“There is work to be done … there is work to be done, and it is the transcendent work of Jesus Christ. There is work to be done, and there is so little time for its doing. There are priestly souls to be sanctified in the Holy Spirit of God, … flocks to be fed, … lost sheep to be found and rescued, … little ones to be taught, … youth to be trained, … poor and sick and suffering to be befriended. There is Christ, ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ to be made known and loved and followed, and made to reign in the minds and wills of men in private and public life, in home and family, in employer and worker, in school, in leisure, in politics, in government – in every field of man’s activity and experience. There is work to be done. It is the work of Christ and only we … can do it.”
Bishop Ronald Gainer shared these words on March 3, 2018, during a Mass to open the yearlong celebration of the Diocese’s 150th anniversary. The words were a quote from Bishop George Leech on the occasion of the Ninth Synod of the Diocese on December 16, 1943, but they seem to be a perfect fit when looking back on the ministry and leadership of Bishop Gainer.
Installed as the Eleventh Bishop of Harrisburg on March 19, 2014, at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, he set to guiding a flock that had been without a Diocesan shepherd for ten months after the death of Bishop Joseph McFadden on May 2, 2013.
Bishop Gainer instantly made himself available to the people of the Diocese, with a full schedule that included pastoral visits, Masses and Q&A sessions with school students, celebrating the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick for those in health care facilities, rejoicing in the gifts of people with disabilities, and leading pilgrimages with young people to World Youth Day and with parishioners to Ireland, Italy and Germany through Catholic Charities’ fundraisers.
He encouraged and led the people of the Diocese to deepen their faith through several special years in the Church, including the Year for Consecrated Life in 2015, the Year of Mercy in 2016, the Diocese’s 150th anniversary in 2018, the Year of St. Joseph and the local Synod process in 2021, and the start of the three-year Eucharistic Revival in 2022.
Opening the Year of Mercy on December 8, 2015, with prayer services at St. Patrick Cathedral and St. Lawrence Chapel – with a procession from one place of worship to the other – he encouraged Catholics to receive God’s mercy, saying, “The act of walking through the Holy Door represents the leaving behind of past sins and entering into a new way of living through God’s mercy.”
That same year, the Diocese promoted and celebrated Evenings of Eucharistic Reflection and Adoration in advance of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which culminated with Pope Francis celebrating Mass on the Parkway in the City of Brotherly Love, attended by a number of clergy, religious and laity from the Diocese of Harrisburg.
Bishop Gainer welcomed the formation of a chapter of Legatus in the Diocese in 2016, an organization for Catholic business leaders committed to learn, live and spread the faith. The Diocesan chapter quickly made a name for itself under the bishop’s leadership, winning seven awards at the Legatus annual summit in 2018 and Bishop Gainer being named national Chaplain of the Year in 2021.
Opening the Diocese’s 150th anniversary celebration in March of 2018, the bishop called to mind the Catholics of past generations who worked diligently and selflessly to build the Church of Harrisburg.
“During this year, we want to thank God for the generations of faithful Catholics who have worked to build up this local Church through their witness to the Gospel,” Bishop Gainer remarked during a Mass to open the sesquicentennial. “Their countless acts of worship, charity, teaching, and ministry to those in need over these 150 years have truly been a blessing for Central Pennsylvania.”
The year also put a spotlight on present-day Catholics, including the laity, for their integral service to the life of the Church and their various ways of evangelizing and volunteering.
In November 2019, Bishop Gainer joined Bishops from Pennsylvania and New Jersey for an ad limina visit with Pope Francis in Rome. The pope conducts ad limina visits to assess the state of the Church around the world.
Bishop Gainer and the 19 Bishops of Region III who met with the Holy Father on Thanksgiving Day experienced honest discussion of several topics, including clergy sexual abuse of minors.
“We had extensive conversations about the scandals, and he was very much aware of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report,” Bishop Gainer told The Witness about the visit. “He was willing to hear our concerns and respond frankly.”
In the wake of the horrific scandal of clergy sex abuse against minors, Bishop Gainer led the Diocese of Harrisburg in staunch efforts to apologize for the sins and take effective and meaningful steps to prevent it from happening again.
“In my own name, and in the name of the Church of Harrisburg, I ask for your forgiveness,” the bishop reiterated in various statements, expressing sincere atonement for the failings of the Church.
Prompted by legal costs and harsh financial consequences for the local Church, the Diocese filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code in February 2020. Filing for Reorganization allowed the Diocese to continue its ministry work, while also equitably compensating its creditors.
The unchartered waters and safety precautions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic also called upon the leadership of the bishop, who announced in March of 2020 the unprecedented suspension of Masses and the closing of churches in an effort to help stop the spread of the virus.
