Published December 4, 2008
While the need for vocations to the priesthood continues to rise, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has taken steps toward staying close to those priests who have already answered the call to serve the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
By keeping the lines of communication open, and making himself accessible in several ways, the archbishop hopes to continue to keep dialogue strong between himself and the priests, and among the priests as well.
When Archbishop Gregory was installed in Atlanta in January 2005, one of his first actions was to listen to what his priests had to say.
Within the first month of taking office, the archbishop made it a priority to hold a series of listening sessions in order to hear from the priests themselves, what was happening in the archdiocese.
Organized by deanery, three meetings were facilitated by Father Robert Silva, former president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, in February 2005. A fourth meeting was held that month for Spanish-speaking priests.
The goal was to establish a framework for his working relationship with the priests working in the archdiocese, or presbyterate, and to develop a collaborative relationship of mutual respect with them, as the archbishop stated in a homily during a Mass the night before he was installed.
Many priests felt the gesture to hold listening sessions so soon after Archbishop Gregory took office showed it truly was at the top of his list.
“He wants to have a relationship with his priests,” said Conventual Franciscan Father Gregory Hartmayer, pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro.
“He is always willing to listen,” the Franciscan added.
The effort to keep an open line of communication with his priests has also been sustained through the Council of Priests, made up of more than 30 priests who serve in the archdiocese.
The Priests’ Council gathers once a month, and the members, who represent the diversity of priests in years of service and special ministries, assist the bishop in his task of governing the diocese.
“There is a transparency,” said Father Frank McNamee, pastor of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, and a member of the council.
“Archbishop Gregory wants to make sure priests know what is going on in the archdiocese,” added Father McNamee, who also serves as the director of priest personnel and dean of the North Metro Deanery.
Father McNamee said that Archbishop Gregory uses every vehicle he can to stay connected with the priests in North Georgia and believes that the Council of Priests is one of the best ways to do that.
“He made it clear that we should be comfortable … talking about anything,” commented Father Hartmayer, who also serves on the Council of Priests.
The archbishop wants to be available to everyone, added the Franciscan friar, and he allows all to talk “freely and openly” about any issues.
The archbishop keeps the priests informed of what is happening in the archdiocese, from the strategic planning process underway since 2006 to local concerns, but also makes sure to hear what his priests have to say.
“Archbishop Gregory seeks their input and advice,” said Father Luke Ballman, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, about the council.
The Council of Priests mirrors the kind of care and attention the archbishop gives to the priests one-on-one during presbyteral conferences he regularly leaves time open for on his schedule. Scheduled as a time block at least once a month, but usually once a week, Archbishop Gregory allows any priest to come to him to talk about anything. There are no appointments, no announcements, and priests can simply show up and visit with the archbishop.
Father Ballman said that priests bring everything from personal business to pastoral concerns to the archbishop during the conferences.
“(The presbyteral conferences) are a very effective way for him to stay in touch with his presbyterate,” said Father Ballman.
“He wants the priests to be able to talk to him about anything,” he added.
In addition to creating a strong link between himself and his priests, Archbishop Gregory also has worked toward building stronger bonds among the priests themselves.
In 2006, Archbishop Gregory resurrected the priests’ convocation, which invites all priests to spend a few days together, building a stronger sense of community and unity.
This year was the second convocation since the archbishop was installed, and it has been planned to occur every other year.
The priests are treated with time to relax, reflect and listen to speakers. But for many of the priests, simply being together with their brother priests makes the event special.
“The convocation has been successful … in bringing priests together” to renew friendships and reflect on their unique vocation, said Father McNamee.
The priests also get encouragement from attending Mass together, praying together and sharing meals.
At this year’s convocation, nearly 200 priests gathered at the Legacy Lodge Resort at Lake Lanier in Buford to listen to Father Noah Casey of St. Luke Church in Indianapolis and Patricia Kelly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works extensively with religious communities and dioceses.
On topics ranging from leadership development to building and maintaining healthy relationships, the priests took in a wealth of information and had the opportunity to discuss it with their fellow priests.
Both diocesan and religious order priests are invited to the convocation by Archbishop Gregory, which Father Hartmayer thinks is a wonderful gesture.
“The archbishop is appreciative of the religious presence in Atlanta,” said Father Hartmayer. “The religious are encouraged to be included.”
The Jonesboro pastor also said the convocation was a good way to bring together the diverse group of priests serving the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The archdiocese has a flavor that many other priests do not get to experience, he said.
Whether one is English- or Spanish-speaking, young or old, newly ordained or with decades of ministry under one’s belt, Archbishop Gregory works hard to listen and help the priests in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“The archbishop truly is a father to us,” said Father Ballman. “He cares for his priests like sons.”