Nurturing and encouraging religious vocations have been a hallmark of Bishop Ronald Gainer’s leadership in the Diocese. From the establishment of diaconate formation classes, making seminary visits to spend time with the men in formation and celebrating Masses with religious Sisters to Days of Sanctification for priests, and conversations with young men at the annual Quo Vadis Days discernment retreat, his ability to foster and support vocations are building a lasting legacy in our local Church.
“I think the mark he’s made on the life of the Diocese and in the legacy of the Diocese, especially in the culture of priestly vocations, is going to be one that we’ll see over the next several generations,” said Father Jonathan Sawicki, the outgoing Diocesan Director of Vocations. “I think at least a quarter of our active priests were ordained by Bishop Gainer since 2014, and that will have a lasting effect for generations to come.”
The bishop’s poise in leadership have left an impression on Father Sawicki. “He always has a gentlemanly demeanor, and that has left a lasting impact on me.”
“His leadership reminds me of the words contained in the Order of Installation of a New Pastor, calling the priest to ‘always be a loving father, a gentle shepherd and a wise teacher of your people.’ I think that is something he has cultivated even in his own persona,” Father Sawicki remarked.
Thinking back on the past five years of formation as a seminarian, Deacon Michael Pray said he has come to love Bishop Gainer like a father.
“Having been in formation, the relationship has developed to that of a caring father for a son. He’s very interested in what’s going on in our lives, how we’re doing, and he’s always been very available and open to discuss things and just sit and listen,” said Deacon Pray, who is serving at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg. “That’s a valuable thing, his ability to be present in the moment and to listen. Certainly, he has a lot of wisdom to share, he remembers details about us very well. He is kind, compassionate and supportive – all the adjectives of a good father.”
Deacon Pray said he saw those attributes in the bishop’s annual interactions with the young men at the Diocese’s Quo Vadis Days retreat at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
“I see his connection with the young men every year, but last year in particular I was sitting in the back of the seminary’s auditorium listening to him talk to the retreatants and thinking how much I’ll miss this when he retires,” Deacon Pray said, “The things he was saying were so spot-on, and all the best things about his preaching and teaching and interacting were just spewing forth for the retreatants to soak up. He’s genuine, he’s authentic, and that’s refreshing – and it’s especially attractive for fostering vocations.”
Seminarian Andrew St. Denis recalls meeting Bishop Gainer during a visit the bishop made to Bloomsburg University during St. Denis’ senior year in college.
“He was a witness to priestly fatherhood during that visit that added to my desire for the priesthood,” he said.
When St. Denis entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, that example continued. “There were moments during Bishop’s visits to the seminary where he encouraged us as future priests to cling to Jesus and to bring the life of Jesus into the world by our preaching and by our lives,” he remarked.
“Bishop has always placed my growth in the spiritual life and virtue as the most important part of my formation, and he has encouraged me to persevere in prayer and to grow as a disciple of Jesus. The prayerful advice he has given over the past four years will remain with me for the rest of my life…. His encouragement to remain in Jesus and follow Him and to lead others to Christ in His Church will be a major part of my future priestly service,” he added.
Along with his support of vocations to the priesthood, Bishop Gainer also nurtured foundations for religious life during his nine years in the Diocese.
In 2016, he literally helped lay the foundation for the growing Discalced Carmelite community of nuns in Fairfield – digging a shovel into the soil for a ground-breaking ceremony, and later cementing bricks into the monastery’s buildings as construction commenced.
He has welcomed consecrated hermits into the Diocese, and presided at liturgies welcoming new members of the Discalced Carmelites and Discalced Hermits in Fairfield, describing their communities as “true powerhouses of prayer” for the Diocese.
Sister Romaine Niemeyer, SCC, spoke fondly of the bishop’s leadership and care for religious Sisters. A member of the Diocesan Sisters’ Council and former CEO of the then-Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, Sister Romaine described the bishop’s style of leadership as “proactive, strong, timely-responsive, engaging, supportive, inspirational, sincerely interested and decisive,” combined with a pastoral approach especially “for the challenges we faced in the changing times as a Church within its various missions, be it those of health care, education and pastoral ministry.”
