Archbishop Wilton Gregory leads the Archdiocese of Atlanta and its rapidly growing Catholic population. In his 10 years as archbishop, this shepherd has seen his flock in the northern half of Georgia swell to over one million Catholics—and according to Archbishop Gregory, the notion that Catholics are a minority in the South is “a rapidly changing reality.”
Q. In the South, Catholics make up 3 percent of the population. What does that mean to you as a leader of this flock?
We Catholics are still definitely a minority religious presence in many places throughout the South, but that is a rapidly changing reality and not experienced everywhere. There are locations—New Orleans and Miami, for example—that have long had a significant Catholic presence. And there is great growth in other places—such as Atlanta, where we now have a 14 percent presence. The proportion of Catholics throughout the South is growing in many places that once had very low numbers. In the Province of Atlanta, all of our dioceses are opening parishes and schools, and we’re expanding churches. Each of the five dioceses in the Province has opened new chanceries within the past decade. We are all in growth mode but at differing paces.
Q. The tragedy in Charleston showed a beautiful unity among the people of the city. Are we making progress in racial struggles in the South?
Charleston’s recent tragedy offered a powerful lesson of mercy and forgiveness on the part of the families of those whose lives were taken. It brought people together in a demonstration of incomparable resolve and progress. Nonetheless, this tragedy also reminded all of us of how much more we must accomplish to become the beloved community to which Dr. King often referred. The local leadership and the general population rallied together to try to respond effectively to such a senseless act of violence. We are making progress, but there are still many obstacles to true racial harmony that we must acknowledge, confront, and overcome.
Q. What do you think about the Confederate flag? Can a Southern Catholic in good conscience support the flag?
We Catholics have a great reverence for and appreciation of the use of symbols. Our entire sacramental life is dependent upon the transforming power of symbols. We all ought to realize that symbols can and do represent many different values and meanings. Flags represent people, nations, principles, and ideals. Some symbols can have both positive and negative significance, and these conflicting meanings can exist together simultaneously in the very same emblem. In the conversations that have ensued, some people have chosen to identify the historical significance of the Confederate flag, while others have identified the hatred and tyranny the flag holds for them—both realities are concurrently captured in that flag. We as Catholics must recognize that any symbol that threatens people or disturbs the harmony of the human family cannot be ignored or explained away or dismissed as simply unimportant.
Q. As we enter the Year of Mercy, what is the one thing we can do to grow in mercy?
We all need to recognize that we should be both guardians and recipients of the grace of mercy. Each one of us ought to reflect on those times within our own lives when we received the gift of mercy—in the sacrament of reconciliation for sure, but also in our relationships with others who have overlooked our faults and failings and, without restrictions, forgiven us our “trespasses,” and how that personal experience of mercy must always influence how we then are merciful to others.
Q. Pope Francis is considered by some to be a very accessible and friendly leader; has this perception affected the Church, practically speaking?
From that first Sunday of his pontificate when he opted to stand outside the church doors of Santa Anna in the Vatican and personally greet those who had attended Mass, Pope Francis has reminded all of us as pastors that we must be in the midst of and available to our people. Most truly successful local pastors already have the tradition of being with their people during all types of parish events, but we bishops must also now stand at the doorways of our churches and institutions, making sure they are always open and we are present and accessible to our folks.
Q. What saint do you ask to intercede for you most often?
There is not a day in my life when I don’t turn to the Blessed Mother with the issues that fill my heart—both positive and negative. She is a mother for me, and—like every mother—she has the welfare of her children uppermost in her heart. She is an important source for my spiritual serenity and hope.
Q. In your journey towards the priesthood (and ultimately to become archbishop), do you have a particular moment that stands out as most pivotal?
While I can’t recall a specific moment, I can recall many people whose love and encouragement were pivotal in my life of faith—Monsignor John M. Hayes, my home pastor and my personal priesthood model; Father Gerry Weber, parish priest and mentor for me and my family; Father Bill Clark, my deacon assignment pastor; Father Myles P. McDonnell, my first priesthood assignment pastor; and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, my archbishop in Chicago and the man most directly involved in my appointment as a bishop. Joe Bernardin remains the model of episcopal service in my life.
Q. We need more priests! What can we as laypeople do about that?
There is nothing more effective or important than the gift of our prayers in asking God to send us more healthy, happy, holy, and joyful priests. But beyond prayer we must also be willing to encourage candidates for the priesthood—our own family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. A word of support can often be the incentive that prompts a young man to think about what God might be asking of him. Parents are pivotal in this process. Many parents today are ambivalent about recommending a son for the priesthood. They want grandchildren; they want their son to be happy and fulfilled; they are confused and scandalized by the prevalent negative images that are so identified with the priesthood. The greatest source of comfort for all in the Church must be the example of the extraordinarily generous, zealous, and loving priests we have known. These men are the icons of what happiness and dedication in the priesthood can create. We pray for them and for more of them each day—these men of Christ who love the Church with all their hearts.
Q. You have noted that even before he was pope, the Holy Father Francis had a reputation for personal holiness—“that he is so committed to serving the poor, living simply; calling people to holiness in such a simple way that it is almost impossible to say ‘no.’” Should we all aspire to personal holiness, or is that something reserved just for the clergy?
Holiness is certainly not the exclusive prerogative of the clergy or religious. That attitude would let the vast majority of the people of the Church “off the hook” of responding to the demands of the gospel. In fact the Second Vatican Council repeatedly referred to “the universal call to holiness.” Each vocation within the Church invites and supports holiness—each in its own manner. Pope Francis has reminded the entire world of the importance of being holy and that it can be discovered in the simple manner of how we live each day. Holiness is not so much a matter of doing great things, but of doing ordinary things with great love—something that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said so frequently.