Published December 11, 2008
An elaborate procession, complete with candles, incense and more than 120 priests, began a reverent and nostalgic Mass honoring Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory on his silver jubilee as a bishop.
Clutching programs that proclaimed the archbishop’s episcopal motto, hundreds of friends and colleagues, as well as nine bishops from the Southeast region and around the country, assembled at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Tuesday, Dec. 9, to join in the celebration. Archbishop Gregory was ordained a bishop on Dec. 13, 1983 in Chicago.
Archbishop-emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, who served with Archbishop Gregory in leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops beginning in the late 1990s, gave the homily on the special occasion and voiced his feelings about Atlanta’s archbishop.
Calling the event a “wonderful, grace-filled day,” Archbishop Fiorenza said Atlanta was not the only church rejoicing, but that Catholics across the country were as well.
“The church in the United States happily joins the celebration because the shepherd of Atlanta has, in many important ways, been its shepherd during the years he served as the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” Archbishop Fiorenza began.
“This jubilee celebration has its origins many years ago when the 11-year-old Wilton began a faith journey with Christ as he emerged from the saving waters of baptism,” he continued. “This encounter with Jesus awakened in his young heart a desire to be more closely united with the Lord.”
The retired archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas, continued to lead the assembly through significant moments in Archbishop Gregory’s life including his time in the seminary, his ordination as a Chicago priest and then as auxiliary bishop of Chicago and his election as an officer of the USCCB.
“I was tremendously blessed to have him by my side,” said the bishop, who served as president of the USCCB while Archbishop Gregory served as his vice president from 1998-2001. Archbishop Gregory subsequently served for three years as president, guiding the bishops during what most consider the most serious crisis faced by the Catholic Church in the United States in its history.
“The mission of every bishop is identical with the mission Christ gave the church,” said Archbishop Fiorenza, noting that the mission is to be a steward of the mysteries of God. “For the past 25 years … (Archbishop Gregory) has been a faithful servant of the word of God.”
“I truly hope that you know in your own heart how well you have served God,” he told Archbishop Gregory at the end of his homily, which was greeted with applause.
The Mass also began with a cascade of applause when Archbishop Gregory entered the Cathedral at the end of the procession of priests and bishops.
Linda Grace, principal of Our Lady of Victory School in Tyrone, brought four sixth-graders with her to the Mass because she felt it was “a great opportunity to celebrate with the archbishop.”
Grace, who has lived in Atlanta for the past 25 years, said she is grateful to have a “wonderful bishop” who is “very personable, very approachable and just loves children.”
Grace said Archbishop Gregory celebrated Mass at the school the previous week and took time to visit several classrooms. Each Catholic school in the archdiocese was given the chance to bring a few students to the jubilee Mass.
Sister of Mercy Valentina Sheridan said the archbishop serves as an inspiration to everyone in the archdiocese.
“He embraces us,” she said, speaking about his care for the sisters who work in and around North Georgia.
A special section was reserved at the front of the church for the group of women Religious who came to give their support.
Sister Valentina, along with Sister Peggy Fannon, who is also a Sister of Mercy, said they chose to attend the morning Mass to show their respect for the archbishop.
Before giving the final blessing to the congregation, Archbishop Gregory took a moment to thank those who have supported him throughout the years.
“From the heart, I thank you,” he said, first recognizing his brother priests and then the bishops who traveled to Atlanta for this occasion. They included retired and active bishops of Georgia, North and South Carolina, as well as two auxiliary bishops from Chicago and Archbishop Fiorenza.
Archbishop Gregory voice caught with emotion as he spoke of the families in Atlanta whom he has come to know personally since he was installed and the children of North Georgia, saying they “bring more joy to my heart than I can say.”
Then as the choir sang rousingly “People Look East” the procession left the church to another boisterous round of applause.
Archbishop Gregory remained in the narthex to greet all those who attended. Many asked for pictures, which the archbishop gladly obliged, while others simply offered their hand and heartfelt congratulations.
Wylma Blanding, who worships at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, said both she and the archbishop joined the church as adolescents. He was 11; she was 16.
“It brings me great joy to see him here at this church,” said Blanding, adding he was a role model for African-Americans and others. She called him a “person of quality.”
Father Ricardo Bailey, who is currently the chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, said that the Archdiocese of Atlanta was a “richer church” because of Archbishop Gregory’s presence.
He added that Atlanta also has a stronger presbyterate because of the archbishop’s example.
Father Bailey served as the emcee for a luncheon which Archbishop Gregory attended with his fellow priests and bishops in the parish hall following the Mass.
A slideshow, featuring both pictures and video clips, was shown on two large screens in the gathering space and included footage of his episcopal ordination as well as his meetings with popes. Other images were also displayed on easels throughout the hall.
At the luncheon, Father Bailey introduced Father Paul Berny, president of the Council of Priests and pastor of Prince of Prince Church, Flowery Branch, to present a gift to the archbishop.
Father Berny announced that the priests had chosen to give a new crosier to the archbishop, which features his episcopal motto, “We are the Lord’s.”
“We hope you will also lean on us for support,” said Father Berny.
Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland also took a moment to say a few words to the group, roasting the archbishop a bit and provoking lots of laughter.
The bishop said he recently visited a Web site where he saw a slideshow of the archbishop’s “typical 14-hour day.”
“I got tired just looking at it,” he joked. “I took a siesta halfway through it.”
He also commented on the archbishop’s beloved Georgia Bulletin column “What I Have Seen and Heard,” and said he is lucky because many bishops could not do the same.
“Perhaps what we see and hear, we cannot print,” he said.
But the Savannah bishop struck a more serious note at the end of his talk, saying how impressed he was with Atlanta and the “hospitality of your priests” and the “graciousness of welcome.”
Bishop Boland raised a glass of champagne and toasted the silver jubilarian.
Archbishop Gregory then took the podium himself. Thanking all those present, from his former colleagues in Chicago and Belleville, Ill., to the staff he now works with, he gave a special thanks to his priests.
“These are great priests and I love them dearly,” he told the crowd, vowing that he will try to love and serve them better in the future.
“There have been many challenges,” he continued. “But these 25 years have given me joy which I never could have imagined.”
Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue joined the eight other bishops, including Bishop George Rassas and Bishop Joseph Perry, both auxiliary bishops of Chicago, to commemorate the event.
“He is a very committed priest and bishop. He loves the church and the people. He does it with great care. He looks after the people,” said Archbishop Donoghue, who led the Atlanta Archdiocese from 1994 to 2004.
He said it was clear Archbishop Gregory is held in high regard. The turnout of so many priests shows how highly he is respected, said Archbishop Donoghue.
“Everybody that meets him is a friend,” he said.