By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 1, 2005
Published: December 1, 2005
ATLANTA—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory delivered the Thanksgiving address to the Atlanta Rotary Club, where he challenged community leaders to reflect upon the abundant harvest of blessings they’ve received and during Advent and beyond to bless others out of that gratitude, planting seeds of hope for those in need.
He spoke on the gray, rainy Monday of Nov. 21 at the Rotary luncheon at the Loudermilk Conference Center downtown. During his first year of service in North Georgia, Archbishop Gregory has visited many secular and religious organizations across North Georgia, from Emory University to the Decatur Rotary Club, and has held an interfaith memorial service for Pope John Paul II and initiated a Jewish-Catholic symposium and sacred music concert to be held Dec. 15.
The Atlanta civic club, led by president Neal Purcell and executive director Linda Thomason Glass, is one of the oldest and largest clubs, founded in 1913, eight years after Rotary began, and has 470 male and female members, ranging from clergy to business and nonprofit executives, and from educational administrators to those in other leadership positions in the community. Members wore buttons stating “service above self,” the theme of the organization, as they gathered for their weekly meeting.
There are approximately 1.2 million Rotarians who belong to more than 30,000 Rotary Clubs in 167 countries, addressing local and international needs and promoting peace and understanding in the world. The Atlanta civic club’s current service projects include providing medical equipment to help support a project started by the Future of Russia Foundation to improve maternal and infant health care in Russia, starting with training and technology support at a Moscow perinatal center. Members support Atlanta’s new Gateway Center for the homeless and work in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory on a project in Kenya to provide communities with access to clean water through treatment, well-digging and hygiene training. The club supports Atlanta’s Charles R. Drew Charter School, which has an intensive focus on reading and math, and has an educational fund that gives approximately $100,000 in grants yearly to promote literacy programs for children in the area.
Joseph Ledlie, president of The Ledlie Group and a member of the Cathedral of Christ the King, said that “the archbishop invoked a very familiar sentiment for Rotary, not only at the Atlanta Rotary Club but for Rotarians around the world, because the Rotary theme we live by is service above self and that was one of the major themes of his message. He had the full attention of the group.”
A Rotarian since 1991, Ledlie is chair of their 48-member programming committee. He recalled how after the pope died committee members decided to ask the archbishop to speak—their runner-up choice after the new pope.
“It’s the first Catholic priest in memory to speak and signals a new position for the church in North Georgia among the business leadership in North Georgia,” he said. “I think he has translated his energy into many new friends inside and outside the church. It’s a great compliment to him.”
Retired Charlotte Methodist Bishop Bevel Jones introduced the Catholic archbishop as a kind and sincere person who is approachable. He highlighted his serving as auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, his leadership as past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and his earning his doctorate in Rome.
“He has come to this office highly acclaimed, highly credentialed, with a track record of effective leadership,” he said. “He has the heart of a shepherd … a great personality, a keen sense of humor, a hope of spirituality and an ecumenical spirit. His ministry is going to be a blessing to this metropolitan area and beyond.”
In his talk, Archbishop Gregory spoke about how farmers work longer hours than usual at this time of year to take in the harvest and in many respects Thanksgiving is an agrarian feast “since it comes at a moment when those who make their livelihood working the soil can rejoice at what God has done through their labors.” The farmer “clearly understands how hard he has worked, planned and how much he may have endured, but also the harvest is far more than the sum of his labors. He is thankful from the heart for what has been given to him beyond his labors.”
He said this nation enjoys “extraordinary blessings,” which many attribute to God’s generosity and goodness because “no other theory of economics, political science or philosophy seems capable of explaining why we enjoy so much good fortune and others seem to have so little by comparison.” But as they experience gratitude they must always be mindful of those in need.
“Thanksgiving must be only the prelude to generosity and bigheartedness. This is especially the case if our religious heritages include a teaching on the love of a God who gives without consideration of the worthiness of the recipients,” he said. “Our generosity this time of year should be like that of the benevolent God who showers good things upon his creatures well beyond what they may have earned or deserved. Our care and concern for the poor and the lonely, the immigrant and the prisoner, the sick and the neglected, must be like that of God Himself—liberal and sustaining,” whether taking a meal to an elderly person or collecting food for a pantry.
While serving for 11 years in Belleville, Ill., the archbishop developed a respect and admiration for “those who touch the earth and bring forth the harvest,” and he spoke of their wisdom and talents as meteorologists, veterinarians, engineers and “universal technicians.” He described the farmer’s gratitude as in the spring he prepares the fields for planting and then plants the seeds, during the sometimes too hot or too wet summer weeks and, above all, at harvest.
“Above all, however, they are people who understand that everything that they accomplish through the labors of their hands is guided and sustained by the finger of God. They are humble believers and at no other time more so than at Thanksgiving,” he concluded. “May this time of year render us equally humble in gratitude and more generous than usual in our desire and ability to act like the One who has graced us so abundantly in the way we freely share from our good fortune to make the lives of those less blessed a little more blessed this week and maybe even on all the days and weeks that may follow.”
Purcell thanked the archbishop, noting he was the first Catholic archbishop to give the Thanksgiving message and affirmed that “this community is blessed to have you serve as archbishop.”
Another Catholic Rotarian, who gave the luncheon invocation, is Father Richmond Egan, SM, president of Marist School.
“For so many people here, their faith is what drives them in whatever they’re doing,” he said of the club. “It’s good for them to hear our wonderful new archbishop … We’re so pleased he’s been at Marist a number of times. He celebrated Mass for our students. It was a wonderful experience for our students to see and hear him.”
Bishop Jones, who is a friend of Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, met Archbishop Gregory when he attended his installation last January. In an interview he spoke more about his impression of the archbishop.
“He is one of the most warm and caring people I know. He personifies the bishop’s role as shepherd in the classical biblical sense of that analogy … When you meet him his personality transcends the trappings of his office so you are comfortable in his presence. His sincerity is transparent and his speech today was so penetrating,” he said, noting that Jesus so often spoke of farming in his parables.
This seasoned cleric believes Archbishop Gregory will bring a spirit of peace and unity to religious dialogue, which unfortunately often has a “mean-spiritedness” and can be “very contentious.” He will “add so much to making our community more humane with an emphasis on the value of peace and the importance of communicating and learning to live together with our diversity, bringing about unity in our diversity.”
“In this world today we have got to learn to live together as one family of God, and he will bring that perspective and orientation,” he continued. “I think he’s going to really enhance and strengthen the interfaith relationships.”