Interview with Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer, O.F.M., Conv., the Archdiocese of Atlanta

Cross Catholic Outreach: Archbishop Hartmayer, thank you for welcoming us to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and thank you for your time today. You’re one of the few bishops in the United States that were ordained for a religious order — The Conventual Franciscans. Of course, the founder of that order might be one of the most famous saints in church history, St. Francis of Assisi. Can you talk about his example of loving and serving the poor?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, St. Francis of Assisi, of course, is known universally. [His image is] probably one of the most recognizable statues in any garden. He is also known as the El Poverello, which would be the little poor man. And so his image and his legacy really are with the poor, and his calling that he recognized that he received from God, after he failed in being a knight, was to rebuild churches, as he heard from the San Damiano Cross while he was discerning what’s next — what does the Lord want him to do. And the message that he received was that he should rebuild churches. And so, naively, he began to rebuild the churches in Assisi that needed care and repair … until he realized that it wasn’t the outside of the church that needed repair — it was the inside. And so when he was able to understand that and to clarify that call, his whole mindset and mission was to gather brothers who wanted to do the same kind of thing, to live the Gospel. Basically, the rule of life for Francis, and for the Franciscans today, is all Gospel-based.

And it has meant to serve the poor and to be poor yourself. To identify with the poor, as Pope Francis would encourage us to do, is to live with the poor, identify with the poor, be sensitive to the poor, and assist the poor. And so that has been the legacy of Francis for over 800 years. And so the Franciscan spirit that Francis introduced into the church in the 12th century continues. Although it has taken a little bit of a different direction, in some places. We are in developing countries, of course; we are mendicant and also, we are also itinerant, and we’re also contemporary. And so we do what the bishops ask us to do.

And so we are also in first world countries, like the United States, where we teach high school or serve in parishes. So, we tried to bring the spirit of Francis — and his message of simplicity and of generosity and sensitivity to the poor — to the people in the first world, and share their generosity and their blessings so that Francis’ work can be done … not so much here in the United States because we are so blessed, but [in] places that really need financial assistance; they need supplies, not just for basic needs. So the Franciscan message, the Franciscan charism, is very much alive. And it’s all throughout the world. There are hundreds of groups of sisters who follow a Franciscan way of life, as well as men. And so the Franciscan spirituality, even among laypeople, exists so secular Franciscans have a particular focus on the needs of the poor.

Cross Catholic Outreach: How does that Franciscan charism you talk about align with the work of Cross Catholic to help the poorest of the poor?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, it’s almost identical in terms of its purpose and its mission. It’s just that Cross Catholic has that as its real focus. And so we, as Franciscans, and other religious communities and other priests and religions throughout the world can help you perhaps receive some resources from the people in the places where we work. And you can benefit from that because you are already established in countries that are in serious need of not just physical help, [but of] emotional care and spiritual health. And so what we can do, what we hope to do, is to continue to provide you with the resources you need, because you are there; you’re at the scene and you can give immediate attention to those who need it. Meanwhile, we still are keeping Francis’ dream alive but also sharing it with organizations like your own that really serve the poor on a daily basis and journey with them along their way to recovery and to independence.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Today, Catholics who want to live out their lives faithfully face all kinds of challenges — it’s a very secular world and it’s changing every day, and becoming more hostile to people of faith. What advice would you give to Catholics on how to stay focused on the Gospel and on helping other people?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, and Catholics are among that group — the Catholic Church is not unified. There is a wide continuum of ways of understanding Catholic teaching. And we have a certain branch of Catholics throughout the world who have been termed “cafeteria Catholics”; they take what they like from the Catholic Church, and that’s what they will embrace. But they won’t take the whole package of what the Gospel is demanding of us. If we are truly going to be a disciple of Christ, we can’t pick and choose Jesus’ teachings that we want to live because we agree with them and ignore the rest. We have to do the serious challenge that the Gospel provides for us. And really, as Pope Francis says, be the field hospitals to the people who need it the most and to be among the sheep —not just praying for the sheep or not just recognizing their existence, but to really be with them [paraphrase].

