Interview With Bishop Ronald Gainer, Diocese of Harrisburg

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop Gainer, thank you for welcoming us to the Diocese of Harrisburg. We’re here in the beautiful Cathedral of St. Patrick. We’re very blessed to have you serving as the Chairman of the Board of Cross Catholic Outreach. You first joined the board seven years ago. I was wondering if you could think back to the first time you heard of the ministry of Cross Catholic and why you were eventually inspired to join the board.

Bishop Gainer: Surely, Shannon. I knew of the reputation of Cross Catholic Outreach as a bishop. And so when I received the call, I guess being recommended by some of the other bishops, it was not something I really had to think about or ask for some time to make that decision. I immediately said I was very eager to be part of the board of Cross Catholic, knowing the very effective, fruitful ways in which Cross Catholic serves the poorest of the poor in those developing areas in the poorest areas of the world. So, it was a delight for me and a very important investment of my time and ministry to serve on the Board of Cross Catholic.

Cross Catholic Outreach: The mission of Cross Catholic Outreach is to mobilize the global Catholic Church to transform the poor and their communities, materially and spiritually, for the glory of Jesus Christ. When we say we want to transform people materially and spiritually, that invokes the concept of integral human development. Could you speak about this idea of addressing not just the immediate physical need but also the deeper, holistic need that’s addressed spiritually?

Bishop Gainer: Sure. This idea of integral human development respects the very way in which God has created the human person. We’re not just body; we’re not just mind — we’re body, mind and soul. And integral human development invites us to serve that totality of the human person. Certainly, when we think of human needs, it’s the physical and the material needs that are most prominent; they’re the visible things that people lack for daily sustenance and for just a normal daily life. But what is also essential for the well-being of each person is to address those deeper hungers of the human heart, the longing for God, and to enrich the relationship with Jesus Christ. And so Cross Catholic Outreach is interested in that whole development of the human person, serving certainly the physical and material needs of the poor and recognizing that we’re here in this world but destined for an eternity in the next world and the next life. And so through the spiritual dimension of Cross Catholic, that deeper hunger of the human heart is being addressed as well as the material needs of those who are poor.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop, the very first part about mobilizing the Church is to share what’s going on in the developing world, the suffering of the poor, with the Catholic faithful in the United States. At Cross Catholic, we have a very special group of men who do this; we call them our Outreach Priests. What would you say to encourage our Outreach Priests in their ministry?

Bishop Gainer: The ministry of the Outreach Priest is an exceptional one. Our Lord sent us to preach the Gospel. All of us, all of the baptized, are sent as missionary disciples to witness the truth of Jesus Christ and the salvation he’s won for us. And the Outreach Priests are able to come into our parish communities, really where the rubber hits the road in the life of the average Catholic, to announce the good news of what Cross Catholic is doing, and to reach out in the name of Christ through the organization of our Church to address the needs of those people. I would say to our preachers … I had the privilege of knowing a priest when I was bishop in eastern Kentucky. His name was Monsignor Ralph Beiting, and he spent 60 of his 61 years with the poorest of the poor in eastern Kentucky, and he did amazing things. But he used to always say, “I never want to deprive a person of the opportunity of helping the poor.” So, I think our preachers are going out to our parish communities and giving the opportunity to our Catholic faithful to help the poorest of the poor through Cross Catholic. So, they become a stimulus for charity by telling the story and inviting our Catholic faithful to contribute.

Cross Catholic Outreach: In September 2015, the Vatican issued a decree through Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which granted Cross Catholic Outreach juridic personhood. Now most Catholics don’t know what that means or have never heard that phrase. For the laymen, what is juridic personhood?

Bishop Gainer: For an easy understanding of that, every legal system has some provision whereby a collectivity of people or even goods can act as a person in law. We might consider it something like in our American civil law, US civil law to a corporation. That means that when you’re granted juridical personhood, that collectivity, that aggregate of persons or things have the rights of a person. You have the right to own property, the right to own assets and the right to enter into contracts. So, parishes and dioceses are all juridical persons. At the same time, the juridical person has obligations that must be fulfilled. For instance, if the juridical person owns assets, those assets must be used in accordance with the mission, the purpose and the intention of that juridical person. So, really, juridical personhood in canon law allows an aggregate of persons, an association, organization or religious community — Cross Catholic — to act as a person under canon law, with rights and obligations very similar to corporate law in the US.

