Published December 4, 2008
A recent 14-hour day spent with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory began with prayers in an intimate chapel and stretched into a dark drive home as an excited radio announcer declared the Philadelphia Phillies baseball’s world champions.
In between, the archbishop heard a youngster proclaim he knew the archbishop’s grandchildren (chalk it up to a case of mistaken identity) and received greetings from Mexican sisters working in the archdiocese. He poured sacred chrism oil during the ritual to dedicate a new church in Lawrenceville.
Spending a day with the archbishop does not reveal the soul of a man, but it does provide a glimpse of him as more than the beloved celebrant at confirmations, dedications and other signature church events.
As a leader of the fast-growing Catholic Church in the Bible belt, Archbishop Gregory serves as the spiritual head of the 750,000 Catholics here in North Georgia.
In addition, the archbishop is essentially the CEO of a multimillion-dollar organization. He shares personality traits familiar to any experienced executive. He delegates issues that he doesn’t need to chime in on. He hates getting copied on e-mails when someone else can handle the issue. He dislikes voice mail and lost time so much that he had private phone numbers installed that connect him directly to his executive assistant and other top officials in the archdiocese.
His profile is even higher than that of his peers because he shepherded his fellow bishops as president of the Catholic bishops’ conference for three years, which included the intense times of the clergy sex abuse scandal. Church observers speculate he may be a candidate to serve as the archbishop of New York.
He allowed The Georgia Bulletin to share a day with him, answering the door of his stately Buckhead home promptly at 8 a.m.
The day started earlier. Around 6 a.m., he heads to the small chapel on the first floor of his residence. Here, the archbishop begins his day with the Liturgy of the Hours. The prayer is, as he says, a time “to take inventory.”
In the kitchen, the TV is tuned to “Good Morning America.” The day’s Atlanta-Journal Constitution is folded on the countertop. He offers a visitor coffee.
Soon, he is out the door, carrying vestments for the first day’s stop: St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville. He is celebrating Mass there.
Behind the wheel of his black Acura, the archbishop twists the knob on his GPS to find the school. Catholic facilities in the archdiocese are programmed into the computer. The addresses make it easy to get around for someone like him who likes to drive.
“It’s one of the few times I am alone,” he said good-naturedly, a reminder how the reporter and photographer are cramping his style. Driving is a refuge from the office.
He calls his West Peachtree office on his cell phone. He calls repeatedly throughout the day, as many as a dozen times. He is a fan of technology and says it makes good use of time. Also he calls his mom, Ethel, who lives in a nursing home in his native Chicago. He leaves a message when he cannot reach her. He drives with one hand on the wheel, the other holding the phone to his ear.
At the school, the archbishop hauls his red suitcase out of the trunk. It carries all the essentials he needs from his peaked miter to a crosier, the hooked staff used by a bishop as a symbol of his office.
Students Jenny Bui and Erin Geary, both student ambassadors and Junior National Honor Society members, wait to greet him at the door.
Mass begins in the crowded church, as parents and grandparents join the students.
It is the Wednesday before the clocks fall back an hour to end Daylight Saving Time. The archbishop’s homily ties together the change in time and the dark mornings with how Jesus brightens people’s lives and encourages the students to help others. “We are called to be people who brighten the world by the way we treat people,” he tells them. He is given a pencil drawing of St. Paul as a thank you and in recognition of the Year of St. Paul being marked by the church.
He tours the school after Mass. The archbishop says hello to second-graders who are preparing for the sacraments of first Communion and first reconciliation.
“How many are excited? I can tell. Those hands went way up,” he jokes.
They appear to be most interested in his age and his family growing up. One youngster loudly proclaims he knows the archbishop’s grandchildren. (Later it becomes clear he has mistaken the archbishop for Deacon Joe Barker who has three grandchildren at the school.) The archbishop gracefully responds, “Sometimes I feel like all of you are my grandchildren. I’m the grandpa of all of the young people,” he says.
“Is the pope one of your friends?”
“Yes. He’d know me immediately.”
He visits sixth-graders and admits that being an archbishop is “cool.” To a group of curious eighth-graders, he says that being Catholic at times means having doubts. “Faith is believing even when there are doubts,” he says, reminding them how St. Peter wrestled with uncertainty. Being with young people is one of his favorite tasks, he says.
The archbishop leaves the school to return home. He swaps out his vestments for the dedication tonight from green to white.
In the garage hangs an Illinois vanity plate: Wilton. He used it during his 10 years as bishop of Belleville, where he served before coming to Atlanta. He drives around now with a Choose Life plate.
In his upstairs office, the walls are decorated with many awards, decrees signed by Pope John Paul II. Hanging on one is his Sword of Loyola from Loyola University of Chicago given in 2004. He has been awarded seven honorary doctoral degrees.
He checks e-mail. He keeps a private account separate from the work-a-day account for the archdiocese. “Good news. Wow. Ain’t that something,” he says to no one in particular. He also scans the day’s newspapers. There are some 22 reserved online as his favorites, from the New York Times to the Detroit Free Press. He is a self-described “news junkie.” His computer wallpaper is the final Mass of the 2005 Synod of Bishops in the ornate St. Peter’s Basilica.
