Bishop Ronald Gainer, 74, has served as Bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania since 2014. He was born in Pottsville, 60 miles northeast of Harrisburg. He was an only child in a devout Catholic home; his father was a bricklayer by trade, and rose to the position of job estimator for a construction company.
The future bishop attended Catholic schools; as he enjoyed math and science, he had intended on a career as a chemical engineer. The priest-principal of his high school, however, suggested he explore his vocation at the seminary and, as the bishop said, “The rest was history.” He attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary for eight years, and, in 1973, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown, which borders the Diocese of Harrisburg.
He served as a pastor, campus minister, seminary professor, and judicial vicar, and earned a Licentiate in canon law in 1986. He served as Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky 2003-14, before coming to Harrisburg.
The Diocese of Harrisburg is home to 89 parishes, 230,000 Catholics and 98 diocesan priests. Jesuits first brought Catholicism to the region in the 1720s; the Diocese of Harrisburg was established in 1868. It is one of eight Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.
As directed by Canon Law, Bishop Gainer is scheduled submit his resignation to Rome when he turns age 75 in August 2022. He spoke recently with CWR.
CWR: What did your parents think about your decision to enter the seminary?
Bishop Ronald Gainer: As an only child, my parents were hoping for grandchildren. However, when I told my mom I was going to seminary, she was fine with it. But it was much harder for my father. I only saw him cry two times in his life: when his mother died, and when I told him I wanted to go to the seminary. He wanted me to be an engineer. It took him a while to adjust to the decision, but he eventually accepted it.
CWR: What makes Harrisburg unique as a diocese?
Bishop Gainer: We have the State Capitol of Pennsylvania here. As Bishop of Harrisburg, I am president of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which interacts with our legislators. We have an active conference with a great staff, and we meet quarterly.
We have great diversity in our diocese. In the northern tier we have the coal region, of which growing up nearby, I am very familiar. The economy has been almost exclusively dependent on coal mining. It has not thrived in the past 30 years, so it has an aging population with diminishing numbers of young people. It also historically has had many ethnic national parishes, built by immigrants who came to work in the mines: Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Italians, and Germans.
Heading south, we go to the Maryland border, which is a growing region. It has many farms, with communities of Amish and Mennonites. I’ve come down for visits and have found myself driving behind a horse and buggy.
CWR: How are you doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Bishop Gainer: We could be doing better, but not so bad in comparison to other dioceses. We have 19 seminarians in various stages of formation. We use two seminaries, including my alma mater, St. Charles Borromeo, and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, from which many of our seminarians have graduated. We are replacing those who leave active ministry. And, I’m happy with the formation programs in both seminaries.
That said, we need to be aggressive and invite more young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood. That is my modus operandi. We can’t sit and be quiet and expect young men to come. In our diocese, we have our Quo Vadis Days for young men ages 15 to 25 at Mount St. Mary’s over the summer, which allows them to discern their vocation. It draws between 40 to 60 young men, and our vocations director keeps in touch with the participants. We have Fiat Days for women to discern the religious life as well, with women from religious communities coming to make presentations. That’s also a summer program, and draws about 25 women.
CWR: After the closure of parishes last year due to the pandemic, have the lay faithful been returning to church?
Bishop Gainer: By my observation, they have. I celebrate Mass in our cathedral regularly, and the numbers today seem to be where they were pre-COVID. (Not that these are numbers something to brag about; I want to get them up as well!)
We were closed for six or seven weeks. The feedback I received from faithful, practicing Catholics is that they were very angry and disturbed by our church closures. They wanted to come and receive Holy Communion. That reaffirmed for me the essential place the Eucharist has in the lives of Catholics and the Church, and barring some dire situation, I have resolved that we will not be closing our churches again.
CWR: The Diocese of Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy in 2020. What was the reason for this filing, and how has it affected the diocese?
Bishop Gainer: After much consultation, I felt it was the right move for us as we headed into the future. The 2018 grand jury report dealing with clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania was devastating, and we set up a survivor’s compensation program in response. We had 111 applications for compensation, and 105 of those applicants accepted the compensation offered. Going forward, we saw bankruptcy as a way to get free from this. COVID closed the federal bankruptcy courts for a couple of months, and had that not happened, we would have been through this bankruptcy by now. Now we’re looking at being out of bankruptcy in early 2022.
CWR: Funding the survivor’s compensation program was the reason for the bankruptcy?
Bishop Gainer: It was certainly a big factor.
CWR: What are some of the most pressing issues the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is most concerned about in the State of Pennsylvania?
Bishop Gainer: Among our chief concerns are the so-called equality regulations that 16 of our municipalities have passed. These regulations mandate non-discrimination, including discrimination related to sex identity and gender issues. Some have no religious exemptions, which is very troubling. They could force us to violate our Catholic principles in such areas as hiring and adoptions. We would like to see a statewide initiative protecting religious freedom which would override harmful provisions in municipal legislation.
