“These have been 14 of the happiest years of my life,” said the 71-year-old Gregory, who came to Atlanta in 2005.
Gregory, speaking in Smyrna at his first news conference in the area since last week’s announcement of his move, said this archdiocese will always be special to him. It was his first time living in the Deep South.
“I cannot say often enough and more sincerely how deeply I will miss you,” he said. “You have been family to me and family for me. You have supported me, encouraged me, directed me, corrected me and in all of those things I have found the Lord present in you.”
The Chicago-born Gregory will become the seventh archbishop of Washington and the first African-American appointed to that influential position. He said he hopes it sends a message to African-American, Latino and Asian youths that “they can dream big.”
Previous archbishops, including his immediate predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, have been appointed cardinals. If that trend continues, Gregory could become the first African-American cardinal in the United States.
The Atlanta archbishop seat becomes vacant on May 21, when Gregory is installed in his new post. The search for his successor could take eight months to a year because it’s not just a search for potential candidates but also a review of the needs of the archdiocese. “It’s a long vetting process,” he said.
Gregory, who converted to Catholicism in grammar school, leaves an Atlanta Archdiocese that is larger and stronger.
In 2005, there were about 700,000 Catholics in the archdiocese.
Today, there are roughly 1.2 million Catholics. Under Gregory’s tenure, the Archdiocese of Atlanta has established 12 parishes and seven missions. Gregory has also ordained 71 priests and 172 permanent deacons.
Gregory said it’s possible that Pope Francis could seek his input. The Holy See, he said, could ask him to describe the state of the archdiocese.
“The church moves very methodically through these things,” he said.
Until then, the archdiocese’s two auxiliary bishops — the Most Rev. Bernard E. Shlesinger III and the Most Rev. Joel M. Konzen — will handle day-to-day responsibilities.
Gregory once again promised transparency in his new position in an archdiocese that is reeling from sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States and overseas.
Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington, resigned last year amid criticism of his handling of sex abuse scandals.
Theodore E. McCarrick, the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, was defrocked after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused minors and seminarians over decades.
“The first step has to be to assure the people that I will tell the truth (and) that I will speak the truth in all of my dealings with them, even when telling folks what I know may not be what they want to hear or it may not be all that they hope for,” Gregory said. “But to establish trust, you have to begin with truth.”
Gregory was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 when it implemented procedures for addressing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
He’s spoken out on issues like race, social justice, the environment and improving relations with Jewish people.
His action plan responding to challenges to the environment and ecology gained national and international attention and has been adapted by other dioceses.
Last year, he invited the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America, a Catholic magazine, to Atlanta to talk about how the church could be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
Gregory said he leaves for Rome on May 3, then goes to Washington before his installation at St. Matthew the Apostle Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Area Catholics still have a chance to say goodbye, though.
Among his April activities, the archbishop plans to celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter in Atlanta at the Cathedral of Christ the King, 2699 Peachtree Road N.E.