Cross Catholic Outreach: For nearly a decade, Pope Francis has been raising the issue of poverty and inequality. How has this pope, and the Church itself, been a model of hope to those who suffer poverty?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, with social media and the times in which we’re living, the message from the Vatican, reaches more people and more quickly than ever before. And this pope, Pope Francis, just by taking the name Francis, tells you what his mindset is and where his focus is. He took the name Francis for a very deliberate reason. It had never been taken before. And I think he idolizes Francis and what Francis stood for and strives to imitate Francis. He takes many trips to Assisi, to connect maybe more deeply with Francis and the Franciscan spirituality, especially the spirit of peace, which I think Pope Francis wants very much to continue to spread throughout the world.

But Francis not only preaches, he lives it — he lives the Gospel. I would go out on a limb and say that I would consider him to be a “reincarnation” of St. Francis of Assisi, because he truly lives that life, personally, intentionally, in his own spirituality; he lives it, he teaches it, he writes about it. It’s a reflection of Francis of Assisi today that I believe Pope Francis represents.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Your predecessor here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, recently became the Patron of Cross Catholic Outreach. And as a member of the College of Cardinals, he elevates our mission to transform the poor through the model of integral human development. That’s a concept promoted by Pope Paul VI and all of his successors. Why do you think integral human development is so important when addressing poverty?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, it always has been; I think that the only success in eliminating poverty is to teach; it’s education. And the old saying is you can give someone a fish to eat for the day, but you can give him food for life if you teach him how to fish. And I think that what the focus of the Catholic Church and its social justice is embracing more and more is to teach people how to grow food, how to sanitize [it], and be healthy. Teach people how to make the land richer and more productive, and how it’s done. There are techniques that … I think the missionaries that are out in the developing countries today are doing people a great service by not just giving them a check or not just giving them some food for a period of time, but they’re giving them skills and a spiritual hopefulness that they need to continue to become independent and self-sufficient. And I think that’s what Cross Catholic does. And I think that’s the best way that we can elevate the developing countries to be more and more self-sufficient.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Archbishop, when we look at the Gospel, there are some very clear messages: forgive others, help others, put God first in our lives. These are responsibilities Jesus gave us directly. How does the Eucharist help us to live out these Christian imperatives?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, the Eucharist, of course, for Catholics is the source and summit of all that we are. And the Eucharist is the Church; it’s the body of Christ. And as St. Paul tells us, we are each a member of that body, and we contribute something to the functioning of that body, the living of that body, with Christ as its head. But nonetheless, each one of us is a part. And so the Eucharist manifests that — in his reality — as the body and blood of Christ.

And so that is seen as food for us who believe that that is the body and blood of Christ, that undergoes transubstantiation during the Mass. It serves as spiritual food that really and truly feeds us and nourishes us and strengthens us and renews our commitment to the poor, to live the Gospel first and foremost ourselves as an example for others, and then to evangelize that Gospel to others, so that they can understand the hopefulness that we feel because of the resurrection.

When we only focus on this life here and now, we’re going to be short-circuiting the message that God wants us to know. He wants us very much to know of his love for us, his forgiveness and how we are to treat one another as Jesus washed the feet of his apostles. He said, “Now what I have done for you, you must do for each other.”

Jesus also says that it’s no longer an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but there is a new law, and that is to love one another and pray for those who persecute you. Now, these are very challenging parts of the Gospel. If we truly want to be a disciple of Christ, we have to take the whole Gospel, and we have to try to incorporate it as best as we can, as much as we can, in our daily life … the way we treat our family and our spouse, and the way we do business, the way we worship and the priorities in our life. Do our possessions own us? Or do we own our possessions? … to struggle with the materialism that is so much a part of the first world and that can distract us from the real tenets and beliefs and challenges of the Gospel — that we have been baptized to continue to not only listen to [it], but to preach and evangelize ourselves.

Cross Catholic Outreach: For the first time in many decades, the bishops of the United States have launched the Eucharistic National Congress, which will culminate in 2025. How will this initiative create a deeper sense of the Real Presence?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, there is confusion with regard to who believes what regarding the Eucharist. And it depends on how the question is asked, how the people understand the question and how they answer it. Here in the Southeast of the United States, the churches are full, and there’s a great demand for Eucharistic devotion. And there is that demand because they understand what the Eucharist does and what it is. It strengthens us; it refocuses us. It is a symbol, but it’s also a reality of the unity — that community that we strive to live as the early Christians did in the Acts of the Apostles in the early Church, where they share what they have, they bring together into a common life the things that people need. But it’s the Eucharist that gives us that focus. It’s … it’s the Eucharist that reminds us of Jesus’ words, “Do this in memory of me.” In other words, I’m not helping the poor for me; I’m doing it for them. I’m doing it as Jesus taught us to do it and asked us to do it. And actually, he commanded us to do it.

