By JEAN DRISKELL, Special To The Bulletin | Published December 10, 2009
“A priest, in some ways, is expressing God to His people, and God uses other people to speak to us priests. It’s a dialogue,” Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of Atlanta’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, said about his experiences as a priest.
“I love being in church with God’s people, searching out ways to continue to serve in a world like ours.”
Becoming a priest is a process.
“It’s first to answer God’s call and to join with people on the path to spirituality,” he said. “To stand at the altar and to lead people in praise to Christ is an astounding moment.”
‘Let Me Hear Your Voice’
Msgr. Gracz, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday, had a Catholic education from elementary school in the 1940s through college in the early 1960s in Buffalo, N.Y. He said priests and nuns would come to elementary school to talk to the children, but it was in high school where the seed to his calling started to germinate.
“In high school I had an incredible spiritual director, Father Dolan,” Msgr. Gracz said. “He would walk the halls and individually tell all the juniors and seniors that they had what it takes to be a good priest, whether they were dating three girls at a time or not. He would raise the question.”
Msgr. Gracz said he was not yet mature enough in high school to make the decision to priesthood, even though “we were really blessed to have a number of priests and seminarians teaching in high school. They were role models.”
In college, he said he had a typical college life: studying, socializing, partying and experiencing life.
However, “in college, the question was still there. Is God calling me to be a priest?” Msgr. Gracz said. “I remember on college retreats waiting until everyone was asleep and going to the Calvary monument, a shrine, and saying to God, ‘Nobody else is here. Let me hear your voice saying you want me to be a priest.’”
“I discovered then, as I have in my lifetime, God usually whispers to me and (doesn’t) shout at me,” he said.
So when the time came to apply for seminary, Msgr. Gracz said he told his parents he was “just going to try it out.” When he got to seminary, he said, “I really felt at home with the group of other men all trying to discern what God wanted in their lives.”
‘Holy Spirit At Work In Atlanta’
Msgr. Gracz was ordained on May 8, 1965, for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
He came South after listening to a talk given by a Redemptorist priest, Father Bernard Haring.
“He spoke at our seminary (St. John Vianney in the Diocese of Buffalo) about the need of the church to share its resources,” Msgr. Gracz said.
“One of my heroes in my parish in Buffalo said that the greatest time in ministry was when he volunteered to work for one year in the South,” he said. “Through him I was introduced to Father John Stapleton here in Atlanta.”
Msgr. Gracz continued, “I came down to visit Atlanta and saw strong lay leadership and vibrant parish life. At that time there were over 30 priests for the whole archdiocese.”
“I saw the Holy Spirit working here in Atlanta. I met with Archbishop (Paul) Hallinan, and he invited me to join the archdiocese,” he said.
Msgr. Gracz said that one problem all new priests have is “generally thinking they are God’s gift to the world. Reality hits you real quickly.”
“Father John Mulroy was my first pastor here. He knew how to challenge, tease and lead a congregation and his priests,” he added.
When Msgr. Gracz became a priest, the Second Vatican Council was in session.
“It was an exciting time. There was excitement in being a disciple,” he said. “Pope John XXIII spoke about the church as the bride of Christ, ever new and ever young. There was a great spiritual energy in the air. How can the church speak the best wisdom in a modern world?”
In the early 1970s Msgr. Gracz had become involved in the charismatic movement. He said he saw “great ecumenical activity about the work of the Holy Spirit. It again was a calling forth a greater awareness, a fuller sense of the gifts God had given to his people.”
He said the charismatic movement gave birth to real Bible study and spontaneous prayer, and it rekindled the belief in God’s healing power.
Msgr. Gracz has been pastor of eight different parishes within the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“Every parish has a unique gift. The important thing in a Catholic parish is hospitality around the table of the Christ,” he said.
He said that the mission of a good parish could be seen in the Eucharistic prayers of reconciliation: God will gather people of every race, language and way of life.
“I found people are really eager to know what they can do to be disciples of Christ.”
When Msgr. Gracz was pastor of St. Joseph’s in Athens, he said there was a large number of University of Georgia faculty among the congregation.
“Dr. Tony Nemitz, a brilliant man, would say to me, ‘Henry, in your congregation you have people who know more sociology, philosophy, psychology and literature than you’ll ever know. We simply need you to be a God man.’ He was absolutely right,” said Msgr. Gracz.
He noted that it is amazing today to see the cooperation that can exist not only between Catholics and other Christian denominations and Catholics and other religions, but also between religious and spiritual leaders, such as those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths and mainline Protestants and evangelicals.
“I think the writings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI strive to teach us not that we are right and others are wrong,” he said, “but rather that when we discuss our areas of agreement, then we can build good collaboration and true ecumenical spirit.”
One of the highlights of his priesthood was the opportunity to work with then Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Bernardin.
“I felt he had a powerful conviction of the importance of collaboration,” Msgr. Gracz said. “He always struck me (that) he had a burning sense of God’s people working together.”
Msgr. Gracz loves to travel, and in 2005 one of his trips had a profound effect on him. He visited the concentration and death camps of Europe with other Christian leaders, hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.
“Experiencing the tragic pain of others and the amazing hope among the survivors will always remain with me. Deep impression,” he said.
Msgr. Gracz hopes to continue his ministry as a priest as long as possible.
“I thank God I have my strength for the ministry.”