Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Priest Convocation Fosters Dialogue, Unity

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 2, 2006

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and some 200 archdiocesan priests assembled for a convocation at Emerald Pointe Resort at Lake Lanier Islands Sept. 19-21 to experience fellowship and explore how to foster more unity among the increasingly diverse clergy of the growing church of North Georgia, a third of whom now come from around the world.

Another discussion topic was bridging the generation gap between younger and older priests, whose life experiences and formation have shaped their ecclesiology in different ways.

But priests both silver-haired and youthful also developed a better appreciation of the vitality and strength of the Atlanta Archdiocese.

“We’re doing a lot better than what we thought. We’re all pretty happy,” said Father John Shramko. “It’s great for the older priests to meet the younger priests and the international priests to meet the American priests, to get together in dialogue. … Even the pope in dialogue with the church and Muslims said that the start of any solution begins with dialogue. It gives me hope. You sit at the table with these older priests, who are hilarious (telling) the history of the diocese, and storytelling from the old timers of how the diocese got started.”

The biggest concern the 37-year-old priest heard was that of some Hispanic priests who expressed “heartfelt” feelings of alienation from other clergy. But overall he found priests seemed glad to convene and appreciated the opportunity to express their views and feelings.

The retreat followed the model of the pastoral “Cultivating Unity: The Presbyterate and the Bishop” designed by the National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy (NOCERCC) in partnership with CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The program builds on “The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests” promulgated by the Catholic bishops of the United States in 2000.

Vicar general Father Luis Zarama believes that the convocation was an important step forward as it fostered better acceptance and love not only among Anglo and Hispanics but among all priests of the archdiocese.

“It was a very nice opportunity to share and talk. It was great. The theme of the convocation was unity and not only for Hispanic or Vietnamese or Korean priests. It was for all of us, how all of us priests can be together and work for unity as priests in Atlanta, for all of us, not specifically for one group,” said Father Zarama, a native of Colombia.

Their special challenge is to build unity while embracing their diversity.

“We are looking to have it every two years. That is a good sign. As the archbishop says, the simple fact that we were here together and talked and shared, that is a great thing we accomplished,” said the vicar general.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church pastor Father Jim Schillinger, who helped plan the convocation, recalled how when he was ordained in 1984 there were basically three types of priests, “the group from Georgia, the group from outside Georgia, and the group from Ireland.”

“That was pretty much the diversity,” he said with a chuckle. “We’ve gotten so big so fast. Guys are (now) coming from so many different places.”

The chair of the local committee for the ongoing formation of priests, Father Schillinger also remembers a “much smaller diocese” where it was easier to stay connected with other priests and where he could count on two hands the number of Hispanic ministries. Now there are over 60 Hispanic ministries and 34 native Spanish-speaking priests.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2004 there are 598,322 Hispanics in Georgia, with 64 percent of them in the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta area, 6 percent in Gainesville, and 5 percent in Dalton. The initiative showed them that building unity among cultures is an area where “we have the most work to do,” but they are excited by the challenge, said Father Schillinger.

“The growth and change have been so rapid that we don’t know one another as well as we’d like to. … It points to our need to do a better job of incorporating them and inculturating them and in getting them involved in this archdiocese,” Father Schillinger said in a phone interview. While the priests of the archdiocese are very diverse, “we’re all about the same work and we are all brothers in this, and we hadn’t fully (reflected on that). When the day was done, it was a remarkable experience.”

In North Georgia there are now about 260 priests, more than half over the age of 60. The archdiocese has nearly 100 parishes and missions in 69 counties and 368,100 registered Catholics. Atlanta now has 52 seminarians preparing for priesthood, which runs counter to a national decline in seminarians.

In comparison, when the Diocese of Atlanta formed in 1956 there were about 23,600 Catholics. In 1965 there were 58,632 priests in the United States, according to CARA’s numbers. Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports there are 42,271. The number of seminarians declined from 8,325 in 1965 to 3,308 today, while the total Catholic population has increased nationally from 45.6 million in 1965 to 69.135 million today.

