When examining the early life and vocation of Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., a Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, it follows the pattern of many young men called to serve with the Franciscan Friars Conventual.
Over the last 10 years, however, Bishop Hartmayer, thanks to an appointment from Pope Benedict XVI, has taken an extended vocational journey few Friars make.
Here is his story.
Bishop Hartmayer grew up in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, New York, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, in a loving family. He lived in a nice home and had plenty of friends. The families in his community were mostly Catholic who sent their children to the local Catholic school. Bishop Hartmayer matriculated to the local Catholic high school – Cardinal O’Hara – where he was introduced to the Franciscan Friars, whose brotherhood and life of simple service eventually inspired him to answer his own vocational call.
“Growing up during those decades was like being brought up in Pleasantville,” said Bishop Hartmayer. “Most of the people on our street had young families so there were always lots of children willing to play kick the can, hide and seek, flag football and many other games that we just made up. We were the generation that got home from school and our mothers were home and we were told, ‘change your clothes and play outside until dinner.’ Those were good times.”
The Friars at Cardinal O’Hara made an immediate impression on Bishop Hartmayer.
“There were fourteen friars teaching in the school,” he recalled. “They were the class moderators, student counsel moderators and spiritual directors of the typical clubs you would find in high schools. They also were present at our athletic events and school ‘record hops’ and proms.
“They seemed to me to be brothers to one another. They were happy living their common way of life. They lived together, they prayed and ate their evening meal together. They got to know us because they made the effort to do so.”
It was in the summer months, however, away from school where Bishop Hartmayer got his first real glimpse of Franciscan life.
“At the end of the school year, the friars would rent a large coach and take us to their college seminary in Granby, Massachusetts for five days to spend with the friar seminarians. We prayed, ate, worked, swam and played volleyball with them. I hated to leave at the end of the week. Many of us would exchange addresses with the friars and we would share letters throughout the year. At the end of the next school year, many of us would make the trip again.”
By the end of his junior year of high school, Bishop Hartmayer began to seriously think about entering the Franciscan seminary. He and four of his classmates left for the Franciscan Novitiate in Ellicott City, Maryland, in August of 1969 and the journey was underway.
“There were 24 of us who experienced our Novitiate year together. We were invested in the Franciscan habit in August, 1969; 50 years ago. During that year, we read about the life of St. Francis, we learned how to pray the Liturgy of Hours, the rosary and other devotions. We really concentrated on our personal life with Christ and our fraternal life with one another.”
At the end of that year, they made their temporary vows of Poverty, Chasity and Obedience for a period of three years. They then went onto the college-seminary in Granby where they all majored in Philosophy in preparation for the study of Theology, preparing them for ordination to the priesthood.
“During those ten years of seminary training and a teaching year at Archbishop Curley High School (in Baltimore, Maryand), I fell in love with St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Friars and our Province, which extended from Maine to Alabama, and deepened my relationship with Jesus.”
Bishop Hartmayer was ordained a priest on May 5, 1979, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, New York and his next 30 years mirrored that of many of the Friars with whom he served.
His initial assignment was back at Archbishop Curley, to serve as a guidance counselor and Religious Studies teacher. He remained at Curley for nine years; the last three as principal. He then returned to his alma mater, Cardinal O’Hara, as principal. Then, on to another stint as a principal, at St. Francis High School in Hamburg, New York, where he served for five years.
In 1994, after so many years serving in high schools, Bishop Hartmayer was granted a three-month sabbatical which he spent at the Vatican II Institute in Menlo Park, California. At its conclusion, he briefly returned to the high school setting, as he was assigned to John Carroll High School in Fort Pierce, Forida, but the second phase of his religious career was just ahead.
In July of 1995, Bishop Hartmayer was assigned as pastor at St. Philip Benizi Parish in Jonesboro, Georgia, which is in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He served there for 15 years and, at the end of his term, he was assigned as pastor to St. John Vianney in Lithia Springs, Georgia. He was not there long, however, when he was called, literally, to a different order of service.
