By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published May 14, 2020
ATLANTA—On the eve of his installation and 41st anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., gathered with clergy, religious and laity for solemn vespers on Tuesday, May 5, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta.
Archbishop Hartmayer was joined by auxiliary bishops Joel M. Konzen, SM, and Bernard E. Shlesinger III; Bishop J. Kevin Boland, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Savannah; and Msgr. Francis McNamee, rector for the Cathedral.
The Conventual Franciscan Friar was installed as the archbishop of Atlanta the afternoon of Wednesday, May 6, at the Cathedral. He was named the seventh archbishop by Pope Francis on March 5.
To practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the congregation for solemn vespers was vastly limited. Collectively, there were 10 people on the altar and in the nave, leaving rows of empty pews. All attendees sat at least six feet apart and some wore protective masks on their faces.
“The unanticipated and unrelenting events of the past few months have definitely indefinitely altered every facet of our lives,” said Archbishop Hartmayer.
During his homily, the archbishop spoke about how he had planned to acknowledge and thank bishops, clergy, family and friends who traveled near and far for the celebration. He called these people “living stones,” who have helped him on his own spiritual journey.
The list included Father Leon, who taught him world history in high school; his godmother, who brought him to church for the first time; Father Jim, his former pastor who mentored him as a deacon; Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, his predecessor and Bishop Boland, a mentor who became a treasured friend.
However, because of social distancing, most of them were unable to attend. Many watched the vespers online, which had more than 1,000 live views.
“An empty cathedral may seem to some like a pretty disappointing way to begin this new ministry,” said Archbishop Hartmayer, instead he chose to view it differently.
“I see this empty cathedral as a call to action, a stark and powerful reminder of what could happen if we let up, even for a moment—if we ever get complacent or begin to take all he has given us for granted.”
Be living stones, beacons
Archbishop Hartmayer asked Catholics to be “living stones” for others, diminishing the worries of empty churches in the future.
“Recommit to deepening your own precious faith in Jesus Christ so that your children and your grandchildren cannot help but see every day that you have found comfort, contentment and boundless joy in worshipping the one who made us,” said the archbishop. “Become a beacon to all who are seeking, especially those under your own roof. And we will never have to worry about empty churches, unfilled pews for those heartbreaking vacancies in your own family’s row.”
As the world continues to practice social distancing due to the coronavirus, Archbishop Hartmayer asked viewers to reflect on lessons learned during recent months of physical separation.
This experience could lead to a deep appreciation for the Eucharist as the church prepares to return gradually and deliberately to communal worship and ecclesial life, he said.
“My sincere prayer for the church, once this pandemic is contained and we are able to congregate again without risk, is … the people of God will arise on the first morning, the first Sunday morning that public Masses resume, excited about the prospect of reconvening with their faith community at the Lord’s table,” said Archbishop Hartmayer. “It will be like the Easter we wish we could’ve celebrated this year.”
Words of welcome poured on social media during the vespers. Shelley Shlapak said the homily was wonderful.
“We are so happy to have you back in Atlanta,” said Shlapak during the live Facebook feed of the evening prayer.
Many who knew Archbishop Hartmayer, affectionately called “Father Greg” from his previous time in the Atlanta Archdiocese, are excited for his return. Archbishop Hartmayer previously served at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro for 15 years and at St. John Vianney in Lithia Springs for almost a year, before being appointed the bishop of the Diocese of Savannah.
“As always, your speech made my heart fly,” said Mary Hassett Fodor. “Thank you for your heartfelt words.”
Despite many being unable to attend the ceremony as Georgians continue to practice social distancing, Archbishop Hartmayer reminded viewers that the current situation is temporary.
“We know that just as soon as it is safe to do so, physical access to our Lord Jesus Christ in the sacraments will return to their rightful places in the local community of believers,” he said.
Choirs will practice, faith formation will continue, couples will announce and plan their weddings, families will scramble to make it to Mass on time and meetings will continue for parishes and the archdiocese, he said.
“There will be ample time for personal good wishes and sentiments of farewell and welcome in the months ahead,” said the archbishop. “One day soon there will be a time to celebrate, and celebrate we will.”