Another area we’re looking at is related to the growth of telemedicine, and its use to prescribe such things as the morning-after pill and other abortifacients. We’re against all abortions, but if we can prohibit abortion in this particular area, it certainly is a step in the right direction.
I’m pleased to report that we had a large pro-life rally on the steps of the State Capitol in September, which the newspapers said drew 3,000, although I think the number was 4,000. It demonstrates that many Pennsylvania residents are pro-life.
CWR: As you referenced, the 2018 grand jury report contained allegations that more than 300 Pennsylvania Catholic clergy engaged in horrific sexual abuse over the past seven decades, with Catholic bishops involved in covering up this abuse. Some of these clergy were from Harrisburg. Given that many of these men accused are dead and cannot respond to these allegations, do you have any sense as to how accurate this report is?
Bishop Gainer: There are certainly inaccuracies and inconsistencies in it. The attorney general’s office had to process a million pages of documents; all of our priest personnel files, for example, were subpoenaed. Additionally, the report goes back 70 years, as you indicate, and many of the alleged perpetrators are in their graves. As these men cannot respond, it is easy to have fraudulent applications for compensation.
That said, it certainly was a horrible situation, with many men abusing minors, betraying their position of trust and those in leadership failing to safeguard these youngsters. So, I think it would not serve any good purpose on our part to point out the flaws in the report. We don’t want to cast a shadow on those making legitimate accusations. We have had to humbly accept it, warts and all.
CWR: What have you done to ensure that such abuse doesn’t happen again?
Bishop Gainer: I’m happy to report that we have seen a precipitous decline in such occurrences.
We start with thorough and repeated background checks. And, we no longer do in-house investigations of reports of abuse. When an allegation comes in, we report it to the authorities and hire an outside investigative service to do the investigation. Previously, in-house investigations that were done were one of our greatest problems. Such investigations were done superficially and were inconclusive.
CWR: What effect has this had on faithful Pennsylvania clergy, as well as on you personally?
Bishop Gainer: It has had a negative effect on our morale. We have the feeling that we all are under a cloud of suspicion, with people wondering, “Will some allegations against you come out next? Is there something you are hiding?” It has affected us radically.
In October, we had a priest convocation and we talked about it. We have a need for fraternal support, and are offering help to those who need it.
CWR: You removed the names of previous bishops of Harrisburg (since 1947) from the diocese’s buildings after this report. What prompted you to do this, and what effect has it had?
Bishop Gainer: The bishops since 1947 were named in the report in a negative way. What they knew—who knows? There seems to have been neglect, however, and examples of priests accused of abuse in one parish who were simply reassigned to another.
Removing the names of former bishops and pastors on our buildings was an expression of our genuine regret; I think are people believe this is an appropriate action and one that can contribute to the healing process.
CWR: You have a cloistered community of traditional Carmelite nuns in Fairfield, near the Gettysburg battlefield. You’ve celebrated a Pontifical High Mass for the nuns and blessed their community enclosure. What do you think the emergence of such communities offers the diocese?
Bishop Gainer: I’ve been very impressed by these nuns. They are so genuine, have embraced poverty, and enjoy the high respect of laity and clergy alike. I believe they have 23 nuns at the moment, with more applications than they can accept. They are young, dynamic, vibrant, and happy. They have been a tremendous blessing. I am pleased they are building a monastery in our diocese.
CWR: You issued a letter of Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality on October 21. What is a Synod on Synodality?
Bishop Gainer: As Pope Francis views it, it is the Church looking in a mirror, with us listening to one another and speaking about what it is to be Church, and how best we can do things in this challenging time. I hope it will prove beneficial. There has been a lot of skepticism and suspicion because of the experience of the Church in Germany, with bishops taking a democratic look at doctrine and discipline in the Church. I don’t believe that is the kind of synod Pope Francis wants us to pursue. I hope that the experience of bringing people together for a discussion will be a good and wholesome thing.
CWR: Do you have any major initiatives or plans for the diocese you hope to accomplish before your retirement?
Bishop Gainer: I want to complete bankruptcy so that it is in our rear view mirror. I look forward to implementing the new USCCB document on the meaning of the Eucharist. And, I want do whatever is humanly possible to make sure we always are vigilant in maintaining a safe environment and preventing future abuse.
CWR: Do you have any final reflections on your time in Harrisburg?
Bishop Gainer: It has been a unique and challenging time. I came in 2014, and the grand jury began working on its report in 2016. We then had COVID and bankruptcy. It’s been a bumpy road. But I’ve had to trust that it was all part of God’s plan, and that He called me to be the one steering the ship.
Yet despite these difficulties, it’s been a great privilege to be Bishop of Harrisburg, and one I never expected to have. I’m grateful to have had so many wonderful co-workers, learning from them, benefitting from their gifts and expertise. My time here, as well as in Lexington, has had great challenges, but also great opportunities. It’s been a wonderful time of personal growth and happiness.
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