Archbishop Traces Faith Journey That Began At 11
Published: September 4, 2008
LILBURN— In an exploration of his own faith journey, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory told a group of Catholic women that he has never regretted his decision as an 11-year-old to become a Catholic, but he sorrows over bitter divisions within the church and the loss of so many Catholics who once were active.
Sketching a picture of the Southside Chicago Catholic school his parents sent him to 49 years ago so he would receive a good education, Archbishop Gregory said two parish priests, Father Gerry Weber, now 90, and Msgr. John M. Hayes, along with the Adrian Dominican sisters who staffed the school, “suggested through their very lives of faith that the Catholic Church was indeed a special institution—a community of believers worthy of joining.”
“It was that enthusiastic endorsement of Catholicism that led me to pursue baptism. Even as a child, I sensed that something wonderful was present in this community that has proven to be so instrumental in my life and in the lives of countless millions of other people,” he said, speaking to 250 women at a Magnificat ministry breakfast Aug. 9.
He said his first desire at 11 was to become a priest.
He joked that someone suggested to him that “it would help if you became Catholic first.”
With his parents’ permission, he took instruction and was baptized and received his first Communion on March 28, 1959.
“They were simply admirable parish priests and I was only one kid in the Catholic school—probably not distinguishable from the dozens of other students who filled those desks at the time,” Archbishop Gregory said. “I suspect that neither they nor I realized their significance in my life at the time.”
“Faith, I believe, is born in all of our lives through the good example of the people that God sends our way.”
He said he’ll celebrate 50 years as a Catholic in 2009 and this summer he began his vacation with a trip to Los Angeles to see Father Weber where he lives in retirement. “I have never regretted one moment of being a member of this community of faith even though those past 50 years have included many moments of question and even uncertainty,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Faith is always challenged by doubts and questions, a reality that even young people approaching confirmation already realize because they ask him about it when he talks to them about the sacrament. However, the archbishop said he sorrows over divisions within the Catholic Church and the loss of Catholics from the pews.
“I have been ashamed of the flawed example that we Catholics have given to the world because of our increasingly harsh treatment of one another,” he said. “Catholics on both sides of the theological spectrum have heaped vicious and cruel condemnations upon all those who do not view the Church as they themselves have decided to be the only valid vision of the Body of Christ.”
He said this “horrible infighting” has driven people away from the church, both Catholics and non-Catholics.
“We bishops and priests have played more than our share in bringing shame to this precious Church of Christ by our sinful weaknesses and lack of courageous and effective leadership in response to the sins of clerics,” he added.
While every age in the church has had its theological conflicts, he said, the “gift of instantaneous and ubiquitous communication” in modern times has allowed opinions, accusations and hostile attacks to spread immediately without challenge or proof.
“In such a climate, the work of evangelization is made even more difficult and awkward,” he said. “This has been a sorrow for me and I suspect for many other Catholics as well.”
He also spoke of survey reports by the Pew Foundation and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate detailing the loss of Catholics from the church. Some of the reasons cited are marriage problems, church scandals, anemic worship and insensitive pastoral encounters.
He said knowing that Catholics have left Christ for non-Christian religions because they have felt comforted and better served in those religions “is a sorrow that tears at my soul.”
“How have we—how have I failed to witness to Christ effectively so that my sisters and brothers are strengthened in their faith rather than driven from it?” he asked.
He concluded his talk by saying, “I have never for one moment doubted that I have made the correct journey of faith within Catholicism, but I have been deeply distressed by the state of things in the world in which the Church must witness to the Risen Lord.”
Then taking questions from the audience at Killian Hall, Archbishop Gregory launched a lively exchange about what makes for a good Catholic parish where strangers will feel welcome and where conversion and evangelization are a natural event, as they were for him as an 11-year-old at a Chicago parish school.
He spoke of four principles that every successful parish follows: a spirit of hospitality, good music, good preaching, and a sense of reverence “that when you enter the church you are entering a sacred space.” He emphasized that there can be many styles of good music and a reverent space can be created in various architectural forms.
Discussing hospitality he said that a study of typical church patterns showed that ushers usually greeted strangers last, after they greeted the priest, other ushers, and people they already knew. Obviously, strangers should be the most welcomed, he said.
“Our parishes should welcome people from the time they hit the door.”
In response to a question from the audience about racism, Archbishop Gregory said as a Northerner who is living in the Deep South for the first time, “I have come to believe that the South has made greater progress in race relations than has the North.” At the same time, he said, “racism is a sin and sin is very difficult to get rid of.”
“I am also concerned with racism that we are dealing with as a church that goes beyond color,” Archbishop Gregory said. “I am outraged when I hear public Catholic figures talking about ‘those people’ because they have forgotten that grandma when she got off the boat at Ellis Island was ‘those people.’”
“Most of our parishes are multicultural. … Do they extend themselves to welcome the stranger? … Some are more successful than others.”