The reinstatement of the obligation to return to Mass on August 15, 2021, was a welcome and joyful occasion for the faithful, and “a moment to thank God anew for the great gift of the Holy Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus in His Holy Body and Blood as well as for the joy of gathering together as a believing community of faith,” the bishop expressed.
In recognition of their integrity and generosity in service to the Church and the community, the Diocese inaugurated the annual Lorica Awards in 2019 under Bishop Gainer’s leadership. Establishing the Lorica Awards, named after the renowned prayer attributed to St. Patrick, Bishop Gainer expressed his hope that the example of the recipients would “inspire the members of the Church to continue fervently in the ministry of Jesus Christ, through apostolic works of mercy and compassion to those most in need.”
During his nine years as Bishop of Harrisburg, Bishop Gainer reveled in being among the people. His legacy touches into all four corners of the Diocese, for which he administered the Sacrament of Confirmation on thousands of young men and women, and ordained 33 priests. He also celebrated blessings and/or dedications at nearly 50 churches, schools and other institutions, including parish centers, altars, school expansions, church renovations, chapels, convents and health care facilities.
In our 35 Catholic schools, Bishop Gainer delighted in visits with students – in person for Masses and classroom visits, and virtually via sessions made possible by the wide-area network.
In May of 2022, he led the Diocese in announcing concrete action for the Strategic Vision of Catholic Education to chart a pathway for a successful future of its Catholic schools and its nearly 10,000 students. In the fall of that year, our schools celebrated a 6% overall increase in enrollment, and $1 million in EITC Scholarships through a partnership with RedefinED Advisors, LLC.
Faith in action was also a highlight of Bishop Gainer’s episcopacy, with community outreach efforts that included participation in the summertime Works of Mercy camp with teens in downtown Lancaster; interaction with young adults with disabilities at the annual Diocesan Camp at Kirchenwald; and leading the greater community in the March for Life on both the national and statewide levels.
“I’m confident that all of us here are very concerned about our nation, the unity and future of our nation, and the need to foster a better mutual respect and harmony among all our citizens; however, when the teaching Church and some believing members of the Church as well as many in our society at large are so radically divided on such a fundamental issue regarding human life, we are certainly in need of prayer,” he said at the statewide march, inaugurated in the fall of 2021.
As his retirement approached, the past year and a half of Bishop Gainer’s ministry have focused on efforts of moving forward, notably with the Synodal process – in which Pope Francis called upon the universal Church to listen, encounter, dialogue and pray, in order to learn from each other, and grow closer to the Lord and His Church – and the national Eucharistic Revival, which aims to foster deeper devotion and knowledge about the Eucharist among the faithful.
“We have different emphases, different preferences, but if our eyes are on Jesus Christ, then those are always secondary,” the bishop said during a Mass to close the Synod in June of 2022. “They’re never essential and they will not divide. They’ll only add to the variety and the richness of the community of faith.”
On the Eucharistic Revival, Bishop Gainer has urged the faithful to discover or re-discover the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and the hope and healing He offers.
“Today, our society is plagued with fear, doubt, war, hatred, and an overall indifference to the sanctity of human life. There is desperate need to experience the love and truth of Christ,” he wrote in a letter in June of 2022. “Now, more than ever before, we need this belief of the Eucharist celebrated with renewed vigor in our parishes, Catholic schools, apostolates, ministries and programs. The Revival aims to do just that. Clergy, religious, laity, apostolates, movements, parishes and Diocesan leadership will work together with one common goal – to celebrate our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist that all might come to believe.”
After nine years as Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg, and countless liturgies, events and meaningful encounters with the faithful, the aforementioned highlights offer just a glimpse into the legacy of Bishop Gainer. While it’s impossible to chronicle and revisit every area of ministry, Church life and the programs and lives he has spiritually impacted during this time, the words he said during his Mass of Installation on March 19, 2014, capture the dedication and service he gave to the local Church.
On that day, he delivered a fitting quote given by Pope Francis on the occasion of the ordination of two bishops five months earlier:
“Love, love all of those who are entrusted to you with the love of a father and a brother. First, love the priests and deacons. They are your collaborators, they are the closest of the close, for you…. But also love the poor, the defenseless and all those who need to be welcomed and assisted. Exhort the faithful to work with you in the apostolic task and listen willingly to them….
“And watch lovingly over the whole flock, among whom the Holy Spirit appoints you to govern the Church of God. Keep watch in the name of the Father, whose image you make present; in the name of Jesus Christ, his Son, by whom you have been constituted teachers, priests and shepherds; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who gives life to the Church and sustains us in our weakness.”
“I pledge today, and always, my life and my energy to fulfill this task in service to our Holy Church,” Bishop Gainer said. “Through the intercession of St. Joseph, the just man, the humble, obedient servant, the courageous witness, may we together fulfill our baptismal vocation to fascinate the world by the love of Jesus Christ.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness