Catholic Standard El Pregonero
Classifieds Buy Photos

Catholic life in Atlanta shaped by Cardinal Gregory’s vision

Then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory presides at a Red Mass in Atlanta in 2007. (Michael Alexander photo/Georgia Bulletin)

Catholics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta rejoiced at the October news that their former spiritual leader, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington, was appointed by Pope Francis to become a cardinal. 

Cardinal Gregory served as the archbishop of Atlanta from January 2005 until the spring of 2019 when named by the pope to lead the Archdiocese of Washington. Under his leadership, the Atlanta Catholic community experienced remarkable growth with 12 new parishes and seven missions established. He ordained 71 priests and 172 permanent deacons.

Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of Atlanta, assured the cardinal of his continued prayers and thanked him for faithful leadership. Archbishop Hartmayer said he is particularly grateful for Cardinal Gregory’s mentoring and noted his predecessor’s key accomplishments in service to Catholics in north and central Georgia.

“During his 14 years as archbishop of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory worked closely with the auxiliary bishops, priests, laity, deacons and religious in providing a pastoral plan for the future of the archdiocese. He worked closely with the interreligious leadership of the various churches in metropolitan Atlanta,” said Archbishop Hartmayer.

Pastoral Plan

Atlanta’s pastoral plan of 2015 was described by Cardinal Gregory as a “living document” intended to guide the archdiocese through the coming years. It was translated into six languages to be a roadmap for parishes and adaptable to their unique circumstances.

The plan was born from months of surveys, and discussions at parishes and deanery meetings. 

Archbishop Gregory unveiled the plan in April of that year, and he focused on the need for the essential intertwining of doctrine and social teaching—not only to know but live the faith—and on the family formation model of religious education and truly welcoming people to parishes.

“Evangelization is a lot more than simply finding occasions for inviting people,” he said at the time. “It is the way we live. It ought to be inviting.”

Catholic education

The cardinal’s vocation began as a student at Chicago’s St. Carthage Grammar School, where he converted to Catholicism and expressed a desire to become a priest. He has long taken a personal interest in promoting Catholic education.

Dr. Diane Starkovich, retired superintendent of Catholic schools in Atlanta, worked alongside the cardinal for 14 years. Starkovich watched the consistory livestreamed from Rome as Pope Francis elevated 13 clergymen to the College of Cardinals.

“It was beautiful. I’m not only happy for him, but I’m happy for the church. What a gift,” said Starkovich.

She recalled his support of two pieces of state legislation to create the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program in 2007 and the Georgia Private School Tax Credit Law the following year. 

“He was such an advocate,” said Starkovich.

As a result of the school tax credit law, Archbishop Gregory and Bishop-emeritus J. Kevin Boland of Savannah formed the nonprofit GRACE Scholars. Taxpayers can contribute to GRACE, a designated student scholarship organization (SS0), in exchange for a generous tax benefit—a 100% tax credit.

Since then, thousands of taxpayers have contributed to GRACE which, in turn, has awarded scholarships to students to attend Catholic schools. All students receiving GRACE awards have demonstrated financial need. 

The GRACE Scholars program was formed in 2008, and in the current school year, more than 1,100 students received scholarships. Nearly 30 percent of recipients are not Catholic.

Starkovich said the cardinal helped raise the profile of Atlanta’s Catholic Schools with 75% of its archdiocesan schools designated as National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. Archbishop Gregory served a term as chairman of the board of directors of the National Catholic Educational Association, receiving its Seton Award for significant contributions to Catholic education. 

Starkovich said the archbishop was always happiest when interacting with students. 

“He was gentle, kind and loving. He had a grandfather’s heart,” she said. “He was such a good role model.”

In addition to his support of archdiocesan schools, the cardinal also believed in the Cristo Rey model of education. The opening of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School in the fall of 2014 was the fulfillment of a 10-year-old dream of the cardinal. Cristo Rey serves young people of limited economic means and includes a rigorous college preparatory curriculum and work-study experience.

Diversity in the pews

Then-Archbishop Gregory also expanded the Office of Intercultural Ministries and outreach to Atlanta’s growing diverse Catholic community. Of the 1.2 million Catholics in Atlanta, approximately half are Hispanics. The archbishop encouraged the welcoming of immigrant communities.

Ashley Morris is associate director of the Office of Intercultural Ministries in Atlanta.

“It is incredibly humbling to witness this important moment in the life of our local and global church,” said Morris upon the announcement of new cardinals. He described Cardinal Gregory as an “influential and inspirational servant of God for me and millions of Black Catholics in the archdiocese and around our country.”

During the cardinal’s tenure in Atlanta, the Eucharistic Congress grew to become the largest gathering of Catholics in the Southeast. The annual event was created by the late Archbishop John F. Donoghue. More than 30,000 people attended the 2019 congress.

Other accomplishments under Archbishop Gregory’s leadership in Atlanta were restructurings of the annual appeal process, the permanent diaconate formation program and creation of an archdiocesan pastoral council.

As an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, Archbishop Gregory saw how the pastoral council served as a consultative body for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Archbishop Gregory created one in Belleville, Illinois, after he was named bishop and worked with the group during his 11 years in that diocese, finding it a place of helpful dialogue. He initiated one in Atlanta in 2007. Consisting of 25 to 30 people, mostly laypeople, the council was the “diocese in microcosm.” Members from across the archdiocese reflected viewpoints from various size parishes and many life circumstances and ministry needs.

Interfaith ministry, environmental plan 

Interfaith and ecumenical outreach was important to then-Archbishop Gregory in Atlanta. On the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Second Vatican Council document, “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”), the church partnered with the Atlanta Jewish community to hold educational and arts events. Nostra Aetate established a new and positive tone for the church’s relationship with non-Christian faiths, especially with Judaism.

During recent years, there has been an increased focus on relations with the Greek Orthodox Church. Archbishop Gregory and Metropolitan Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta presided at twice yearly prayer services as an opportunity for fraternity.

Then-Archbishop Gregory asked retired environmental scientist Susan Varlamoff to create the official action plan for the Archdiocese of Atlanta based on Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.” The 48-page plan, written with help from University of Georgia scientists, helps parishes, schools and families to implement environmentally sound practices. 

Knowing the community 

Despite the growth of the Atlanta archdiocese, Archbishop Gregory was able to maintain personal connections with the flock.

In an interview as he departed Atlanta, the archbishop discussed his bond with the faithful.

“Actually, I think the thing that I take greatest satisfaction (from) is that I have come to know this diocese well,” he said. “And I think that’s an important accomplishment for any pastor to be able to say that after a certain number of years, ‘I know and I love my people.’”

Mary Ruth Jones of north Georgia was one of many Catholics taking to the Archdiocese of Atlanta and Georgia Bulletin Facebook pages to leave words of congratulations and support for Cardinal Gregory.

“I had the opportunity to interact with Archbishop Gregory when I was director of religious education for my parish. If you have never seen him celebrate the sacrament of confirmation with teenagers you have really missed something inspirational,” wrote Jones. “His leadership as president of the USCCB when the clergy abuse scandal broke, helped to guide the American Catholic Church through tumultuous times. May he walk with Jesus, know the love of the Father and be guided by the Holy Spirit always.”

Honoring his legacy

The cardinal’s connection to Atlanta continues to bear fruit. The Catholic Foundation of North Georgia announced Dec. 3 the establishment of a permanent endowment fund in his name. The foundation and its board wanted to honor Cardinal Gregory’s commitment to the foundation and his years of service to the church in Atlanta.  

“We also wanted to commemorate him being named the first Black cardinal in the United States,” said Nancy Coveny, foundation president.  

“His commitment to the development of the Catholic Foundation was profound,” she said.  “In my almost 11 years of working with Cardinal Gregory, he never missed a board meeting. He also ensured that every parish, mission and archdiocesan Catholic school had an endowment fund to support their future needs.”

At his request, the endowment will provide grants annually to Catholic Charities Atlanta to help people in need.  

“The staff and board of directors of Catholic Charities Atlanta are humbled at being selected as the beneficiaries of the Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory Fund,” said Vanessa Russell, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Atlanta. “This gift will support our efforts to make families self-sufficient and will help keep Catholic Charities Atlanta strong for generations to come.”

(This article is from the Georgia Bulletin newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.)