St. Gregory Parish council members, left to right, Deacon Steve Fox; Brian Sullivan; Council President Carol James; Bob Leathers.
St. Gregory leaders reflect on their work with Bishop-elect McElroy
September 1st, 2010
By George Raine
When he assumes his episcopal duties for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, look for Bishop-elect Robert McElroy to bring the skill set and pastoral style that endear him to the St. Gregory Parish community of San Mateo, where he has ministered as pastor since 1996.
Bishop-elect McElroy is, say members of the parish council, a consensus-builder whose keen intellect does not distort his kindness and generosity. He has the ability, members say, to create a climate of calmness in his ministry. People feel at ease, and not only discover relevancy in the Gospel but also find that they are eager to live it.
Bishop-elect McElroy also has a remarkable memory, council members say, and knows everyone in the parish by name.
“Bishop-elect McElroy and the priests here have a gift of being able to connect the Gospels to our daily lives, which enriches our faith life,” council member Brian Sullivan said.
“Bishop-elect McElroy is an extremely personable type guy,” said Deacon Steve Fox, who was encouraged by the pastor to pursue the vocation of deacon.
In the process, Deacon Fox found that he could not say no to the pastor.
“He is a pastor’s pastor,” Deacon Fox said. “He thinks more of his flock than he does of himself.”
Many St. Gregory parishioners will be boarding buses at around noon on Sept. 7 for the trip to St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco to see their pastor ordained as a bishop. Their parish life will change as a result of Bishop-elect McElroy’s new role, but much of what has been significant about the pastor’s tenure will remain in place, council members say.
They noted the sense of family that Bishop-elect McElroy helped create, the concern for local and global social justice that he promoted, the capital improvements that enhance religious life at the 56-year-old church.
It’s very likely, council members say, that Bishop-elect McElroy – although he is one to respect differences from parish to parish –will help other religious communities in the Archdiocese to celebrate what is similar and what is unique about them all.
He begins, they say, with the ability to engage on a personal level.
“I learned a lot from him,” said Carol James, the parish council president. “As the parish manager for 11 years, my tendency was to rush into things too quickly, whereas he would observe, analyze, discuss and then make a decision.”
At the request of Archbishop George Niederauer, Bishop-elect McElroy may take on the special ministry of Vicar for Pastoral Life.
“If you are going to interact with another parish from a chancery position, you have to be very cognizant of the fact that every pastor has his own way of doing things,” James said. “You can’t go in like gangbusters and say, ‘Change this or change that.’ That is the beauty of Bishop-elect McElroy. When he came here he first observed, he analyzed, he discussed, and then he suggested positions and got the collaboration of staff and everyone so that it makes sense to everyone.”
She added: “He is a wonderful negotiator, he is extremely good at explaining things to people in a very gentle, non-threatening way, and their tendency is to buy into his suggestions, because he has the ability to interact with everyone.”
Bishop-elect McElroy’s educational background is impressive. It includes a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and a master’s in history and doctorate in political science from Stanford. But he doesn’t wear those credentials on his sleeve and treats everyone in his community with respect, council members say.
“He comes across as a pastor – someone who cares more for the person,” Deacon Fox said.
The deacon added: “His education is phenomenal, and he takes that into the parish, the finance council, the parish council, because of his knowledge of finance. He is able to project where we will be, what we will do, financially and economically within the parish.”
At the same time, say Fox and others, Bishop-elect McElroy has made his mark as an engaging priest.
“He is someone I can talk to about anything. And I have,” Sullivan said.
“Engaging me to become part of the clergy was part of that,” Deacon Fox added. “His approach, his ability to encourage me to go further in my faith was, I think, one of the most dramatic parts of his legacy for me.”
Bishop-elect McElroy is also known for his fund-raising ability. The amount of money St. Gregory raised for the victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia was among the most raised by all parishes in the archdiocese, and St. Gregory is particularly generous in funding efforts to ease the burden of the poor globally.
“He really gets right down to where you understand and your sympathy is just there for the victims of these tragedies, but he also lets people know whose heart may be there but their funds are not, because of job losses, etc., that it is OK if you can’t donate. It is perfectly OK, just pray for these people,” James said.
The pastor has come to the aid, too, of victims of the economic downturn in his own community. He spearheaded a parish job support network, which helps anyone with resume-writing and other job search skills amid the punishing employment downturn.