In the second-floor library, there’s a carpet-like putting green to practice his golf. There’s a pile of books on the coffee table he wants to get to, from sports writer Rick Reilly to Cardinal Avery Dulles and actor Denzel Washington’s “Hand to Guide Me.” A large flat screen TV sits in the corner.
He arrives at 680 West Peachtree St., the downtown headquarters of the archdiocese. During the short trip from Buckhead, he tries his mother again. Leaves a message.
The archbishop pulls the framed gift out of his trunk and hands it over to Joe Truitt, who works in the facilities department. He suggests where to hang it but highly recommends Joe get an opinion from a woman or someone with a better eye for these sorts of things.
“Hi, ladies,” he announces walking into the suite of third-floor offices. His executive assistant Kenya Graham pulls him into her small office. He signs a Bible that was auctioned off at a fundraiser for Our Lady of Victory School.
“As soon as they have their auctions, this is a big hit item,” she says.
He doesn’t stop for lunch. He says during his years of living in Rome, Italy, for his doctoral studies in liturgy—he wrote a 630-page dissertation on the history of the office of lector in the Western church—he learned to relish the downtime after the large midday meal “pranzo.” Since he cannot relax after lunch now, he skips it altogether.
His wood-paneled office overlooks West Peachtree Street, the Bank of America Plaza skyscraper and the towers of downtown. He starts on paperwork. His afternoon schedule is back-to-back meetings.
He goes behind closed doors with Stephen M. Forte, the managing partner of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, the law firm for the archdiocese, along with the vicars general, Msgr. Luis Zarama and Msgr. Joe Corbett, and other archdiocesan officials.
Later, he joins about a dozen leaders from various archdiocesan departments. They sit around the large wood table in the conference room as they share updates.
The difficulties in the economy seep into the discussion. A youth conference is scrapped because of the lack of financial support from parishes. Catholic Charities leaders wrestle with whether calling its big fundraising dinner a gala is insensitive when headlines are filled with news of layoffs. An idea is batted around calling it the Good Samaritan dinner.
Afterwards, he sits down at his computer. He surfs the Web and checks out the Whispers in the Loggia blog, which is a favorite for church observers. He tweaks his homily being delivered tonight. He tries his mom again. Leaves a message.
Later, he meets with the consultants from North Highland Group and the vicars general to go over the latest information about the Archdiocesan Planning Committee. Chairman Mike Cote participates on speakerphone from a business trip to Boston.
“He is a person who is very accessible and very approachable. He understands the simple life,” says Sister Olivia Cardenas about the archbishop.
The archbishop praises the work of the sisters. He likens them to the priests and religious who came here from Ireland, Poland and other nations to serve immigrants. “They are a blessing. We couldn’t do it without them,” he says.
He speaks his own version of Spanish. He studied the language while attending a language school in Middlebury, Vt., some 20 years ago. “My Italian married my Spanish and produced one ugly child,” he jokes.
He hits the Connector for a dinner date with leaders of St. Lawrence Church and other priests. He leaves early to avoid the evening rush through the city.
The archbishop says the church dedication this evening will be his eighth since coming to Atlanta. Other parts of the country are shuttering parishes.
“I’m doing the exact opposite,” he says.
The drive goes faster than he thought. Parking outside the Lil’ River Grill restaurant, the archbishop finally reaches his mom on the telephone. “You’re a hard lady to track down,” he tells her.
At dinner in the historic center of Lawrenceville, the conversation overwhelms the soft jazz playing on the sound system. With a “desperately dry” martini in hand, the archbishop jokes with priests, former pastors and people from the parish. They celebrate the night with an open bar and an entrée of chicken, asparagus, sweet potatoes. Coffee and dessert follows.
Father Bryan Small grabs the red suitcase out of the trunk when the archbishop parks right in front of St. Lawrence Church. Father Small, the chaplain for the Catholic community at Emory University, Agnes Scott College and St. Pius X High School, is the master of ceremonies for the evening. It is his job to direct the archbishop during the liturgy.
As priests put on their vestments, the archbishop dresses in a separate room. Father Small helps. When the archbishop asks what he is to do during one part of the ceremony, Father Small quips, “You can wave and be the belle of the ball.”
The master of ceremonies also screws together the archbishop’s crosier. It is the one given to him when he was installed as the Atlanta archbishop. It has his motto: “We are the Lord’s.”
Along with close to 20 priests, the archbishop begins the Mass by standing outside the building. He bangs on the wooden doors to symbolically reopen the church.
Some 1,200 people crowd St. Laurence Church for the dedication.
In his homily, the archbishop reminds people that the building is nice but more important are the people who fill the pews. “Surely God will be praised and is glorified in this splendid new edifice—but the building must also become a sacramental reminder that you are the Church—the structure that is most precious to the Lord. The People of God are themselves an edifice of irreplaceable worth to the heart of God Himself,” he says.
At the conclusion of the Mass, he receives from the congregation loud applause.
The archbishop pulls away from the church. He sets his GPS for Buckhead. He flips through some radio stations before landing on the World Series. It is the bottom of the eighth inning, and he listens as the Phillies win the game and the championship.
The black sedan arrives back at his residence. Home.