And so it is the work of the Church. It’s — as Pope Francis would say — it is our responsibility; we live in a common home, this is our planet, this is our Earth, we have to take care of each other, we have to respect the place in which we live, the natural resources that we’ve been given to use, and stop abusing the Earth because it’s deteriorating in its ability to regenerate itself for future generations. So, the Eucharist … there’s so much that you can talk about the Eucharist because it is so central to our faith, because Jesus instituted it and told us to do this in his memory. Not just to do it as a ritual, but to live it and become what you eat.

And just as the wine and the bread change during the Mass, we also have to change — even in small increments, but we have to change. We have to be a different person leaving that Mass than when we came in — because of the message, the word of God that was preached and the Eucharist which was given to us to strengthen us — for us to go out as evangelizers, as disciples of Christ and to live and to teach others the Gospel that we have come to know … but it’s all centered around the Eucharist.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Dioceses around the world are engaged in the Synod on Synodality. How’s that been going here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Very well; we’ve just completed our 10-page report from the listening sessions that we held throughout the archdiocese. And it was very well received. Thousands of people participated both in person and also virtually online by answering questions and sharing their thoughts that were asked of them on the survey. But the report that I’m reading about our archdiocese, I thought was well done, well received by our people. They had local listening sessions in each parish. We [also] had deanery listening sessions, where I was present for all of them.

And all we did was listen; that was our only purpose in being there was to listen. I couldn’t answer their questions; I would have loved to because it was a teachable moment. But I think the wisdom of this process makes us realize that the Holy Spirit is in charge now and allows the people to speak from their hearts about how they are experiencing Church in our culture, in our society today, and to share that information with the rest of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops and then eventually with the Holy Father and the conference throughout the world. So, it’s a great process. It’s tedious. There’s a lot of information that has to be assimilated from our diocese [and sent on] to our region, to our conference and then to the Vatican. And so it’s … I think it’s a very effective process. And I’m looking forward to the results of the world summary of the questions that are on people’s minds regarding the Church.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Cross Catholic Outreach has a beautiful ministry for children in poverty around the world which parishes can participate in to send Christmas presents. They assemble various toys [and other items] into a Box of Joy®. How do you think Box of Joy can help parish families increase their awareness of global poverty?

Archbishop Hartmayer: Well, I think [when it comes to] an awareness of global poverty, we would be most successful if we start with the children, because it’s instructional, it’s empirical. It’s something that they can do themselves. And they’re not receiving gifts — they’re giving a gift for a change. And that’s a new experience for them to be taught generosity, sharing, recognizing there are children like themselves that live very differently, and we should not forget them, and we should do what we can to help them live a better life.

And so, to involve the children in providing gifts for other children throughout the world is a wonderful teaching experience. But it needs to be carried out beyond that, and a lesson that’s taught in various dimensions of family life, as the children grow through the family, but also following the example of the parents.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Archbishop, we’ve been blessed by your support of Cross Catholic Outreach; you were kind enough to write us a letter of support when you were the bishop of Savannah, you did so again after you arrived here in Atlanta. What aspects of the ministry led you to support Cross Catholic Outreach?

Archbishop Hartmayer: They have people on the ground; they have people throughout the world that are using the resources that we’re able to provide here in this country because we’ve been so blessed, to share with other people throughout the world who are in deep need for just basic things. And we’re able to give you what we can, and you take it and you put it where it belongs and where it’s most needed. And you just don’t leave it there, or you just don’t give them something, you walk with them, you accompany them, you teach them. And I think that’s one of the greatest ways that we can reduce the imprint of poverty throughout the world — by truly teaching people how to live a better life.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Archbishop Hartmayer, thank you for spending some time with us today. And thank you so much for your support of Cross Catholic Outreach.

Archbishop Hartmayer: My pleasure; thank you.

Box of Joy is a ministry of Cross Catholic Outreach.