SMYRNA, Georgia — After an 11-month absence of an archbishop, Pope Francis appointed a familiar face to be the spiritual leader of Catholics in north and central Georgia.

On March 5, he named Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of Savannah, Georgia, as Atlanta’s new archbishop.

Hartmayer, a Conventual Franciscan friar, was greeted with applause when he arrived at the archdiocesan chancery for a news conference. Earlier that morning, he gave his first interview as archbishop with The Georgia Bulletin, Atlanta’s archdiocesan newspaper.

Dressed in the gray robes of his religious order, the archbishop told reporters his return to Atlanta is “like coming home.” He served in the archdiocese from 1995 to 2011 as a pastor. He also was president of the archdiocesan priests’ council.

“Atlanta has grown so significantly for all kinds of reasons, but the faith also has grown in Atlanta. And that is something that we must keep in mind and continue to work toward evangelization and formation of our people,” he said at the news conference.

“These are difficult times in our society, and I think people are looking for something, as they always have, to hold on to that has roots,” he said. “It has tradition that has meaning, has depth. And I think the Catholic Church continues to offer that despite our imperfections.”

He succeeds Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who was named archbishop of Washington 11 months ago. He will be installed May 6 at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, Georgia, making him the seventh archbishop of Atlanta.

Church leaders said the expected size of the crowd required the installation Mass be moved from the traditional location, the Cathedral of Christ the King, to the larger church in Roswell.

Hartmayer told reporters that one of his challenges “will be to be available, to be visible and to visit and be present to as many of the faith communities, and educational institutions and other institutions, social outreach, as much as I can.”

“I look forward to seeing more and more of Atlanta and what is going on here,” he added.

In terms of geography, the Atlanta Archdiocese covers a smaller area than the Savannah Diocese, but its Catholic community is much larger, with an estimated 1.2 million believers, compared to 80,000-100,000 in Savannah in the southern half of Georgia.

His nine years in Savannah, the new archbishop said, shaped him as “a better person, and hopefully a more effective and compassionate priest and bishop. I’m so grateful to God for giving me those precious eight years, that’s blessed my life.”

“I want to remind Atlanta that you came from Savannah,” he said, noting how once the whole state was the Diocese of Savannah. The Diocese of Atlanta was established in 1956. “You are our daughter. But you are an elder daughter that has been very successful and has many, many members, and we’re happy about that.”

In the earlier interview with The Georgia Bulletin, Hartmayer spoke of being in Rome in early February with his brother bishops from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina for their region’s “ad limina” visit to the Vatican.

He said the first question Pope Francis asked was about religious communities. The pope himself is a Jesuit.

“He asked, ‘How many of you are religious?’ We raised our hands, and he asked, ‘What communities are you from?’ There were just three of us there. So, he has a sensitivity toward religious,” said Hartmayer.

While members of religious orders are sometimes academics or intellectuals, “a lot of us are just workers, and pastors, and we work with the people,” he said. “And that’s what I think he (the pope) would like to see more of in the dioceses.”

There are 25 Conventual Franciscans serving as bishops worldwide; three are in the United States.

During the interview, he talked about how his 15 years at St. Philip Benizi Parish in Jonesboro, Georgia, shaped him.

On a visit to the Jonesboro parish after being installed as Savannah’s bishop, he told the congregation, “You gave birth to a bishop.”

“They are just wonderful, giving people and their faith is something they live, it’s not just something they participate in once a week,” he said of his former parish. “It’s truly a family. I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Following the news conference, Hartmayer met with Chancery staff. During the meeting, employees could ask the new archbishop questions. Topics ranged from family life to workflow and expectations.

“It’s great working with people who have the same mission and vision in mind,” said Hartmayer. “We want to do God’s will; we want to bring people closer to Christ.”

Hartmayer has two brothers and a sister. As a sophomore in high school, he worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for a year to earn enough money for his yearbook, class ring and prom. He was part of Catholic Youth Organization, also known as CYO, and Boy Scouts. He told staff he likes Broadway music and songs from the ’50s and ’60s, especially Neil Diamond and John Denver.

Karen Vogtner, principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville, has known Hartmayer for many years.

“I’m just so excited,” said Vogtner.

They worked on committees together, including one for GRACE Scholars and an archdiocesan strategic planning committee. The school has a strong partnership with St. Philip Benizi, where the archbishop served.

Vogtner said she had many conversations with him over the years about Catholic education.

“He’s just so wonderfully humble,” she told The Georgia Bulletin. “I think he’s just the perfect person to come in and shepherd us.”

Nelson and Smith are staff writers at The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Editor Nichole Golden contributed to this story.

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