By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 10, 2019
SMYRNA—Upon returning to Atlanta after his appointment as the new archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory shared heartfelt messages for the Atlanta Catholic community.
In a press conference on Tuesday, April 9 at the Chancery of the archdiocese in Smyrna, Archbishop Gregory said he is grateful for the opportunity to have served the people of north and central Georgia and to have been formed and shaped by them in his ministry as bishop.
“These have been 14 of the happiest years of my life,” said Archbishop Gregory.
Pope Francis named Archbishop Gregory as the seventh archbishop of Washington on Thursday, April 4 to succeed Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as the archbishop from June 2006 to October 2018.
Archbishop Gregory thanked his brother priests, men and women religious, pastoral ministers of the community and archdiocesan staff for helping him to serve with joy.
The archbishop said that he will deeply miss Atlanta Catholics.
“You have been family to me and family for me. You have supported me, encouraged me, directed me, corrected me and in all of those things I have found the Lord present in you,” he said.
When asked by a member of the Atlanta media about his legacy, the archbishop noted the immense growth in the archdiocese, although he acknowledged that he could not take credit for it alone.
“I hope that I’ve been a catalyst for that growth,” he said.
In 2005, when Archbishop Gregory arrived, the Archdiocese had about 700,000 Catholics.
Since then, 12 new parishes and seven missions have been established. Archbishop Gregory has ordained 71 priests and 172 permanent deacons. There are now 104 parishes and missions in the archdiocese of 1.2 million Catholics.
The archbishop highlighted the continuation and expansion of the annual Eucharistic Congress, started by his predecessor Archbishop John Francis Donoghue. It is now the largest gathering of Catholics in the southeast.
“It’s grown over the years and it reflects the great diversity and the enthusiastic faith of this local church,” he said about the June congress.
The Holy See will officially begin the process of selecting a new archbishop for Atlanta upon Archbishop Gregory’s installation in Washington at St. Matthew the Apostle Cathedral on Tuesday, May 21.
Archbishop Gregory discussed the transition process for Atlanta to receive a new leader.
“In all candor, it could take as much as eight to twelve months, because the search and the review of the needs of the archdiocese, of potential candidates, is a long vetting process,” noted Archbishop Gregory. “But fortunately, the archdiocese has two very fine auxiliary bishops who will be able to handle the day-to-day activities until there is a new archbishop.”
While fielding a question from a reporter from Radio Inmaculada, the archbishop paused to express his “profound love for our Latino community” in Atlanta.
“You have been such a source of energy and light for me personally, but also for this large archdiocesan family,” he said.
The presence of Latino Catholics in the entire church is nothing less than a “gift of God,” not because of numbers, but for their vitality, deep religiosity and wonderful family life.
“You are a blessing,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory has acknowledged anger after the downfall of former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the church’s current sex abuse scandal.
Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation as Washington’s archbishop in October and named him apostolic administrator. The cardinal, now 78, had submitted his resignation, as is mandatory, to the pope when he turned 75. It had not been accepted until last fall.
Cardinal Wuerl faced pressure to resign following an August 2018 grand jury report detailing past sexual abuse claims in six Pennsylvania dioceses, which showed a mixed record of how he handled some cases as bishop in Pittsburgh.
In the press conference, Archbishop Gregory answered a question regarding what concrete steps he would take to address the abuse crisis and rebuild trust in Washington.
“The first step has to be to assure the people that I will tell them the truth,” he said.
He will take time to acquaint himself with parish communities and the priests of the nation’s capital.
“I have to come to know that local church as I have come to know the church here in the Archdicoese of Atlanta,” he said.
The archbishop shared how the time in Georgia has changed him.
“It was my first time living in the deep South. And so, I came to know a new community and a new region of our country. And it gave the me the experience of the great gentility that is to be found among Southern peoples. The gentility is also wedded to a respect for religious affiliations,” he said. “Our churches here in Atlanta are certainly fuller than churches in other parts of the country because I think they still enjoy a high priority here in the South.”
Living and ministering in Atlanta, the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also helped the archbishop better understand the issues of race.
“I consider myself a blessed man to have lived in Dr. King’s city for 14 years and to witness the pervasive pride that this city has for that man, as well he deserves,” he said.
As the first African-American archbishop for Washington, Archbishop Gregory told youth who may only see limitations that they can “dream big.”
The archbishop said as is the case in any family, there have been disagreements in his time here, some give and take, mistakes and forgiving.
“I love you more than I can possibly express,” said Archbishop Gregory. “You’ve made me feel a part of this family. And that’s the gift I will take with me to Washington.”