“On July 5, 2011, I was called by the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, DC, notifying me that Pope Benedict XVI had assigned me as the Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia. I was ordained a bishop on October 18, 2011.”
Bishop Hartmayer’s ordination as a Bishop has placed him in a very unique position within his Franciscan order.
“Once I was ordained a bishop, my vow of Obedience is directly to the Pope. My vow of Poverty is suspended because I am a Corporation Sole and, by my office as bishop, I own everything in the name of the diocese. My vow of Chastity remains unchanged. I am still a Conventual Franciscan Friar; however, I have no voting rights at the Provincial Chapter. Upon retirement, I can remain in the diocese or return to a friary within my province. I have had the honor of ordaining some of the friars as priests. I feel very welcome in any of our Franciscan Friaries throughout the world.”
According to Bishop Hartmayer, his life as a Franciscan impacts how he administers his role as a church leader. Instead of blindly wielding the power of his position, he applies the principals of community service common in Franciscan ministries.
“My formation as a friar certainly has had an impact on how I live and minister as a bishop,” he said. “It is easier for me to see my priests in the diocese as brothers. I regularly make decisions in consultation with my senior staff and the Council of Priests because I am so use to making decisions as a community in religious life.”
Bishop Hartmayer points to his parents and the priests he encountered during his childhood for influencing his life. As an adult, his seminary formators affected his spiritual life. As an older priest and bishop, other priests and bishops influence him and his ministry.
“At this time in my life, I am strongly influenced by Pope Francis and his writings and his way of life. He provides a profound yet reasonable way to understand the gospel and discipleship. I have a deep admiration and respect for the Holy Father.”
In reflection, Bishop Hartmayer stated, “My years ministering in our high schools has had a tremendous impact on my life. The young men that I taught and who attend the schools when I was principal provided me with endless opportunities to experience the human condition. Those years enabled me to accompany countless young men through some of the difficult challenges in their lives. I loved those kids and I felt gratitude and respect from them; if not at the time, years later. I am happy to say that I still am in touch with some of my students who are now grandparents. We text and email each other and speak on the phone. Those students will always have a special place in my heart.
“As a priest and as a bishop, I have had the opportunity to travel to places that I would have never dreamed of visiting. I have been in the presence of four popes and have met and spoken to two of them personally. I have walked through the Holy Land twice and saw what Jesus saw. I met mayors, senators, congress people and, most recently, said Mass in Jimmy Carter’s church with he and his wife present and later had dinner with him.”
“But more importantly, I have met men and women who are unknown to the public but who have an intimate relationship with God and serve their brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need. They do not think twice before helping someone who is hurting, ill or dying. I have met countless people, some whose names I do not remember, but I remember what I saw them do because of their faith.”
Bishop Hartmayer does not know what lies ahead in his vocational journey as a Friar and servant of the church, but he does know how he will respond.
“I will serve in any way that I am asked,” he said. “I have no aspirations except to be more holy and more generous. All I have ever wanted to be was a Franciscan priest. I will spend the rest of my days striving to be a good one.”
Bishop Hartmayer also had a special message for the Companions of St. Anthony and their role in supporting Frairs, just like himself, in their service of God.
“As a Mendicant Order, the Franciscan Friars beg others for what they need to do God’s work. For the last 800 years the Friars have relied on the generosity of the faithful to provide for their education and formation. As friars, we are called to live the Gospel and the values and example of St. Francis of Assisi. We are called to live simply and to take care of what we have been given. We are called to take care of our earth and all of God’s creation.
“St. Francis had a deep love for the crucified Christ and the command to ‘rebuild my Church.’ Like Pope Francis, we are to live a contemplative life of prayer and a life of service. We pray for our benefactors who help us and work with us in making the Gospel a living experience. God has blessed us with generous people who make it possible for us to live a simple life and bring the Mercy of God to others.” †
Articles from this edition: