In late May, Bishop Ronald Gainer sat down with Rachel Troche of the Diocese’s “Candid Catholic Convos” podcast and Jen Reed of The Catholic Witness for an interview about his upcoming retirement, the transition of welcoming a new Bishop of Harrisburg, and the challenges and joys of his ministry. The transcription of the interview is published here. You can also listen to the interview on “Candid Catholic Convos” at this link.
On April 25, the public announcement was made of Pope Francis accepting your retirement and appointing Bishop Timothy Senior as the Twelfth Bishop of Harrisburg. What can the Diocese expect in these next few weeks of transition?
Mostly, it’s preparation for the Installation of the Twelfth Bishop of Harrisburg, Bishop Timothy Senior.
I submitted my letter to Pope Francis on the 8th of August in anticipation of my 75th birthday, which was later in the month. A process begins there, and I’m sure that process was delayed because we were still in the works of the reorganization through Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. I think maybe they were slow pacing the process of finding my replacement because of that, but then only a few weeks after we came out of bankruptcy, the Holy Father announced the Twelfth Bishop of Harrisburg had been selected.
On that day of the announcement, April 25, I became the Apostolic Administrator, which basically has the same responsibilities and authorities as a Diocesan Bishop, with a few exceptions. The purpose for that is so the Diocese can continue in a stable way to function and be what it needs to be as the local Church. Since Bishop Senior was already a bishop – he’s a bishop 13 years – we had only two months from the day of the announcement on April 25 to have his Installation.
In the meantime, a lot of the time now in the Diocese is spent in preparation with the many, many details – all the people who need to be invited to the Mass of Installation, which Archbishop Nelson Pérez, the Archbishop of Philadelphia and the Metropolitan for Pennsylvania, will preside at. I know it’s going to be a beautiful liturgy. It’s a very joyous time for thanking God.
Leaders come and go; bishops come and go, but the Church remains and the mission of the Church remains, and so over the centuries the Church has developed this process that maintains the stability during what’s called an empty see. At the moment of that announcement on April 25, Harrisburg canonically became, in the Latin term, a sede vacante or vacant see. That’s why I was appointed Apostolic Administrator to provide for that stability so that all of the aspects of the local Church can function during this interim time. What’s most important is the mission of the Church and proclaiming Christ to the world.
You are transitioning from being Diocesan Bishop to Bishop Emeritus. What does that mean in terms of your day-to-day, and how are you handling it?
I hope I’m handling it pretty well. Primarily, my day-to-day functioning hasn’t changed since April 25. I continue to come each day to the office and have various meetings and appointments, as well as my public events. I’ve just wrapped up my 30th Confirmation of the spring Confirmation season, and also this has been a time for our high school graduations and Baccalaureate Masses I’ve been to. But I’m still doing the public events and the personal appointments and meetings, but that will cease after June 21, although I’ll be around to help Bishop Senior in whatever way he wishes.
Personally, the last three weeks have been constant packing. I’ll be living for some months at the Priests’ Retirement Residence right here on the same campus as the Diocesan Offices, and then eventually I’m going to move into a house that’s in Mechanicsburg. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of help. I have a vast collection of books, and so it was hard deciding which ones to keep and which to give away.
Speaking of books, you have such a wealth of knowledge, especially about the history and meaning of words. Can you expand on your love for educating in your homilies and presentations, and perhaps your plans to continue it in the future?
I enjoy teaching very much. I had the opportunity to teach for eight years in seminary at Mary Immaculate Seminary and then six at St. Charles, which is my alma mater.
I think my love of words came from the fact that, in college seminary, we were exposed to classical languages – I had a lot of Latin, a lot of Greek and some Hebrew. When you study those languages, you begin to see how much our English and other romance languages depend upon those classical languages. I have a love for word-study, and I think when I’ve mentioned that in homilies or speeches, it also fascinates a lot of people.
For me, it’s always a help to know the more profound meaning, especially when we’re looking at Sacred Scriptures. You find the depth of meaning of words in which we’re really only skimming the surface by our English words. Many times, English words have a slightly different nuance than the original language, so for me that’s always fascinating and I like to share it.
Certainly, I’ll be preaching whenever I have the opportunity to celebrate Mass, but at the same time I’d like to have some opportunities to do some series in parishes or give some talks on various topics. Certainly, I would enjoy preparing those things; for me, the education is in the preparation for homilies and the preparation for giving talks and presentations. That’s the part I enjoy very much, and then the delight of trying to communicate those thoughts to your listeners.
What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishments, and your toughest challenges, during your nine years as Bishop of Harrisburg?
I think everyone is quite aware the last nine years have been extraordinary with the events that we’ve faced here in Central Pennsylvania, beginning in 2016 with the Attorney General announcing the Grand Jury investigations, and in 2018 the devastating report. The results of that historic study of the abuse of minors by clergy and other Church personnel was so horrific. To have to face that, to be the voice and the public face of the Church during that time was my responsibility and I tried to accomplish that by being available. We had nine listening sessions, where large crowds gathered many times and many people were able to ventilate their disappointment, their anger, their frustration. Some of the survivors spoke during those town hall meetings.
And then we went on from that to COVID in 2020 and the anger of so many people. I call them the “mask wars,” because we had such passionate people. Some were saying, “You have to insist that everybody wear masks,” and on the other side people were passionately saying, “We should not have to wear masks.” Of course, our churches were closed for a period of time.
I think one of the positive results of dealing with COVID was our greater use of livestreaming and social media. Some of our parishes were doing OK in that area, but it came to the point where all of our parishes were doing something, and many of our parishes were excelling in continuing to do the ministries of the parish – especially preaching, teaching and getting the liturgies into the homes of the faithful through the use of livestreaming and other social media platforms. We’ve grown in that and we continue to develop that. There’s a saying that I like, “The Lord writes straight with crooked lines.” We had the crooked lines of the pandemic, but out of that came the straight line of a much better utilization of the means of communication in the Diocese. I’m sure that will continue to develop and be used fruitfully for the sake of the Church’s mission.
And then it became necessary for the Diocese, for our own financial stability and also for the equity of those survivors who had claims against the Diocese – to be able to give everybody a fair share in compensation, we did a compensation process and entered into the bankruptcy process.
Those are the very major issues, and extraordinary issues, during the nine years that I’ve been here.
About my accomplishments, I would say that what I would like to point out is how I tried, during all of those different extraordinary challenges, to keep our Church on course, to keep the focus on Christ, to remain hope-filled and to not abandon the mission that we’re about in sanctifying, shepherding and teaching. It’s so easy, when these curveballs come at us – both personally and as a Church – to get derailed, and we can just sit there in shock and not do anything. I hope that as we look back during the time and as we handled each of these crises, we continued the course of what we needed to be doing, and that is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to show love for our neighbors through our charitable outreach work. I would hope that would be an actual achievement – nothing that I’ve done personally, but that we could all together continue to keep our focus and continue to make progress in the direction the Lord wants us to travel, despite those extraordinary challenges of the last nine years.
What would you say has been your most memorable experience as a bishop?
I would have to say that it’s one that repeats annually, and that is the ordination of priests. I’m particularly thinking here of my time in Harrisburg, although it was certainly true also in Lexington. There is such a joy and such a spirit among the people who gather for ordination. These men have prepared for years and years for this moment in their life when they’re ordained priests. It is the ministry of the bishop, by the Laying on of Hands and praying the Consecratory Prayer, that takes a deacon and makes him a priest of Jesus Christ.
The liturgy itself is so glorious – the music, the praying of the congregation. Those, for me, are my greatest memories, because one of the highest expressions of the bishop’s ministry is to be able to ordain priests. Those are some of my greatest memories – the joy, the festive liturgy and the wonderful transition after so many years of preparation, these men walk out of the Church now to serve us in the Diocese.
What are you looking forward to most in your retirement?
The luxury of more time. There will be fewer official demands on my time and I’ll be able to keep a less hectic schedule. That, for me, will be a blessing. I’ll have more time for reading and preparing homilies and talks that I might be doing, more time for prayer in solitude with Our Lord, and more for connecting with friends. I have some wonderful lifelong friends and sometimes they get cheated because I can’t see them or do things with them because of my schedule. I’m hoping for that luxury of a little more time, and I hope to use it wisely.
Is there anything you’d like to say the people of our Diocese?
I would like everyone to know how grateful I am. Despite the challenges and the extraordinary events that took place in these nine years, I am so grateful to God for the opportunity to have served here as the bishop of this wonderful Diocese, and to have gotten to know such wonderful co-workers, to be supported by my collaborators here, both in the Diocesan Offices and by our clergy, our deacons, our religious, our lay leaders in this Diocese, in all of our parishes, our schools and our other institutions. It has been a real blessing for me to get to know these wonderful, faithful Catholics and to be a co-worker here in this part of the Lord’s vineyard.
I just hope everyone knows the gratitude I have toward everyone, to have this opportunity to know so many and to serve together with them. This is our vocation, to know, love and serve the Lord here, and one day to be happy with Him in the hereafter. I would just like everyone to know my sincere and deep profound gratitude to all whose lives have crossed the path of my life and have served together with me.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)