“I have seen him assist people in situations that were personally devastating to them,” James said, “and he was kind, gentle and very caring.”
If Bishop-elect McElroy’s ministry at St. Gregory is a model for what he may do as archdiocesan pastoral life minister, said council member Sullivan, consider what he did with Lenten projects in recent years.
“We reached out to the community, the parish community at large, and took on projects that require us to look out beyond our own local community,” he said. “We take a look at our lives from a different perspective, so part of that is looking at the global community, while grounded in our local community too, because there are needs here.
“The idea was not to look at our own faith through a very narrow prism but through a broad prism, looking at the world,” Sullivan said. “And understanding that we can make a difference, maybe a small difference, but we can make a difference.”
But Bishop-elect McElroy’s gift for consensus-building is a major part of his legacy at St. Gregory, said Sullivan.
“I think he is a very kind and generous man who is respectful of other opinions and so you have a sense of calmness in which you can speak your mind, and I think what he does is build consensus with people,” he said. “He has a pretty good idea of what needs to be done and should be done, but I think he has a way of inspiring people to come to that same conclusion without them being overpowered by his intellectual prowess.”
Sullivan added: “I think he is a really good visionary as to where the Church needs to go in the 21st century, what it needs to do, and I think that the skill that he has is being able to be a consensus builder, and have discussions with whomever and he has to get them to buy-in to whatever they can do – to help them with what they need to do to make that happen. Matching up the skill set for what needs to be done. Identifying people who can help that particular parish or clergy accomplish what they need to accomplish, in a non-threatening way, so you get it done.”
Florida transplant Bob Leathers is relatively new to St. Gregory, having joined the community with his wife in January 2007.
The couple visited several churches before meeting the St. Gregory pastor and hearing him speak. “And we said. ‘This is our parish,’” Leathers recalled.
Almost immediately, the pastor introduced the couple to other couples in the parish – “so that we could begin to bond and be part of the community,” said Leathers, a parish council member.
He added: “His education, his degrees, his academic credentials speak for themselves. But the way that he takes that and relates it to you, and brings it down to my level and makes the Gospel relevant – to us, that is just awesome.”
Leathers said he is particularly impressed with the jobs network McElroy championed at St. Gregory, as well as a room he set aside where prayers can be said for people with cancer. It is a small room dominated by a statute of St. Peregrine, the patron of those suffering from cancer.
“Almost every one of us has been touched by cancer,” Leathers said. “He responded to a need, listening, administering to the community here.”
Bishop-elect McElroy’s legacy, James said, also includes new stained glass windows in the church, an upgraded church lighting and sound system and an annual parish festival.
“He will be missed,” she said. “He made a big impact on the parish. We will always remember him and love him for his gift, his talent, his friendship. He is a good friend.”
Bishop-elect McElroy’s legacy has added to previous pastors’ work to leave the parish with a strong foundation, Sullivan said.
“This parish has an electricity to it,” he said. “There is vibrancy, liveliness to this parish that is unique. That is why it attracts people, both parishioners and clergy.”
Welcoming message from St. Gregory’s pastor
The following message from Bishop-elect Robert McElroy appears on the website of San Mateo’s St. Gregory Parish.
Welcome to the website of Saint Gregory’s parish. For the past sixty years, Saint Gregory’s has been serving the people of San Mateo preaching the Gospel, educating our young people, celebrating the Eucharist, forming friendships in community, serving the poor and the needy, comforting the sorrowing and attempting to make the love and grace of our God more visible in our world.
Saint Gregory’s seeks to be a welcoming community, and we hope that the information provided here will acquaint you with the diverse ministries and activities that form our parish life.
Saint Gregory’s seeks to be a faith-filled community, and we hope that this website will open up for you the many ways that our parish provides to grow in the Lord.
Saint Gregory’s seeks to be a serving community, and we hope that in these pages you will find a call to reach out with your time and talents to those in need, whether that need be material or spiritual or social.
The Eucharist is the center of our life of faith and worship; for it embodies the presence of the Lord himself in our midst and in our lives. Our parish family seeks to continue the tradition of warmth and intergenerational community that has been part of Saint Gregory’s ever since a handful of families began worshiping together in the old Manor Theater on 25th Avenue more than sixty years ago.
– Monsignor Robert W. McElroy
From September 3, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.