“He gave of his time, talent, knowledge and love for God and others generously, and in a timely fashion,” she said. “He supported the religious congregations as well as the individual religious with great respect, while offering his own personal service in meeting their needs. Vocations to the priestly and religious life were upper-most in his interest and prayers. Our Diocese, the various missions within the Church, and its people have been blessed through his excellent leadership. Bishop was a true pastor after Christ’s own heart. We will pray for him as he continues to offer his service as Bishop Emeritus to all of us in the future. The religious in our Diocese have been privileged to have Bishop Gainer as our leader, friend and active supporter of our needs, both in spirituality and mission.”
Another legacy of Bishop Gainer’s leadership is the gift of two classes of permanent deacons to serve the faithful. Less than a year into his Episcopacy, he announced applications for a permanent diaconate class in February of 2015, leading to the ordination of 35 men in September of 2020.
“Your ordination today reminds us of this truth: The diaconate is an order of service to Christ and to His Church,” Bishop Gainer told the new deacons on their ordination day, September 12, 2020. He said their selfless service as husbands, fathers, sons and brothers “is elevated by a sacramental grace that will conform your lives ever more closely to Christ the Servant.”
Building on the momentum of their ordination, he announced in January 2021 that the Diocese would start an additional cohort, a group that will be ordained in 2026.
Deacon Thomas Lang, who was ordained in 2010, has assisted Bishop Gainer as a master of ceremonies at various liturgies throughout the Diocese, and said he quickly came to understand how much the bishop values the service of permanent deacons in the support of the work of the priests in serving the people of the Diocese.
“Bishop Gainer consistently made it clear in talks to the permanent deacons as a group that he both greatly valued and appreciated their service and sacrifice of time to assist in the various ways deacons serve in our wonderful Diocese,” Deacon Lang observed. “This became even easier to see when he began his first Permanent Diaconate Formation Program, and then followed it up with a second in light of the success of the initial program. He spoke very highly of the men who entered both programs and was and is very impressed by their abilities, faithfulness and willingness to sacrifice their time and serve in our Church.”
“As he is with his brother priests, Bishop Gainer is not only a true shepherd and guide to the permanent deacons in our Diocese, but his sincerity in truly caring about each deacon and his service to the Church in Harrisburg is without question,” said Deacon Lang, who serves at the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick in Harrisburg. “He acts in no way aloof or distanced from his deacons, but treats them as they are – his right hands in assisting the priests and serving the souls for which he is entrusted. Bishop Gainer has also always been interested in the lives of the Deacons’ wives and families, and makes it a point to ask about them when he interacts with his Deacons.”
“I’ve had an up-front seat to witness how he has handled countless situations with incredible grace, remarkable kindness, and with a calmness that is so very admirable,” Deacon Lang said. “Those experiences have changed me without a doubt, and have shown me the depth of care he has for every soul in the Diocese of Harrisburg and beyond. I know how much I have been blessed by those experiences and how I hope they have helped me to be a better person and Deacon in service to our wonderful priests and people of God.”
In life, regardless of our particular vocation, if we’ve truly made a meaningful connection with someone, the encounter will leave an impact on us.
Deacon Pray said the lessons and example imparted on him by Bishop Gainer will make an impact on his own service as a priest.
“He talks the talk and he walks the walk. I think there is something so important about being authentic and consistent. Clearly, he is a man of prayer and you can tell that by how he preaches and how he carries himself,” Deacon Pray said. “If someone were to say of me in the future, ‘Father Pray backs up what he says with his actions, preaches well, is a fatherly man of prayer and is an example for us,’ what more could a priest want to be said about him? I think Bishop Gainer’s legacy is his consistency and kindness in being another Christ to everyone.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness