ATLANTA — Shortly after Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s installation in January 2005 as the sixth archbishop of Atlanta, a dispute erupted over whether women should be included in the washing of feet during the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

Prior archdiocesan policy allowed only men to take part in the Holy Week ritual that memorializes Christ washing the feet of his Twelve Apostles.

“It may be a small thing, but it became a big thing,” Msgr. Frank McNamee, the rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, told the Register.

After broad consultation, the archbishop signaled his own position by washing the feet of a group of young boys and girls preparing for their first Holy Communion. He did not issue an official policy, however, and many parishes continued to invite only men.

“The archbishop set the tone, but he didn’t say, ‘This is what you have to do.’ That is his style,” said Msgr. McNamee.

He has been equally impressed with the archbishop’s gift for inspiring pastors to step up their efforts to address the sacramental and pastoral needs of Atlanta’s vast Catholic community. At the cathedral in Atlanta, Msgr. McNamee has witnessed the staggering impact of population growth firsthand. Every weekend, the cathedral holds 14 Saturday vigil and Sunday Masses, “and that doesn’t include weddings,” he said.

Indeed, this Church leader, a Chicago native, has carefully navigated the myriad challenges he has faced in Atlanta, from his primary task of keeping up with the Deep South’s explosive demographic growth to the sticky theological and social issues that have surfaced during Pope Francis’ pontificate.

Fueled by a robust job market and increased immigration, Atlanta’s Catholic population surged from 700,000 to 1.2 million during the archbishop’s 14-year tenure. Over that period, he opened 12 parishes and seven missions to receive the flood of  new arrivals from Northeast U.S. states, as well as foreign-born Catholics from Mexico, Central America, South Korea, Vietnam and China. “I hope the archdiocese will remember me for [the] growth and development that occurred in these 14 years,” said the archbishop during an April 9 news conference in Atlanta. “Not just demographic growth, but the strengthening of parishes, the identification of our pastoral plan, which hopefully will continue” to guide efforts “to know our faith, to love our faith, to share our faith, and to recognize the diversity of parishes.”

And, when his moral credibility and institutional legacy have been threatened by controversy, like the public furor that greeted his 2014 decision to build a $2.2-million mansion, he quickly consulted with his advisers, issued an apology, and sold the house.

He will be bringing those hard-won experiences with him as the seventh archbishop of Washington, D.C., where he will be installed May 21.

 

Setting Goals

After his installation in 2005, Archbishop Gregory moved quickly to grasp the scope of the challenge before him. He instituted an “open-door” policy for meeting with his priests and organized an archdiocesan pastoral council composed primarily of lay leaders from the city’s various ethnic and racial communities.

With input from these stakeholders, he and his advisers produced a pastoral plan that evaluated the practical needs of parishes and set goals for catechetical and social outreach across the archdiocese.

“Almost every single parish needed more worship or educational space,” recalled Peter Faletti, the management consultant who helped implement the archdiocese’s construction campaign.

“The archdiocese has worked closely with parishes to find ways to get building projects started,” said Faletti, who noted that the local Church has a construction management company that helps oversee contractors.

Father Luis Guillermo Cordoba, the administrator of Our Lady of the Americas Catholic Mission in Lilburn, recalled with emotion that after fire destroyed the community’s previous building, the archbishop promised that he would find a way to buy a larger building that could accommodate the growing congregation.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want any community to have a rental space; they need their own space to grow,’” said Father Cordoba.

The community moved into the new building in 2006, and today, the mission serves 7,000 parishioners, with 1,700 children enrolled in its catechetical program.

The stepped-up pace has kept pastors on their toes.

Msgr. Edward Dillon, the pastor of Holy Spirit parish, an “Anglo-majority” community of white-collar professionals working in Atlanta’s financial services and information technology sectors, also oversees a mission parish.

He noted that the mission was deliberately located in a Latino neighborhood, where transportation is in short supply and mostly undocumented adults work as day laborers, landscapers or household help.

 

Vocations and Education

Archbishop Gregory’s pastoral plan also highlighted the urgent need for more priests to meet the needs of his swelling flock. On his watch, 71 priests and 172 permanent deacons have been ordained.

That figure might be sufficient for a smaller diocese, but the local Church needs to double the number of future priests in the pipeline to provide for all the needs of the faithful, the pastoral plan noted.

The archbishop has promoted other strategies for addressing this problem. He often notes that his own parochial school education inspired his conversion to Catholicism as a 10-year-old and then nurtured his call to the priesthood.

Before Archbishop Gregory’s arrival in Atlanta, his predecessor, Archbishop John Donaghue, had opened five new schools, and the bill for those projects is still being paid off, said Faletti.

But fresh growth in local Catholic education has come recently from private independent schools and lay leaders.

