Archbishop Gregory John Hartmayer was with Pope Francis during the “ad limina” visit in Rome last month in which bishops report on the status of their dioceses.
He didn’t have an inkling, though, of what would soon come.
This week, the pope named him the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, succeeding former Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. Last May, Gregory was installed as the leader of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The appointment of Hartmayer, who has served as the bishop of Savannah since 2011, comes 11 months after Gregory announced he was leaving and, coincidentally, during the Lenten season.
“He (the pope) never said a word to me,” Hartmayer said jokingly. “He could have given me a hint.”
Hartmayer said he would have never predicted this moment in his wildest dreams.
Hartmayer was publicly introduced Thursday during a press conference at the chancery offices in Smyrna.
The 68-year-old Buffalo, New York, native, dressed in the gray habit of the Conventual Franciscan Friars, frequently peppered his remarks with humor, drawing laughter from those gathered to welcome him.
The Atlanta Archdiocese has 1.2 million Catholics and covers 69 North Georgia counties, including all of metro Atlanta and Athens. Hartmayer reminded those at his introduction that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah is much older, formed in 1850 as the Catholic population expanded in the region.
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“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,” he said. “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 towards evangelization and formation of our people.”
These are difficult times in society, he said, and people are searching for an anchor.
“I think people are looking for something, as they always have, to hold to something that has roots, that has tradition, that has meaning, that has depth. And I think the Catholic Church continues to offer that despite her imperfections.”
Susan Bigelow Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University Candler School of Theology, said what’s needed “in the wake of the abuse crisis is that people really want to be heard. They want acknowledgment that their leader is authentically listening to their voices. That’s paramount right now.”
In 2018, the Archdiocese of Atlanta released the names of 15 priests, seminarians, and those under direct authority of a religious order “credibly” accused of sexual abuse of a minor.
At the time, Gregory said it was done in the interest of transparency and for the healing of survivors.
The Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia in 2019 launched a review of sex abuse allegations in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Savannah Diocese. The status of that review could not be determined at press time.
Among Hartmayer’s priorities will be to get to know the priests in the archdiocese and to work with Catholic schools and students.
Overall, “times have changed, issues have changed in society and in the church so those have to be addressed,” he said, without being specific.
Bigelow Reynolds is optimistic, based on Hartmayer’s work in a diverse Savannah diocese.
Hartmayer “seems like the right guy for the job,” said Bigelow Reynolds, a parishioner at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur. “The Diocese of Savannah has grown so much in the times he’s been there,” and he has been responsive to the Latino Catholic population. She also wants the new archbishop to empower the growing diversity in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Hartmayer has close attachments to the Savannah area community, and he said leaving was not easy.
However, when God calls you in another direction, you go.
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“It’s tough,” he said. “I’m a human being. I’m not a machine. I have feelings.” Still, he looks at the move as a blessing from God.
He praised his predecessor and said Gregory left big shoes to fill.
“I will have to walk in my own shoes and serve the people of this diocese the best that I can,” he said.
His installation Mass will be held May 6 at St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church in Roswell.
In one way, it was a homecoming for Hartmayer, who is also a seasoned educator, having worked in Catholic schools for several years.
Hartmayer, who was ordained a priest in 1979, served as the pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro for 15 years and, later, at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Lithia Springs.
“What goes around, comes around,” he said.