By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 18, 2019
ATLANTA—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will depart Atlanta on May 3, heading to the Vatican for a Papal Foundation meeting before taking up his role as the new spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Washington.
He will become the seventh archbishop of the nation’s capital and the first African-American in that position. He is to be installed at St. Matthew Cathedral on Tuesday, May 21.
To the community of Atlanta, where he has served for 14 years, the archbishop talked about the family he found.
“I love you more than I can possibly express. As I said, from the day I arrived as the new archbishop to be appointed and publicly announced the next day, I have felt very, very much at home. And that is the gift you have given to me. You have made me feel a part of this family. That’s the gift that I will take with me to Washington,” said Archbishop Gregory in an April 9 news conference. “Atlanta is a loving family. And like any family we have our disagreements. … Family life involves give and take, mistakes and forgiving, but it is the spirit of being family that I will take most directly with me on the plane to Washington.”
The appointment by Pope Francis was made official on Thursday, April 4. He will succeed Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop. Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation, submitted due to his age, in October 2018.
New churches, more believers
Archbishop Gregory, 71, became Atlanta’s archbishop in January 2005 to lead an increasing flock that has grown from about 700,000 to approximately 1.2 million Catholics in central and north Georgia.
During Archbishop Gregory’s service in Atlanta, he ordained 71 priests and 172 permanent deacons.
To serve the growing Catholic population, the archbishop dedicated a dozen additional parishes and seven missions in the 69 counties of the archdiocese during his tenure. As of 2019, there are 103 parishes and missions.
Father Mark Starr is the pastor of St. Clare of Assisi Church, Acworth, one of the newest parishes. Archbishop Gregory dedicated the worship space on Oct. 28. Father Starr also leads the Council of Priests, a consultative body to the archbishop. In his five years on the council, Father Starr said he’s seen the archbishop listen to all viewpoints and take them into consideration when making decisions.
Father Starr treasures a moment he shared with the archbishop on the day of his own ordination. Walking to the Cathedral of Christ the King, Father Starr recalled how Archbishop Gregory took him aside and made him promise to call him at any time for any need.
“He really meant it. It has been a privilege to serve under him,” he said. Priests in the archdiocese have great respect for him, he said. “He is a man of incredible dedication to the church, a man of integrity, and a wonderful collaborator.”
When talking to Atlanta news media, Archbishop Gregory spoke highly of the Latino Catholic community, which has grown to make up about half of the faithful.
“You have been such a source of energy, and light, for me, personally. But also for this large archdiocesan family. And I am glad. The Latino presence in the church in the United States is nothing less than the gift of God to this community and the United States,” he said.
Serving the church
Archbishop Gregory, a grade school convert to the faith, was ordained a priest for his native Chicago where he served as an auxiliary bishop. Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 appointed him bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.
From 2001 to 2004, he served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops where he led the bishops to approve “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which mandated zero tolerance for priests or laypeople working in the church who abused young or vulnerable people.
He became Atlanta’s archbishop on Jan. 17, 2005.
Longtime friends believe his skills will be a good fit for the Archdiocese of Washington, but knew he had put down roots. Father Robert Byrne, Father Richard Duncanson and the archbishop all became friends during graduate school in Rome more than 40 years ago.
“In the past 14 years, I could see how much he had come to love the people and priests in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and it was obvious that he had no desire to go anywhere else,” said Father Byrne.
A retired priest for the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, Father Byrne said his friend “sees his primary episcopal responsibility in terms of being a ‘pastor’ for everyone in his diocese. As Archbishop of Washington, D.C., he will certainly have many responsibilities that go beyond the archdiocese, but he will never forget his role as pastor. That is who he is,” said Father Byrne in an email.
Father Duncanson said his friend “personifies servant leadership in a genuinely humble way, yet with great competence and confidence.”
Washington “needs exactly” the outlook and influence Archbishop Gregory will bring to the position, said Father Duncanson in an email.
Introduction to D.C. Catholics
Two previous leaders of the Archdiocese of Washington have been tarnished by the abuse crisis, with Cardinal Wuerl for his handling of the crisis and former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, being defrocked for abuse in 2019.
“I believe that the only way I can serve this local archdiocese is by telling you the truth,” Archbishop Gregory told the D.C. media. “I want to offer you hope. I will rebuild your trust.”
He said he wants to serve as a pastor, to priests and the lay faithful and promote Gospel values.
“We’ve certainly given our faithful lots of reasons to leave the church; I want to provide a few reasons to stay. I want to assure the people that I will be honest with them, that I will govern with sensitivity, that I will be approachable, available…”
His first priority will be to visit people in the parishes, not sit behind a desk, he said. “I want to come to know you—to hear your stories, to listen to the emotions, experiences and expectations that have shaped your precious Catholic faith, for better or for worse.”
The future will acknowledge the past to rebuild trust, he said.
“I cannot undo the past. But I sincerely believe that together we will not merely address the moments where we’ve fallen short or failed outright,” said the archbishop. “But we will model for all the life and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will reclaim the future for our families, for those who will follow us—that is my greatest, indeed it is my only aspiration.”
Legacy in Atlanta
Pat Chivers worked as the communications director for the Atlanta Archdiocese. After working at the Florida Catholic Conference, she served in Atlanta for more than eight years. In the job interview, she recalled Archbishop Gregory telling her the church communications department always has to “tell the truth.”
He takes into his new position a great skill at listening to a diversity of voices, she said. “He has strong leadership balanced with listening,” Chivers explained.
“He sincerely wants to hear from the people. He sincerely wants to meet the people,” said Chivers, who now volunteers with Ablaze Radio, a Catholic radio station affiliated with St. Monica Church, Duluth.
She recalled how when lobbying at the Georgia Legislature, a letter from the archbishop would carry weight because he rarely was involved in the legislative process. When he served as a statehouse chaplain for the day, lawmakers of different religious backgrounds were drawn to him. He was “so very well respected,” Chivers said.
His legacy during his time in Atlanta will be growing the Catholic community with new buildings and new believers with “arms being open wide,” Chivers said.
Deacon Bill Garrett, president of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, said the appointment was a loss for Atlanta, but right for Washington.
“It’s a wise choice. It’ll be great for the universal church and the Washington, D.C., area,” he said. “They are getting a real gem.”
He remembered a time the archbishop visited the school to greet students.
“What was great (was) he was spending time with the students, not so much the adults,” said Deacon Garrett, who also serves at All Saints Church, Dunwoody.
The archbishop was key in getting Cristo Rey off the ground. He agreed to lease the former Midtown archdiocesan office at a reduced rate, which was vital to attract the initial students and gave the school $3 million in grants, said Deacon Garrett.
On his legacy, Deacon Garrett said the archbishop helped grow the church, in particular with the Hispanic community, building new worship space where needed, fostering outreach to the ecumenical community and building up Catholic education.
Samantha Smith contributed to the story.