Cross Catholic Outreach: In addition to our canonical status, we’re very blessed to have the endorsement of Catholic bishops in the United States. Now, as a bishop, you know that endorsement letters from a bishop or endorsement letters of any kind are fairly rare. What does it say about the ministry of Cross Catholic Outreach that more than half the bishops in the United States have endorsed our ministry?

Bishop Gainer: I agree; endorsement letters are fairly rare because the bishop wants to be sure, before issuing such an approval, that the organization is what it says it is and does what it says it does. And I think the fact that so many bishops have written letters of endorsement for Cross Catholic is a clear sign that the bishops approve and support and recognize the good and fruitful work of Cross Catholic Outreach. So, the bishops are not hesitant, and many times it comes from the recommendation of a brother bishop. If I don’t know something, I’ll try to call someone who I know has already endorsed it. And clearly, the brother bishops are certainly supportive, recognizing the wonderful things that are happening through the outreach of Cross Catholic. And so for that reason, bishops, when asked, don’t hesitate to write those letters of endorsement to show their support and approval. It also probably helps that we have seven Catholic bishops on our board of directors, so they know that they’re … clearly, they know that the board of directors is composed of brother bishops, and it gives them a sense of security and a direction that Cross Catholic is under the supervision and the oversight of bishops. And that means a lot to the whole body of bishops.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Well, one of your brother bishops on the board is Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St Louis. He’s our newest board member, and he has said that showing mercy is a way of showing the face of Jesus to the world. What role does mercy play in evangelization?

Bishop Gainer: It’s certainly one of the deepest qualities of the person of our Lord. We call out at the beginning of Mass, “Lord have mercy.” And so, Christ showed himself during his public ministry as one who was merciful through his teaching and through the conduct of his life, and his miracles were evidence of the divine mercy, which he incarnated here among us. And the Church must, if it’s going to truly evangelize, show that Christlike mercy as well, that compassion for everyone. And so by doing that, by showing the compassion of Christ, we are truly showing his face, the incarnate face of divine mercy, to those in need and to the whole world around us so that they are inseparable. I think the work of preaching the Gospel evangelization and showing everyone that compassion of the heart of Christ through our works.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Over the past three months, the war in Ukraine has been dominating the news. Cross Catholic has been supporting the Office of Papal Charities and its Ukraine relief efforts. Next month, Pope Francis is elevating this office into the Dicastery for the Service of Charity. How does elevating this office into a dicastery show Pope Francis’ preference for the poor?

Bishop Gainer: As you use the word “elevation,” it brings the office of the dicastery to a greater visibility and status within the Roman Curia. And this is no surprise to anyone because even when he was asked what name he would impose upon himself for the first time in the history of the papacy, Jorge Bergoglio chose the name Francis, and Pope Francis is known as Il Poverello, the little poor one, divesting himself of wealth, living in poverty, embracing that poverty, living among the poor, and serving the poor with the Gospel of Christ. And so I think by raising the office to a dicastery level, it shows Francis’ heart for those who are in need. And he speaks so often of the Church needing to be missionary disciples who go to those who are on the edges, those who are at the margins. And very often, those are the poorest of the poor. And so, I think he’s able to emphasize one of the great focuses of his papacy, and that is that the Church needs to attend to and serve the needs of the poor of the world.

Cross Catholic Outreach: As a charity endorsed by the Vatican, what does aligning with this new dicastery for the service of charity mean to Cross Catholic Outreach?

Bishop Gainer: It elevates the status, if you will, of Cross Catholic because we belong to that new dicastery and have a very close connection with that Vatican dicastery. So, it should give us more visibility and more presence, if you will, at a higher level within the very Holy See itself.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Cross Catholic Outreach has appreciated your enthusiastic support for the Cookie Sale to Combat World Hunger, which has been coordinated within the Harrisburg Diocese for a long time. What can you say to encourage more parishes to engage in this initiative?

