Published December 4, 2008
Celebrating an Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass on a chilly December night in the dilapidated warehouse that formerly housed Our Lady of the Americas Mission, affirming in Spanish their place in the church of Atlanta to many struggling immigrants packed inside.
Traveling to Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to bring back 16 images of Mary for parishes and to later crown La Guadalupana and renew the consecration of the archdiocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Writing a pastoral letter and speaking publicly on the need for humane and comprehensive immigration reform.
Such actions have endeared Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to the Hispanic community, said Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Marietta and former director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry.
Father Duvan accompanied the archbishop on the pilgrimage to Mexico City where the president of the bishops’ conference of Mexico blessed the images in the basilica where the original image of Mary, preserved since 1531, is enshrined.
“It was a great sign to the community that the bishop showed us he was with us and that he appreciates and values the Hispanic presence with us,” he said in Spanish. “We’ve seen him like a pastor to the Hispanic community.”
Father Duvan said that Archbishop Gregory, since his installation four years ago, has provided leadership to advance the goal of having all archdiocesan departments provide services and information bilingually, including on the Justice for Immigrants campaign of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
“The archdiocese has various services for the (Hispanic) community, but they don’t know of all the services that exist. The big task has been to make them known to the Hispanic community,” said the Colombia native, adding that a pressing need for a Spanish media outlet is under discussion.
“I’ve seen in the archbishop an openness to welcoming the stranger, the immigrant, especially to provide all services in Spanish and try to serve from all offices of the archdiocese all our immigrant brothers and sisters. … The archdiocese now has a majority of offices with bilingual employees. This has been a big step.”
Jairo Martinez, the director since July of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, said the archbishop has encouraged them to focus more on working with other archdiocesan departments. The intent is to help the departments develop their own programs to better reach the many Hispanics outside the church. The office has also participated regularly in Justice for Immigrant campaign meetings.
“Our goal is to serve as a tool for every office to develop programs,” Martinez said.
His office also has a new Hispanic council of seven priests and one religious.
“It’s going to help us to have more people thinking about the ministry and provide us better feedback from the field. For me that’s a big step,” he said.
And the Office of Hispanic Ministry has had an integral role in church planning.
“The office always has been involved in planning of the archdiocese because (the archbishop) wants to hear the voice and opinions of Hispanics. We are planning with the community, not only for the community,” said Father Duvan.
Father Fabio Sotelo-Peña, pastor of St. Michael Church in Gainesville, appreciates the archbishop’s priestly example and his leadership that empowers the pastor to carry out his ministry.
“He loves the priests. He supports us—the priests—and our work. There is a clear direction of where we are in our ministry. He has given the whole archdiocese a whole vision that involves being more united and working together as one church,” he said. “It’s important to be united and diverse, and we must accept others as we are as Catholics.”
He praised the archbishop’s advocacy for immigration reform. Yet he acknowledged that Catholics remain “very divided on the issue” and that there is some church silence and inaction on gritty local issues such as the immigration raids that have caused many to leave his parish and Hall County.
But Archbishop Gregory “has been very strong and very clear about his advocacy for what the USCCB supports on the immigration issue, which is comprehensive immigration reform and affirming the dignity of all legal and illegal immigrants,” he said.
Father Fernando Molina Restrepo became administrator of the largest and oldest Hispanic mission in the archdiocese, Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Doraville, shortly after the archbishop’s appointment.
“One of my concerns was the support I would need in the mission because I knew of the lack of space, the multitudes of people, and the great challenge in ministry,” he said.
“From the very beginning, the archbishop offered his support and encouragement for the needs of Our Lady of the Americas Mission. We immediately began to expand the raising of funds.”
By May 2006 the mission purchased its new church in Lilburn.
“There were many needed changes and updates, and (they) will be completed this year. The archbishop has consistently offered his support through this major endeavor and great challenges. He has committed the financial support of the archdiocese as well as the leadership of the administrative offices to help with the transition and needs of the Hispanic ministry at Our Lady of the Americas,” he said. “I truly admire the archbishop’s vision and leadership for all that has happened at the mission over the past three and one half years. I believe that he has been a great blessing for the whole Hispanic ministry in the archdiocese and actually for the whole archdiocese.”
Under Archbishop Gregory’s leadership the archdiocese established in July the St. Paul Program for International Priests. Father Duvan, the director, said that the program is an important step in priest recruitment in that it formalizes the process of acculturating and welcoming foreign priests for service in Atlanta and includes interviews with candidates in their homelands and English classes and other preparation beforehand. In addition to fostering vocations at home, he said it’s also critical to recruit priests from Latin America, for which he has interviewed 59 priests in 30 dioceses and accepted 14 priests in the last five years. There are now 49 Latin American priests for 66 Hispanic ministries striving to serve some 300,000 Hispanic Catholics.
“We have such a great need for priests,” he said. “The harvest is plenty, but the workers are few.”
“We see an openness in him toward the Hispanic community like we also saw in Archbishop Donoghue, only now we have more resources and personnel,” Father Duvan added.