Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Archbishop Remembers ‘Gentle, Loving Shepherd’

By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published April 7, 2005

In a press conference held less than two hours after Pope John Paul II’s death, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said that the church had lost “a most faithful pastor and teacher.”

At the rectory of the Cathedral of Christ the King, in front of members of the secular media of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory recounted his own experiences with the pope who was “a voice of clarity and constancy in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in calling humanity to live in and to work for peace, in challenging the men and women of our world to both recognize our dignity as children of God and to promote the inalienable rights that flow from that human dignity from conception to natural death.”

“When he assumed the Chair of Peter on Oct. 16, 1978, few could have envisioned the breadth of his pastoral vision and ministry. He visited and encountered more people in his missionary outreach than perhaps all of his predecessors combined,” he said. “He was a giant in the religious world, and his passing brings great sorrow to the hearts of all Catholics and to men and women of faith throughout the world.”

Archbishop Gregory smiled when reminiscing about his own meetings with the Holy Father. As a young priest completing his doctoral studies in Rome, the archbishop was in St. Peter’s Square in 1978 when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was announced as the new pope. Over time, especially during his term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when he visited Rome 13 times, Archbishop Gregory came to know the pope as a “gentle, loving shepherd.”

“During the many, many times that I was privileged to be with him, he always exhibited a pastor’s concern for the flock and a personal friendship and outreach to me,” he said. “I enjoyed being in his presence and listening to him and speaking with him … I learned much from his fidelity and his gentleness of heart.”

Though Archbishop Gregory said that it would be “hard to single out any one thing that would be (the pope’s) legacy,” he spoke specifically of the Holy Father’s visits to more than 120 countries, his “direct involvement in the lives of Catholics and people of faith throughout the world” and his way of teaching.

“We sometimes forget that before he became a bishop he was a university professor and a philosopher and a theologian and so much of what he did built on that didactic tradition that was his,” he said. “He taught clearly, forcefully, directly, frequently and with a spectrum of concerns that touched not only the religious concerns, but the moral and the socio-political, the economic, the philosophical dimensions of humanity.”

He also spoke of Pope John Paul II’s great passion for young people, who in turn flocked to him, Archbishop Gregory said, in large part because of the pope’s “openness, his honesty, his affection” for them.

“In many respects he was a grandfather to young people with all of the best images of what grandfathers do, with and for their youngsters. They identify with them,” Archbishop Gregory said. “They speak to them across generational lines and they kind of say to them to take heart and have courage and enjoy the youth that is yours, and to prepare yourselves for the roles of leadership you will have.”

The millions of people who are grieving are a “sign of the greatness of this man,” the archbishop said.

“He identified with people, his travels and his own charismatic personality touched the hearts of many, and I would say, to be perfectly honest, that it’s all right to grieve the loss of a friend. It is not a sign of weakness to allow one’s love to touch one’s heart and to experience the sorrow at the loss of one who has been a great friend, pastor, shepherd, a great world leader.”

At the same time, the archbishop spoke of the significance of eternal life, especially during this time of Easter.

“Of all times for John Paul II to die, Easter week is a perfect time because we have celebrated the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and in that moment of joy we commend this great man to the fullness of life,” he said. “We as Catholics, as Christians, as people of faith, we believe that God rewards those who live righteous, holy, loving lives, and certainly that describes Pope John Paul II.