Tampa Bay's almost half-million Roman Catholics have a new leader.
Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, 52, head of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese, and a former Tampa banker, will succeed Bishop Robert N. Lynch, who has led the Diocese of St. Petersburg for almost 21 years.
Parkes will be installed the fifth bishop of the diocese, which serves Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, on Jan. 4 at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle.
The official announcement of Parkes' appointment came early Monday, but the new St. Petersburg bishop said he had been told by Pope Francis' representative in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 12.
Parkes, who has been a bishop for only four and a half years, said he was attending a fall meeting of American Catholic bishops in Baltimore when he heard the news. He said he immediately went to pray in the chapel set up for the group, thanking God for his goodness and asking for his help. He said he has always trusted that when God calls, he provides what is needed to fulfill his will.
Still, during a news conference Monday, Parkes followed Pope Francis' example by asking members of his new flock to pray for him.
"I'm blessed to be your new shepherd," he said. "Please pray for me that I will be a good shepherd, that I will be a faithful shepherd, a holy shepherd."
The Rev. Robert Schneider of St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Valrico was happy to hear the news.
"I don't know him personally. I have seen him at different events. It sort of follows what the pope has been doing recently in appointing more local clergy to dioceses," Schneider said. "He was a priest in Orlando before being made bishop of the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese. Just like Bishop Lynch was from Miami and knew the state and the area well, Bishop Parkes has the same advantage."
Parkes, who was born in Mineola, N.Y., earned a bachelor's degree in finance from Florida State University before deciding to become a priest. He worked for Barnett Bank in Tampa for seven years and attended Christ the King Catholic Church, attending daily Mass and spending time in private prayer asking God for direction for his life. It was at Christ the King, during "those quiet moments," that he heard God's call to the priesthood, said Parkes, an imposing figure at 6 feet, 8 inches. He said he's the tallest Catholic bishop in the United States.
In the small crowd gathered to welcome Parkes on Monday at the diocese's pastoral center, 6363 Ninth Ave. N, was Monsignor Robert C. Gibbons of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. Gibbons said he has known Parkes since he was a seminarian at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.
"I was on the seminary faculty at the time. He's a gentle giant. He's very friendly, gentle, mild mannered, very even-keeled, smart and capable," Gibbons said, adding that Parkes will have no difficulty adjusting to his new diocese.
"Geographically, this job will be a little bit easier for him, because our territory is smaller and not in two different time zones and very spread out."
The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, according to its website, covers the 18 most northwestern counties in Florida and serves about 65,000 Catholics. The Diocese of St. Petersburg, by comparison, has more than 445,000 Catholics.
Like most Catholic bishops, Parkes will have to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. The announcement of his appointment brought a swift response from David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. In a statement, Clohessy said the group is "disappointed" with Parkes' new appointment.
"We disapprove of his handling of a 2013 predator priest case and see no signs that might indicate that he be any better than his predecessor in dealing with the church's continuing child sex abuse and cover up crisis," Clohessy said in an email. "In 2013, Parkes waited five weeks before suspending an accused priest, Fr. Michael A. Cherup. Then, adding insult to injury, Parkes let Fr. Cherup deny the allegations in the parish bulletin."
The diocese did not address the specific allegation, but issued a statement that said in part, "Bishop Parkes and The Diocese of St. Petersburg take accusations of abuse with utmost seriousness.''
Lynch, who looked frail and used a walker Monday, is retiring at 75, the mandatory retirement age for Catholic bishops. He has been battling a recent illness caused by contracting meningitis while visiting Alaska, according to the diocese, but is expected to make a full recovery. Reading from a prepared statement, he said he is "relieved and grateful to Pope Francis" for giving in the new bishop "a shepherd like his own heart."
Parkes was present at Lynch's installation as bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg almost 21 years ago. In his more than two decades as head of the St. Petersburg Diocese, Lynch has founded Pinellas Hope for the homeless, expanded Catholic Charities and overseen nearly $300 million in construction projects, including practically rebuilding the cathedral in which Parkes will be installed.
That work earned Lynch the nickname Bob the Builder, after the children's cartoon.
"There's not much left that I can think of, though things will come up, for the next bishop to do in terms of building," said Lynch earlier this year.
Parkes said that he plans to listen and speak with his flock so that he can, "in a real and substantial way," begin to formulate a vision for the diocese.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.