult them on the matters of the diocesan mission and he is to listen to them. In return, the priests, having participated, are to offer obedience and reverence to their bishop. It’s in this context that the listening sessions took place. The priests were very grateful to the archbishop for engaging them in this discussion and the archbishop, in turn, was very straightforward in letting the priests know that he took this call from the council seriously and that this was only the beginning of what he hoped would be many more listening sessions.”
Without disclosing specific topics brought up at the sessions, priests praised them as a positive experience.
“In general, the comments that the priests made reflected the burdens and the stresses, as well as the joys, and the uncertainties of being a priest in today’s American church,” Father Hartmayer said. “And I think there was a genuine desire on the part of the priests to experience greater solidarity among themselves and work for greater solidarity in the presbyterate in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
Priests who serve in the archdiocese are very diverse in age, culture, seminary formation and ecclesiology, Father Hartmayer said. Yet in the listening sessions he heard “a genuine interest to recognize what we share in common (and) to look toward our new archbishop as our shepherd who can bring us together.”
The pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church was just elected president of the Council of Priests for one year, succeeding Father Richard Tibbetts, whose term on the Council expired.
Msgr. David Talley, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta, was elected vice president, and Father Albert Jowdy, pastor of St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, secretary.
Father Jowdy thought that the listening sessions showed a “tremendous respect on (Archbishop Gregory’s) part for the presbyterate.” He said that having these sessions showed how much the archbishop wanted to learn from the shared experience of the priests in the archdiocese.
“Clearly, he is a very capable leader,” said Father Jowdy, noting that Archbishop Gregory wanted to know as much as possible before making policy for the archdiocese.
At the sessions, he said, Archbishop Gregory would “just listen.”
“He just listened and in a very graceful way.”
“The priests felt affirmed that their concerns were being heard,” Father Jowdy said.
Father Silva said, “The environment and the feeling that was in the room in all three instances was very, very warm and inviting and gracious and I think the priests were candid and the archbishop was candid so that I think it was a very productive time together.”
The NFPC president said he thought the atmosphere at the sessions and at parish events that he went to while here “was wonderful.”
“The people and the air tingled with excitement. It was a wonderful thing to see. To see the people and the archbishop and his priests in this way, it was a wonderful privilege,” he said.
In the session with Spanish-speaking priests, Father Sotelo-Peña said he was asked to provide translation, but as the discussion unfolded he did not have to translate very frequently.
“His Spanish is good. Almost all of his communication with us was in Spanish except at the end,” said the chaplain of the Doraville mission of Our Lady of the Americas. “We had about five priests who didn’t speak any English at all. The archbishop, it seemed to me, was understanding everything they were saying. I do believe his listening is great.”
The session “was a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to the archbishop,” Father Sotelo-Peña continued. “As we were introducing ourselves, we were introducing what we have been doing in the archdiocese . . . We presented to him some of the pastoral challenges that we are facing. We mentioned some of the challenges we face regarding canon law. Then he emphasized to all of us that we have to be a bridge for both communities.”
One strong impression the priest had was the archbishop’s “great presence of shepherding all the priests of the archdiocese.”
“He emphasized that he is a priest . . . You feel like he is opening ears to listen to our stories and our needs and what we want to say,” Father Sotelo-Peña said.
To meet with the priests and listen to them before speaking himself or making decisions “is a great, great sign of listening and being shepherd for the church,” the priest said. “The bishop is there for you to listen to your needs. It is a good feeling. It encourages you to work more.”
Archbishop Gregory “communicated to us he did want unity,” the priest continued. “He said the needs of the Latino communities are one of (his) priorities as archbishop of Atlanta. He emphasized several times it is important to welcome the new immigrants who already are Catholic. He said we needed to continue to invite candidates (for the priesthood) from other countries in order to serve the people of the archdiocese.”
Msgr. Henry Gracz and Father Morrow, both former vicars for clergy for many years, spoke of the gifts Archbishop Gregory brings to the archdiocese.
“The archbishop listened very attentively and thoughtfully to the comments of priests. They ranged on everything from education through liturgy, diversity. Several times he informally just commented on plans that he had,” Msgr. Gracz said. “ He clearly comes as somebody who is both listening and high energy.”
“He has a real gift for giving you his total attention when you are speaking. You can just sort of sense him filing away what you are saying to him,” Father Morrow said. “I believe that not only the priests, but the lay people are going to enjoy the way he is open to ideas and advice. ”
A priest of the archdiocese for 50 years, Father Morrow said, “This man is just what we need today . . . He is going to be a gift.”
Holding listening sessions “was a way for the new archbishop to start a relationship with his priests,” Father Tibbetts said. “It was a very good start. It gave a very good impression to the priests that they are valued and that he wants a collaborative, cooperative relationship with them.”
“Obviously he is going to weigh things. He made some responses to some things, but predominantly it was listening. He did give some of his vision on how he saw things progressing in the archdiocese, ” Father Tibbetts continued.
“Archbishop (John F.) Donoghue and Archbishop Gregory are both very good archbishops. Archbishop Donoghue brought some wonderful things to the archdiocese. It is very clear this archbishop is going to do the same thing. Their style, their sense of ecclesiology is very different. We still have to see what Archbishop Gregory is going to do, but he’s off to a wonderful start.”
While the Council of Priests automatically dissolves when a new archbishop is appointed, Archbishop Gregory immediately reconstituted the existing council in December, Father Tibbetts said.
Father Silva’s summation to Archbishop Gregory will compile the feedback from the listening sessions, Father Hartmayer said, and some issues may become agenda items for the 24-member Council of Priests.
“It’s clear that the archbishop wants this to be a working Priests’ Council. He has said that, and it is clear he will seek our opinion on a variety of topics,” Father Hartmayer said. “He is already setting the tone that it is going to be very much a dialogue between the representatives of the priests of the archdiocese and himself.”
One change that has already taken place is that, in the future, priests who serve as deans in a region of the archdiocese will be elected by the priests of the deanery rather than appointed by the archbishop. This will take place as the current deans’ terms expire.