Retreat co-facilitator Msgr. Patrick Carrion believes that is a broad challenge facing the entire U.S. Catholic Church to some degree.

“Priests are concerned about the workload with few numbers of priests and the increasing number of Catholics to serve. Atlanta has that too with more and more people moving to the area. There is a sense of ‘can we meet the needs of all the people’ and how best to minister to all of that and care for oneself at the same time.”

The convocation involved daily Mass and prayers, talks by Msgr. Carrion, who is a NOCERCC board member and the past director of priest personnel for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Msgr. Luke Hunt, vicar general of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese. There were dialogue sessions involving smaller group discussions. Father Bryan Small, ordained in 2002, Father Richard Morrow, a priest of the diocese for 50 years, and Father Fabio Sotelo Peña gave witness talks.

Intended to be a transformational process, the convocation sought to engage the entire diocesan presbyterate with their bishop in frank and faith-centered dialogue leading to a common rededication to ministry.

Prior to the conference, Archbishop Gregory was interviewed and also held three listening sessions with priests in 2005. In addition, most priests completed a CARA survey. CARA used data from the listening sessions, the survey and the archbishop’s interview to produce a report for the event.

In the listening sessions, priests expressed a desire for increased unity and communication among the presbyterate and with the archbishop. Other common themes were a sense of isolation and lack of support experienced by some, and challenges associated with an increasing ethnic diversity among priests and parishioners.

But the survey confirmed that Atlanta priests are pretty content, as nine out of 10 priests reported that they “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that they’re happy in their ministry and lives as priests. On the other hand, just over four out of 10 judged unity of priests of the archdiocese as “somewhat strong,” although almost nine out of 10 viewed unity with the archbishop as somewhat strong or better.

Father Schillinger, 49, said that priests were assigned to tables so they couldn’t just sit with their friends. They seemed a bit “reluctant” at first but gradually engaged and “everybody came out of it very grateful for having had the opportunity,” he said. “It was a remarkably open session. Guys said what they were thinking.”

Just getting together is a good way to bridge the generation gap, as outside of regional deanery meetings not all priests gather frequently, he said.

“My age group and older were born and raised in the ’50s and ’60s, a very different culture. Our approach to priesthood is crafted by the culture in which we grew up,” Father Schillinger said.

A generation gap is a good problem to have, he added. “We have so many young guys.”

The survey found eight out of 10 consider different views on doctrine, ecclesiology or other liberal versus conservative issues to be a significant challenge to unity. And a half to two-thirds consider to be somewhat of a challenge the geographic distance separating priests; lack of openness or communication from diocesan officials; too little collaboration or support among priests; friendship cliques; and too few priests.

While this archdiocese has less of a challenge than other dioceses that have participated in the program on issues including being overworked, accepting new national rules for handling sex abuse allegations and communication with the archbishop, they see more of a challenge to unity through diversity in race, ethnicity and nationality. Yet eight in 10 somewhat or strongly agree that foreign-born priests are committed to the mission of the archdiocese, and about two-thirds agree somewhat or very strongly that U.S.-born priests make an effort to welcome international priests and that priests of various races, nationalities and ethnicities are among their close friends.

Colombia native Father Guillermo Córdoba, a parochial vicar at the Cathedral of Christ the King, got a better understanding of the perspectives of his brother priests and of how he can bear more fruit in the multicultural church.

“For me it was wonderful. I enjoyed having the presence of many priests. They were all open to listening to other priests and to sharing (thoughts) on the reality of the archdiocese,” he said. “I feel good because the convocation was wonderful.”

It helped him to focus on that common mission to serve and foster unity among people of every nation and socioeconomic level. He left with a deeper sense of the important role Hispanic priests play in encouraging their Spanish-speaking flocks to better know their sisters and brothers in the Anglo community and learn English. Likewise, Anglo priests must be proactive in reaching across cultures and fostering parish outreach to Hispanic Catholics. Father Cordoba was also encouraged by the archbishop’s good will toward the many cultures in the archdiocese.

“It created a sense that it is necessary to work together with other priests, regardless of whether they are Hispanic or Anglo or from another country, because the people are multicultural,” he said. “It’s very important for priests to work together, both pastors and parochial vicars. The vision of the bishop is to all work together, and this unity is to bring God’s message to the people.”

