By Sally King
The elevation of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC to Cardinal by Pope Francis represents the first African American to serve in the Catholic Church’s highest governing body, a historic moment for the Church and African American Catholics.
Pope Francis made the announcement Sunday, October 25, in Rome. Twelve other bishops were also appointed to Cardinal.
Archbishop Gregory in a statement on Sunday thanked Pope Francis for the appointment, saying it will allow him to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s Church.
Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said by naming Archbishop Gregory a Cardinal, Pope Francis was sending a powerful message of hope and inclusion to the Church in the United States.
Wilton Daniel Gregory and his two sisters were raised on Chicago’s Southside by his mother and maternal grandmother after his parents divorced. He attended St. Carthage Grammar School at 73rd and Yale, in Englewood, converting to Catholicism at age 11. He credits the Adrian Dominican teachers at the school with inspiring him to do so.
Following the announcement the General Council of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, headquartered in Adrian, MI said of Archbishop Gregory that he “is a longtime friend of the Adrian Dominicans.”
The Council called Archbishop Gregory “a prelate deeply committed to social and racial justice,” saying he will bring a courageous voice of integrity to the Pope’s inner circle.
The archbishop of Atlanta before going to Washington, Archbishop Gregory is viewed as a prominent Catholic leader.
He led the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 2000s when it was first addressing sexual abuse within the Church. The prelate is known for playing an active role in the Church, writing extensively on church issues and speaking openly on sex abuse and helping define a policy to protect children from abuse. In 2002 he was chosen as Time’s Person of the Week in recognition of his handling of the abuse scandal.
Notably, among approximately 37,000 Catholic priests in the U. S., only about 250 are African American. Archbishop Gregory’s appointment may be a catalyst causing more Black Catholic men to consider the priesthood. He says that during his tenure as auxiliary bishop in Chicago it was important for young Black men to see someone who looked like them.
Louisiana is the only other diocese in the United States led by an African American, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodeaux.
Excluded from religious orders and seminaries for centuries, Blacks’ progression into leadership roles and Archbishop Gregory’s ascent in particular is a reflection of the gradual change in the Church’s practices over the last century.
Archbishop Gregory completed seminary studies at Niles College of Loyola University, and Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1973. He earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome in 1980, later serving as Master of Ceremonies, responsible for the elaborate ceremonies involving sacred liturgy, to both John Cardinal Cody and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago.
Archbishop Gregory’s ascendancy to the hierarchy of Church leadership began in 1983 with his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Chicago. He then served as bishop of Belleville, IL from 1993 until he was named Archbishop of Atlanta in December, 2004. He became Archbishop of Washington, in April 2019.
A native Chicagoan, Archbishop Gregory, 72, is the first African American appointed to the College of Cardinals.
He is the first American appointed since 2016. That year Chicago’s Blaise Cupich and two other Americans were elevated to Cardinal.
Cardinal Cupich, in a statement on the appointment said the archdiocese was proud to claim Archbishop Gregory, adding, “We are also moved that Pope Francis chose this compassionate, thoughtful pastor when our nation and the world are in desperate need of healing and courageous leadership.”
The Church’s most senior officials, the Cardinals elect and advise the Pope and aid in the governance of the Catholic Church throughout the world. The appointment is a lifetime position.
Currently there are 219 members in the College of Cardinals.
The continent of Africa is represented with 29 Cardinals from 24 countries, the most well-known of which are probably Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda.
Archbishop Gregory will be installed as Cardinal with 12 others, on November 28 in Rome.
With concerns over the coronavirus, and the resumption of travel restrictions in Italy, it is unclear how many Cardinals will travel to Rome. At question too, is how the consistory, a formal meeting of the College of Cardinals during which the Pope places the red silk biretta on the new Cardinal’s head, will be conducted.
Over the summer unrest across the country generated peaceful protests, causing Archbishop Gregory to speak on issues of racial and social justice. At a Mass commemorating the 57th March on Washington, he remarked, “We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice.”
He later clashed publicly with President Trump over Trump’s visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine the day after police attacks on peaceful protestors, saying he found it “baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated.” Trump’s visit to the shrine was widely viewed as little more than a photo opportunity.