When the first convention of the Catholic Church in Georgia was held in Augusta on April 2, 1826, only three churches operated in the state, among them the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary near Sharon, Saint John the Baptist in Savannah, and Saint Patrick in Augusta. When the Diocese of Savannah was carved out from the Diocese of Charleston in 1850, Bishop Gartland only had 5,500 Catholic souls under his pastoral care in the whole state. As the number of Catholics increased in northern Georgia, Rome split the Diocese of Savannah in 1956 to create a separate Diocese of Atlanta. A few years later, it was elevated to an archdiocese due to the high number of Catholics present within its borders, and the growth the city had already experienced. Today, the Archdiocese of Atlanta is the fastest growing local church in the United States, and the fourth largest. From humble beginnings in small coastal missions founded in the 1590s by Spanish missionaries, French and Haitian refugees in the 1790s who settled in Savannah, as well as English and Irish Catholic farmers and workers, the Catholic Church in Georgia today is dynamic and continues to experience unprecedented growth.
Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv, was installed as the seventh Archbishop of Atlanta on May 6, 2020, and I had the blessed opportunity to attend the ceremony. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the Catholic Church continued to move forward. The Archbishop stated he wanted to get to work, and did not wish to delay the installation. The opening words of his homily resounded, “there will be one flock and one shepherd. I stand here before you this afternoon humbled, grateful, and joyful in this blessed and beautiful Cathedral to Christ the King to accept the appointment of Pope Francis to this extraordinary See of Atlanta.”
The Cathedral of Christ the King was empty with only minutes remaining before the recently appointed Archbishop knocked on its door the afternoon of May 6. A small delegation consisting of four bishops and four priests shuffled quickly from the sacristy to the entrance of the cathedral to welcome the Archbishop. After three knocks, the doors gently sung open allowing bright light to enter the church. The rector of the Cathedral, Monsignor McNamee, said in welcome, “Archbishop Hartmayer, on behalf of the clergy, religious and God’s people, I welcome you to your cathedral.” The archbishop entered to begin the ceremony to take possession of the cathedral and said, “May peace be to this house.” After kissing a crucifix and blessing himself and those present with holy water, the liturgical procession began. The brief exchange at the door is a richly symbolic ritual where the new prelate enters the cathedral not by force, but by knocking on the door. The doors are opened for him as the faithful of the archdiocese welcome him into their hearts as chief shepherd of their local Church.
The Apostolic Nuncio addressed us from Washington D.C. by video since the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from traveling to Atlanta. After reading the Apostolic Mandate of Pope Francis relieving Archbishop Hartmayer from his duties as Ordinary of Savannah and appointing him to his new post, Deacon Dennis Dorner stated, “Let the College of Consultors examine the Apostolic Mandate.” A selected number of members of this advisory group of priests inspected the document sent from Rome. This action evokes olden days when the Papal seal would be scrutinized to assure the document was original.
Bishop Konzen, Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta continued by asking the new archbishop, “Are you willing to serve the people of this archdiocese in the tradition of the apostolic faith of the church?” Archbishop Hartmayer confidently responded, “With faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the love of God in my heart, I do accept the pastoral care of the people of God in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. I resolve to serve faithfully the spiritual needs of this local Church.” As the applause ended, the crozier of Atlanta’s first bishop, Bishop Hyland, who was installed in the very same church in 1956, was presented to the archbishop.
As a priest of the Diocese of Savannah, I enjoyed the Archbishop’s humor when he jokingly pointed out this appointment was a demotion, since now he has sixty-nine counties while as Bishop of Savannah he had ninety. Despite Savannah’s larger territory, only 8% of the Catholic population of the state of Georgia resides within the Diocese of Savannah. Catholicism in Georgia is rich in history and diversity: from the Franciscan friars who valiantly gave up their lives for the defense of marriage in 1597, the Venerable Pedro de Corpa and Companions, and countless Catholics who kept the faith throughout the 1800s in the most adverse circumstances in rural Georgia in Locust Grove, Washington, and Willachoochee, to the world-renowned writer Flannery O’Connor, and the vast numbers of immigrants who have been welcomed including French, Irish, Czech, German, Cuban, Vietnamese, Filipino, Mexican, Haitian, Guatemalan, Burmese, Nigerian, and so many more.
Archbishop Hartmayer’s love and care for the flock entrusted to him will ensure that the Catholic Church in Georgia will continue to grow and flourish. His experience as the Pastor of a diverse parish in Jonesboro, and his travels throughout south Georgia have increased his love for all Georgia Catholics, especially those who find themselves in a foreign land. In 2014, in a message to the faithful of Savannah, he wrote, “our country and our Church have always been a place where the stranger, the immigrant, is welcomed. I have great affection for people of deep faith and devotion that have left their country for a better way of life.” The Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen him as he now represents a source for greater unity and collaboration for all the Catholics of Georgia.
Picture is mine, all rights reserved. Written for The Southern Cross.