One promising initiative is the Regina Caeli “hybrid”  model that combines “classical Catholic” home schooling with classroom instruction and has opened two programs in the archdiocese.

“There are different ways to achieve faithful Catholic education, and Archbishop Gregory understands and supports that,” said Kyle Pietrantonio, head of school for Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta, established in 1996 and endorsed by the Cardinal Newman Society.

He applauded the archbishop’s campaign to open a Cristo Rey school in Atlanta that now enrolls 500 low-income students.

The archbishop’s openness to new educational models — even when they don’t originate in the chancery — was unusual, said Pietrantonio.

The archbishop’s record has provided a model for his brother bishops in the province, Bishop Robert Guglielmone of  Charleston, South Carolina, told the Register.

He noted the archbishop’s efforts to promote a wider discussion of “best practices” for keeping abreast of demographic growth and for responding to new initiatives that make Catholic schools more accessible to middle- and low-income families.

“He is more than willing to think outside the box: You can’t look just at what is and has been,” said Bishop Guglielmone.

 

Controversial Invitation

But sources contacted by the Register were more circumspect when asked to discuss Archbishop Gregory’s handling of hot-button issues, like his decision to invite Jesuit Father James Martin, an outspoken advocate for “LGBTQ” inclusion in the Church, to speak at two Atlanta parishes.

The archbishop sought to tamp down the furor provoked by the news and published a column that noted the Jesuit priest’s Vatican appointment as a consultor to the Secretariat for Communication. He dismissed critics of the priest’s stance, “as it relates to the Church’s teaching,” as misinformed.

During an interview with the Register, Deacon Dennis Dorner, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, sought to frame the archbishop’s position as an appropriate pastoral response rather than an endorsement of Father Martin’s views.

“When I first came to work for him, he said, ‘We have people planted on the left and planted on the right, and our job is to take care of all of them,’” Deacon Dorner recalled. “That is how he rolls.”

Critics argue, however, that the archbishop has a clear record of support for efforts that challenge Church teaching on homosexuality and homosexual unions. They note, for example, that the archbishop allowed Atlanta’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to maintain its practice of participating in the city’s annual “Gay Pride” march and hosting social events for couples in “committed” same-sex relationships.

At the same time, the archdiocese also posts contact information for the local chapter of Courage, the international apostolate that helps Catholics who experience same-sex attraction follow Church teaching on chastity.

Yet the backlash against Father Martin’s appearance in the archdiocese and a petition campaign urging the archbishop to end his support for “LGBTQ” activism within the Church point to a largely ignored divide between a Church leader widely perceived to be a “liberal” in the mold of his mentor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, and his relatively conservative flock based in a region known for its traditional religious character.

During his April 9 news conference after the announcement of the archbishop’s appointment to Washington, Archbishop Gregory touched on the distinctive spirit of his adopted city.

Atlanta has given him “an experience of the great gentility that is to be found among Southern people. The gentility is also wedded to a respect for religious affiliations,” he said. “Faith still enjoys a high priority in the South.”

The only living African-American archbishop, he also noted that his time in the city, “the home” of the late civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had deepened his understanding of racial issues.

The remarks celebrated his love for the city, but they also may help explain his relatively cautious response to pastoral reforms initiated by Pope Francis. Last year, the Atlanta archbishop helped Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago organize high-level meetings between U.S. bishops and theologians to discuss the pastoral implementation of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation.

The papal document has spurred calls in some quarters for a relaxation of Church discipline that prohibits same-sex unions and bars Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics. And the archbishop gave an address at one gathering that appeared to challenge Church discipline.

Pope Francis, said Archbishop Gregory, “challenges the Church and its pastors to move beyond thinking that everything is black and white so that we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth.”

But when Deacon Dorner was asked to explain how Archbishop Gregory sought to introduce Amoris Laetitia to the local Church, he responded bluntly: Amoris Laetitia, he said, “was not even a blip on the radar here.”

Naysayers may see things differently and insist that it is a shepherd’s responsibility to clearly affirm Church teaching and practice while avoiding any ambiguity. Some critics believe Archbishop Gregory’s appointment was the work of his predecessor, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. one of two U.S. Church leaders who sit on the powerful Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Wuerl often defended his nuanced, conflict-adverse approach as the best way to lead the Church in the nation's capital. 

Archbishop Gregory’s appointment is “the continuation of [the tenure of] Cardinal Wuerl by other means,” Robert Royal, the editor of The Catholic Thing, told the Register.

Archbishop Gregory’s supporters, however, see his talent for balancing the concerns of his entire flock and supporting a mix of initiatives as a strength that will be valued when he leads the Archdiocese of Washington.

 “Having lived in Washington, D.C.,” where a new administration can change the culture of the city, “I think the archbishop will be someone who can work with that ebb and flow,” said Holy Spirit Prep’s Kyle Pietrantonio. “He has great gifts for this” new appointment.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.