The newly named bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg will soon head an institution that spans all of Tampa Bay. Gregory L. Parkes will take over for the retiring Bishop Robert Lynch in January, leading nearly a half-million Catholics throughout Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. He is a fresh face assuming an important role as a moral and spiritual leader during a time of political upheaval both inside and outside the Catholic Church.
The appointment is something of a welcome back for Parkes, currently the bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. A Florida State University graduate, Parkes was a banker in Tampa before joining the priesthood 17 years ago. Over daily prayers at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, he realized his calling, left his career and went to seminary armed with considerable life experience. At 6-foot-8, Parkes is an imposing presence but known for his gentle demeanor.
He has plenty to emulate from the tenure of Lynch, who is retiring after 20 years as bishop. Lynch avoided being dogmatic. He has allowed, under the progressive influence of Pope Francis, some breathing room around sensitive topics such as marriage annulments, and he wrote a humble blog post acknowledging the church's role in ostracizing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. He has emphasized the importance of forging bonds with other faiths, personified by his close friendship with Rabbi Jacob Luski of St. Petersburg's Congregation B'nai Israel.
Lynch also has been a hands-on, practical leader who oversaw some $300 million in construction projects, founded the homeless resource Pinellas Hope and expanded Catholic Charities. And he injected his voice — selectively — into issues unrelated to the church, including the importance of childhood vaccines and spending local tax dollars to help the poor. Parkes will have to set his own priorities as bishop, but he has a fine role model in Lynch.
The new bishop, of course, faces a host of challenges. He must work to bring immigrants — some undocumented — into the fold of the church amid a heated political climate. Catholic parishes in eastern Hillsborough County, in particular, can grow their flock if they welcome the area's Hispanic population and work to serve their needs.
Parkes will have to contend with the remnants of the church's worldwide priest sexual abuse scandal. The scandal cast an immediate pall on his announcement as bishop, with an abuse survivors' group criticizing his handling of a priest accused of sexual assault in 2013. Parkes should work to continue the healing and rebuilding of trust eroded by the scandal and take care to handle any new allegations with utmost integrity.
Catholic education, too, is at something of a crossroads. Lynch had to close and merge schools during his tenure, and has acknowledged the pressure that changing demographics, finances and newer alternatives to public schools, such as charters, have put on the area's Catholic schools. And like all religious leaders, Parkes must find ways to get Catholics in the pews on Sundays, fostering community, participation and service throughout the diocese's nearly 100 parishes and missions.
Assuming his new role at age 52, Gregory Parkes can have a long tenure leading the Diocese of St. Petersburg. He is well-positioned to forge his own path while building on the successes of his predecessor, potentially making a lasting impact that will benefit Roman Catholics and Tampa Bay as a whole.