I am writing this from Savannah, Georgia where today, a Franciscan Friar, Gregory H. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., with a long and successful pastoral experience in this state is being ordained bishop of this historically important diocese. I have had the wonderful gift of coming to know Savannah’s two prior bishops, Raymond Lessard who resides, teaches and is a spiritual director at our seminary in Boynton Beach and who is respected and deeply admired by the seminarians and Kevin Boland who retires today with the ordination and installation of his successor. Bishop Boland and I have shared many USCCB Committee and CRS assignments and he has been a good friend and awesome advisor. Bishop Boland was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Savannah fifty years ago and it is unusual for a local “boy to make good” and become a bishop in the diocese in which he is serving and for which he was ordained. Additionally, Bishop Boland’s older brother, Raymond, is the retired bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Both come from the stunningly beautiful Irish seaside village of Kinsale. Both have been wonderful shepherds of God’s people entrusted to their care. Savannah is in some ways the “mother diocese” for all of Florida as St. Augustine was cut off from it. Charleston is the oldest diocese in the south, followed by Savannah and then St. Augustine although the faith first came to St. Augustine by way of the explorers.
During the ordination ceremony I found myself reflecting on the new bishop and the Church in which Christ is calling him to minister in a new way. We are a Church with historic challenges. We are steadily losing membership, not in droves as is oft reported in the media, but enough to be very worrisome to those of us who love the Church very much. Our numbers of members are up only because of the steady and continued influx of Hispanics but we lose a great number of them too after they feel so poorly received and welcomed. And while we can be, as I wrote several days ago, still a joyous Church, there is an aura of worry hanging over the Church. Some of the losses are due to the strongly secular influences of the times in which we live, the strongest ever in the two plus centuries of our presence on these shores. We are not alone in experiencing losses as other mainstream and now even evangelical and mega churches are beginning to share the experience, again due to secularism and the “who needs God” or “if I still believe I need God, who needs a Church” attitude. But I also think as Catholics we are taking a double hit at the moment. We have a growing problem of credibility and trust. As the congregation this afternoon invoked the memory and action of the saints on the new bishop while he lay stretched out on the floor of the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (once destroyed by fire and magnificently restored), I could not help but think, “does he know what he is getting into and is in for?” I am sure he does and he certainly does after listening to Bishop Wilton Gregory’s eloquent and on-the-mark homily.
Let no one tell you otherwise but the sexual abuse of minors by priests and other Church persons and how it was handled in the past by men of my order is taking a toll, on the papacy, on the episcopacy, on the priesthood, on religious life and on Church membership. And even though we have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect children in the present and future, the past still stalks us. There are issues which we hold sacred (the right to life being primary) which are very divisive in a secular world. We are a hierarchical structure which grates on many, and we sometimes send very mixed signals to our faithful as a hierarchy. In my years as priest and bishop, I would say that the Church in the US runs the risk of becoming more congregational than collegial, more strident at times than loving and forgiving, and sadly, more willing to pick fights with friends which further divides and seldom conquers.
When I joined the other twenty some bishops in imposing hands, I approached the moment asking the Lord to grant to His new bishop servant leader the heart of Christ, the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. I will not live long enough I suspect to see the Church which today’s young bishops will build and guide. I wish them well. I fear not for the Church in the long run because Christ promised our predecessors that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I truly believe that and feel it has been born out repeatedly over two thousand years. I just wish to see unity restored, trust rebuilt, the vision of Vatican II fulfilled, the people coming back to the true faith in greater numbers than they may be leaving. Heavy thoughts for a very happy day here in the Garden of Good and Evil which is Savannah, Georgia on a day in which a new chapter in their long and illustrious history begins with their fourteenth bishop. Bishop Hartmayer chose as his episcopal motto on his coat of arms three simple Latin words: PAX ET BONUM (Peace and good). It was a theme clerkly woven throughout the ordination rite as a former high school student of his who is a composer wrote a hymn for the occasion using only those three words to the musical setting. They were the bishop’s last words at the end of his brief remarks at the end of Mass. They are precisely what I prayed for today: peace and good.