By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published January 8, 2015
SMYRNA—Pausing in St. Dominic’s Chapel at the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Atlanta days before Christmas, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory reflected on an “incredible” 10 years as leader of the local church. Pope John Paul II appointed the then-bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, as Atlanta’s archbishop on Dec. 9, 2004. The archbishop’s installation was Jan. 17, 2005.
A Chicago native, Archbishop Gregory’s affection for Atlanta and the region has grown in the last decade.
“I had never lived or worked in the Deep South. I’m a child of the North, but I have come, not only to respect, but to deeply love the heritage, the culture, the ethos, the tempo—the weather,” he said. “It has become home and a very warm and welcoming and loving home.”
Archbishop Gregory said it’s both surprising and gratifying to know that Catholics in this archdiocese, who come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures and from other regions, have all brought such love and enthusiasm for the Lord.
“That’s energizing for me,” he said.
In shepherding the local church, Archbishop Gregory said that both clergy and friends have supported him.
“I’m very deeply grateful for the wisdom and the collaboration and generosity of the priests who are my colleagues in ministry,” said the archbishop.
The archbishop said a number of families who were initially his parishioners have become his friends. From these families, Archbishop Gregory said he has learned what it means to be Catholic in the South, and about the joys and challenges of raising children, anticipating the arrival of grandchildren and learning to be grateful for the gifts God has given.
The Chancery chapel bears the name of Archbishop Gregory’s confirmation saint, Dominic. The examples of St. Dominic and St. Martin de Porres, a lay Dominican brother, have encouraged him since his youth.
Archbishop Gregory had long carried a relic of St. Martin de Porres and received a second relic of the saint last November from a member of the archdiocese, Barbara Weiss.
“I just think that he gives me, and he has always given me, but even more so today, a great inspiration,” said the archbishop.
St. Martin was bicultural, both Peruvian and African. The establishment of an orphanage in Lima, Peru, was among his many works of compassion.
“He was known, even in his own time, as Martin the Kind,” explained Archbishop Gregory. “He was a gentle soul and no doubt had to face many acts of discrimination and rejection. So in spite of the challenges he faced, he never lost the spirit of gentility and faith that made him a saint.”
The archbishop has admired St. Dominic since learning about him in grammar school from the Sisters of St. Dominic.
“And again, here’s a man 800 years ago, a Spaniard in heritage, caught up with trying to evangelize a world in which he lived,” said the archbishop.
Both saints teach him about relating and connecting to Atlanta’s diverse communities.
“I can’t love any one group more than the other,” he said.
On a recent trip to Rome, Archbishop Gregory met the Holy Father. They had shared a brief conversation in 2001 during the synod on the life and ministries of bishops when Pope Francis was cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Archbishop Gregory called Pope Francis an extraordinary blessing.
“He’s got an energy about him and a spirit of joy … but he takes his job very seriously and he’s going about it with a methodically Jesuit approach,” said the archbishop.
It was 31 years ago when Archbishop Gregory was first ordained a bishop. He said this vocation is even more rewarding today.
“After 67 years, I’m very content with the decision that I made,” said Archbishop Gregory of his calling to the priesthood. “Now I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a priest and what it means to be a bishop. And there are days when it is more satisfying than others, but there are no days where I wish that I’d made another decision.”
While his 10th anniversary as archbishop of Atlanta is a time to reflect, Archbishop Gregory is also looking ahead to goals to be accomplished.
“I would certainly like to find ways to reach out to the un-churched, to the disaffected, our young people,” he said. “There’s still much to be done in the evangelization of those who for whatever reason have disassociated themselves from the practice of their faith.”
The church in Atlanta has grown in many ways from the number of parishes and parish ministries to those entering the church.
On the occasion of his 10th year, Archbishop Gregory offered words of appreciation to the priests and the Catholic community. He said, “Thank you. Thank you. These 10 years have been wonderful … the happiest years of my life as priest and bishop.”