Bishop Gainer: Well, the cookie sale began very humbly, very small, and as oftentimes things that God really wills and blesses, it just continued to increase into a larger, larger scale. This cookie sale and the monies raised through it — and almost 100% of those monies, there’s not really an administrative charge or fee — goes to help feed the poorest children in Haiti. And I have been able to visit Haiti and observe the poverty of the people there. Very often, if a child is given a meal at school, or two meals, breakfast and lunch, they’re not fed in the evening at home; those who are not in school have a meal and those children who ate at school are not fed an evening meal. And so the feeding through the schools is so very important. And the monies raised through the annual cookie sale — the Christmas cookie sale — are used to feed the children through the school system. And it’s so extremely important. So, I would urge parishes to participate. We’ve seen a nice growth, first in our own diocese, and then I’ve been able to speak to some surrounding diocese bishops and encourage them to have their parishes engaged. So it’s a wonderful laboratory. First of all, you have a nice tray of Christmas cookies, but the money that’s given or donated for those is put to tremendous use to feed hungry children.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Can you tell us about the wonderful couple that started this cookie sale?

Bishop Gainer: Yes, they are from the Lancaster area of our diocese, Jim and Jen Weber. And something that the Lord put on their heart that they were able to do something, they were greatly blessed. Jim’s business is a marketing firm — with a large clientele. And at some point, they decided they needed to give back for the blessings that they had received and this idea of baking cookies, selling them, and sending the proceeds to help the poor children in Haiti developed and, again, it grew.

It started with various women baking in their homes; it moved on as the sales continued to increase, and they were able to get commercial production of the cookies. And it’s really grown to a wonderful level, and they continue to keep growing it. Jim, with a heart for the poor in Haiti, has gone on to build and open a shirt factory and makes a golf type of shirt. And he’s currently involved in trying to market those and getting retailers to place large orders. And he’s employing people there and giving them a fair wage — a wage they would normally not be making. So, the cookie sale, I think, deepened his desire to do more for the people of Haiti. And he’s got this factory running now, and I think he has other plans. So Jim and Jen are just wonderful devout Catholics and very engaged in the diocese, in their parish; they have this international charity in their hearts and have invited others to participate to help the poor in Haiti.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Finally, Bishop Gainer, I wanted to ask you about the National Eucharistic Congress that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have elected to have in 2024. Can you talk about the importance of this event, what its goals are and also, in terms of Cross Catholic Outreach, how the Eucharist unites everyone, no matter whether they’re in the material world, the developing world, suffering in poverty, or here in the United States or anywhere?

Bishop Gainer: Yes, it’s been almost years since the United States has had a National Eucharistic Congress. So, I hope that everyone is looking forward to this great national event. We do need both within the Church, first of all, to rediscover the amazing mystery of our Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist. Pope St. John Paul II uses the word “Eucharistic amazement.” We need to rediscover that, have a deeper hunger for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and bring more back to the celebration of the Eucharist and the reception and adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. And as you say, the Eucharist is that which unites us; it is the source and summit of our life in Christ and our life with one another in that Holy Communion, which is the mystical body of Christ — the Church. And so, in the Eucharist, we are united and formed to be more faithful disciples of Christ. I always like to say that at every Mass, at the end of the Mass, we have that dismissal, the priest or the deacon says, “Get out. Leave here.” This has been wonderful; we’ve been fed at the table of God’s Word, and we’ve received the body and blood of Christ as our food and drink. But now, it’s time to leave to be dismissed. We don’t just walk out of Mass, but we’re sent from Mass as missionary disciples to witness Christ in the world. And so, the implication for the Eucharistic Congress is that it will remind us that having been fed ourselves, we’re sent into the world to feed others.

And so, for Cross Catholic, that integral human development to feed the material, to address the material and physical needs of the poor, as well as the needs of their souls and hearts — the spiritual hunger that is at the heart of every one of us. So, I hope that the Eucharistic revival, which we’re praying for, will come about through these years of preparation, and then the actual National Eucharistic Congress will remind us all of the mission that comes from our baptism to reach out with the love of Christ and the heart of Christ and to address the whole human person in whatever way we can to satisfy their hungers, as Christ satisfies ours in the Eucharist.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop Gainer, thank you for your time today. Your wonderful hospitality has been great, it has been great to spend a couple of days here in the Diocese of Harrisburg, learning more about the diocese, and thank you for being the Chairman of the Board of Cross Catholic Outreach.

Bishop Gainer: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much, and God bless you and the good works of Cross Catholic.