The survey and convocation revealed a sense of deep appreciation for Archbishop Gregory and his collaborative style, accessibility, interest in dialogue and desire to work against polarization. In that spirit, the IHM pastor noted that the archbishop’s priest council meetings can run two and a half hours each month where he frequently asks for their opinions.

“The priests are very committed to this archbishop and feel he is very concerned for all of us and embracing all of us, young and old, black and white. It was very clear the guys feel close to him and have bonded with him as archbishop,” Father Schillinger said.

In an open-ended survey question about the most positive aspects of presbyteral unity to build upon, other strengths mentioned included the spirit of collegiality among priests and opportunities to come together, such as a St. Patrick’s Day party and the Chrism Mass.

The archdiocese plans to hold convocations every two years to continue to address needed actions. This convocation had been recommended a few years ago by the committee for the ongoing formation of priests, as before that the most recent one was held 15 years ago.

The action plan priests formulated involves considering restructuring the priest meetings of the various deaneries that are held at least twice a year, to have smaller clusters within them that meet more often. Another goal is to increase communication through proposed activities such as more gatherings between rectories and a Web site for priests. A third proposal is for a mentoring program where a new priest or pastor is matched with a more experienced one for support, and a fourth is for semi-annual workshops to discuss diversity issues. Finally, priests expressed a need to find ways to improve parish communication with centralized ministries of the archdiocese.

Father Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., chair of the Council of Priests, noted that as Atlanta grows and priests have more responsibility the mentoring system, which is expected to be implemented next year, will be an important step to help new priests to process experiences with others who can help them not to underestimate or exaggerate their significance. It will help reduce the tendency for priests, especially new ones, to overwork. The Franciscan friar said that these reasonable concerns are now on the agenda for the priest council and committee for the ongoing formation of priests.

“We have a ways to go. Most of our action plan addresses communication and fraternal support and hopefully it will address priests who are not feeling good about their work or are feeling isolated,” he said.

For international priests, he said the goal is to foster a greater sense of inclusiveness, whether through more multilingual liturgies or clearer communications from the Chancery.

“The idea of communication involves fraternal support, collegiality, ways to reduce the sense of isolation, to bring a greater sense of unity among the international priests. Things can be misunderstood or may not be translated properly or at all through insensitivity to priests from other countries.”

Outside of the convocation, the archdiocese is also planning a new, standardized St. Paul Program to acclimate new priests coming from foreign countries. Through the program, for six to 12 months they will learn English if needed, and learn about the archdiocese, such as priests’ and lay leaders’ roles, church offices, multiculturalism, and legal issues.

Msgr. Carrion emphasized the importance of communication with three generations of priests all working for a common mission. He noted that the more a priest can understand the viewpoints and methods of another who has a very different approach, whether with regard to mission or to cultural traditions, the more he can appreciate that person’s perspective and that common mission.

And “the more you understand somebody, the more diversity becomes a positive. When you don’t communicate, you make judgments that aren’t always valid. And the more you communicate, the diversity becomes enriching instead of polarizing,” he said. “We have to create opportunities for communication and a safe place to address some of these concerns and to share about themselves and who they are.”

Msgr. Carrion was impressed by the energy of the convocation and believes that a “great foundation” was laid as the archbishop works to set the course for the archdiocese.

“Having a new bishop there are a lot of possibilities,” he said. “I feel there was a great spirit in the room. (The archbishop) is new. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of great potential for great relationships.”

Father Shramko feels the same and was encouraged especially by the large turnout that affirmed their common commitment, whether priests are Haitian, Filipino, Nigerian or Atlantan.

“It was really paving the way for the future, even with the pastoral planning of the diocese,” said the priest, who was ordained in 2002. “I think people would be tremendously edified to see the priests together and happy, in just how happy the priests are and how blessed we are in this diocese. And the people need to keep praying for the priests and (know) priests are really out there for them.”

“To be together was just a real blessing,” he said. “I think most of the priests had a great time. It was like a bunch of boys hanging out.”