By ANDREW NELSON and SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writers | Published March 5, 2020
SMYRNA—After an 11-month absence of an archbishop, Pope Francis appointed a familiar face to be the spiritual leader of Catholics in north and central Georgia. The announcement on Thursday, March 5 named Bishop Gregory John Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of Savannah as Atlanta’s new archbishop.
Archbishop Hartmayer arrived Thursday morning at the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Atlanta greeted with applause.
Dressed in the grey robes of a Conventual Franciscan friar, the archbishop said the return to Atlanta is “like coming home.”
“Atlanta has grown so significantly for all kinds of reasons, but the faith has also grown in Atlanta. And that is something that we must keep in mind and continue to work toward evangelization and formation of our people,” he said in a press conference. “These are difficult times in our society, and I think people are looking for something, as they always have, to hold on to that has roots. It has tradition that has meaning, has depth. And I think the Catholic Church continues to offer that despite our imperfections.”
The appointment comes after Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was named to lead the Archdiocese of Washington in the spring of 2019.
Archbishop Gregory called the Conventual Franciscan an “extraordinary shepherd.”
From the Archdiocese of Washington he said, “Bishop Hartmayer is a familiar face for the church in north Georgia, where he served with great distinction for many years as a local pastor. He knows the people and is deeply loved and respected. He will be an excellent archbishop and the people of God will be blessed through his ministry and care.”
The installation, tentatively set for Wednesday, May 6, will make him the seventh archbishop of Atlanta. Although the Mass is set to take place at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, continuing concern about the spread of COVID-19 may require adjusting the location and number attending.
The archbishop said during a press conference one of his challenges “will be to be available, to be visible and to visit and be present to as many of the faith communities, and educational institutions and other institutions, social outreach, as much as I can. I look forward to seeing more and more of Atlanta and what is going on here.”
Archbishop Hartmayer will take on a smaller geographic archdiocese, but much larger community, with an estimated 1.2 million believers, compared to 80,000-100,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Savannah. He’s led the diocese in the southern half of Georgia for nearly nine years.
He has about two months before formally taking over as the spiritual leader of the Atlanta Catholic community as his service comes to an end in Savannah.
His southern diocese shaped him as “a better person, and hopefully a more effective and compassionate priest and bishop,” he said. “I’m so grateful to God for giving me those precious eight years, that’s blessed my life.”
The new archbishop is no stranger. He served in Atlanta from 1995 to 2011, when he was appointed to lead Savannah. He was pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, with its international members representing 20 countries, and St. John Vianney Church, Lithia Springs. He was also elected by his peers to be president of the archdiocesan priests’ council, which offers support and advice from the clergy to the archbishop.
“I want to remind Atlanta that you came from Savannah,” he said, noting how once the whole state was the Diocese of Savannah. The Diocese of Atlanta began in 1956. “You are our daughter. But you are an elder daughter that has been very successful and has many, many members, and we’re happy about that.”
The son of a police detective and homemaker, he grew up outside Buffalo, New York. He was introduced to the Franciscan religious community as a student. He said he was drawn to their spirituality and their joy. His early ministry was focused on schools, where he was a guidance counselor, teacher and principal. He arrived in Atlanta in 1995 as pastor to the parish, about 16 miles south of Atlanta.
Receiving the call
He learned about his new appointment Saturday by a phone call with the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Hearing rumors early in the process about a possible appointment, Archbishop Hartmayer said he wrote the nuncio that he was very happy in his current position.
“When he called me on Saturday, and asked me to accept the invitation of Pope Francis and his appointment of me to be the bishop, the Archbishop of Atlanta, I said, ‘Bishop I wrote you a letter.’ And he says, ‘I know you did, but you didn’t close the door.’”
While he saw Pope Francis just weeks ago during the “ad limina” pilgrimage to Rome, Archbishop Hartmayer said he had no inkling.
“It’s interesting. He never said a word to me,” said the archbishop. “He could have given me a hint. He didn’t, but he’s a wonderful, wonderful pope.”
Asked about Pope Francis’ charge for believers to serve people living on the margins of society, Archbishop Hartmayer recalled his visits to the Hispanic community of Sand Hill, Georgia. There is a great joy in a small, struggling parish where people worship in two wide mobile homes, he said.
“In my heart, the people of Sand Hill, are some of the most hospitable, faithful, joyful people I’ve met. And they have nothing. They have nothing. They’re proud of their church, and I’m proud of their faith,” he said. “They’re proud of their devotions. And they have great respect for the clergy that come to serve at their parish. And it is a place that I will always, always remember as one of my fondest experiences in Savannah.”
He also spoke of his visit to prisoners in jail and immigrants facing deportation.
A graduate of a Catholic school in his native Buffalo, he talked warmly about fostering the identity of Catholic schools.
“I know people choose Catholic schools for a variety of reasons. And I understand that,” said the archbishop. “Some of them are academic. Some of them are athletic, some of them are the arts or music. But my major reason for supporting Catholic schools and giving them the attention that I think they need is to ensure that they remain Catholic, and the faith is passed on, in an understandable and practical way.”
In an earlier interview with The Georgia Bulletin, Archbishop Hartmayer spoke of his recent visit to Rome and the meeting between his brother bishops of the region and Pope Francis.
He said the very first question that the Holy Father asked them was about religious communities.
“He asked, ‘How many of you are religious?’ We raised our hands, and he asked, ‘What communities are you from?’ There were just three of us there. So, he has a sensitivity toward religious,” said Archbishop Hartmayer.
While members of religious orders are sometimes academics or intellectuals, “a lot of us are just workers, and pastors, and we work with the people. And that’s what I think he (the pope) would like to see more of in the dioceses.”
There are 25 Conventual Franciscans serving as bishops worldwide; three in the United States.
During the interview, he talked about how his 15 years at St. Philip Benizi shaped him.
On a visit to the Jonesboro parish after being installed as Bishop of Savannah, he told the congregation, “You gave birth to a bishop.”
“They are just wonderful, giving people, and their faith is something they live. It’s not just something they participate in once a week,” he said of his former parish. “It’s truly a family. I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Following the news conference, Archbishop Hartmayer met with Chancery staff. During the meeting, employees were able to ask Archbishop Hartmayer questions. Topics ranged from family life to workflow and expectations.
“It’s great working with people who have the same mission and vision in mind,” said Archbishop Hartmayer. “We want to do God’s will; we want to bring people closer to Christ.”
Archbishop Hartmayer has two brothers and a sister. As a sophomore in high school, he worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for a year to earn enough money for his yearbook, class ring and prom. He was part of Catholic Youth Organization, also known as CYO and Boy Scouts. He told staff he likes Broadway music and songs from the 50s and 60s, especially Neil Diamond and John Denver.
Karen Vogtner, principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville, has known Archbishop Hartmayer for many years.
“I’m just so excited,” said Vogtner.
They worked on committees together, including one for GRACE Scholars and an archdiocesan strategic planning committee. The school has a strong partnership with St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, where Archbishop Hartmayer served.
Vogtner said she had many conversations with him over the years about Catholic education.
“He’s just so wonderfully humble,” she said. “I think he’s just the perfect person to come in and shepherd us.”
Editor Nichole Golden contributed to this story.