Profiles in Faith: Wilton Cardinal Gregory: First African American Cardinal Advocates for Ethics and Inclusiveness
In October 2020, when Pope Francis announced his selection of 13 new cardinals from eight countries as diverse as Rwanda, Chile, Brunei and Mexico, he also accorded the honor to Wilton Daniel Gregory. Cardinal Gregory is the first African American to occupy a seat in the College of Cardinals, the powerful governing body of the Roman Catholic Church empowered, when the time comes, to choose the Pope’s successor.
Gregory’s appointment came at a time when Americans were confronting the legacy of centuries of racial injustice in the wake of a rash of police killings of unarmed African Americans.
Gregory has advocated for better representation of people of color in the Church, arguing that it is important for African American Catholics to see clergy who resemble themselves.
He has also encouraged the Catholic Church to adopt a policy of inclusion toward gay and divorced parishioners.
His belief in the sanctity of life informs his stand against the death penalty: no matter the crime. no matter the circumstances.
Cardinal Gregory first rose to prominence in the early 2000s, as sexual abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church in the United States. Gregory steadfastly steered the institution through some of the most tumultuous years in its history. Elected to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he backed a zero-tolerance policy for current and future clerical offenders, and he implemented a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
In His Own Words
“In a news conference after the vote [electing him as President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops], Bishop Gregory said that he regarded his election as ‘an expression of the love of the Catholic Church for people of color’ and that he hoped it would encourage African-American Catholics who were ‘lukewarm in their faith’ to return to the church.” — November 14, 2001, New York Times article, titled “Catholic Bishops Elect First Black President”
“From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church.” — June 15, 2002, statement by Wilton Gregory, then Bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when the Conference voted overwhelmingly to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse of minors by priests aimed at removing all offenders from any job connected with the Church.
“I’m a city kid by nature, and in Southern Illinois I came to respect and value and appreciate the gifts of rural life in ways that would have been unimaginable to me as a kid. … It comes to harvest time, and my heart goes back to the farms of Southern Illinois. I think, ‘They’re planting now,’ and I pray that they do so with success. I think, ‘They’re about to harvest,’ and I ask God to bless their efforts.” — June 26, 2012, profile of Wilton Gregory in the St Louis Post Dispatch, reflecting on the years spent visiting small parishes as a Bishop in Belleville, Illinois, whose farmlands and rural life differed substantially from Chicago, where he was born and raised
“We believe that it [the world] is broken in so many ways, because people are estranged and frightened, and that’s the healing and reparation that needs to take place — the bringing together of many different peoples, faiths, cultures and traditions that share planet Earth.” — Wilton Gregory, at an October 2017 public discussion in Atlanta, Georgia, “Repairing the World: Understanding Our Shared Responsibility,” hosted by the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which he headed at the time, and the American Jewish Committee Atlanta Regional Office
“As you may imagine, I have received a great many messages of welcome since my appointment as your archbishop. … One such message in particular touched my heart deeply. It came from a youngster at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Silver Spring, and simply said; ‘Make Jesus Proud!’ With the profound simplicity and innocence of a child, that poster card-written note captured intentions that many lengthier and perhaps more sophisticated expressions have attempted to convey but simply could not match — in either their impact or their brevity!” — Wilton Gregory, in an August 2019 column in the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, a few months after he was named by Pope Francis as the new Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
“You belong to the heart of this church. There is nothing that you may do, may say, that will rip you from the heart of this church. There is a lot that has been said to you, about you, behind your back that is painful and is sinful. I mentioned my conversation with Fortunate Families. We have to find a way to talk to one another, and to talk to one another not just from one perspective, but to talk and to listen to one another. I think that’s the way that Jesus ministered. He engaged people, he took them where they were at, and he invited them to go deeper, closer to God. If you’re asking me where do you fit, you fit in the family.” — Wilton Gregory, responding in August 2019 to a question from a transgender Catholic who asked the Archbishop: “What place do I as a confirmed transgender Catholic and what place do my queer friends have here in this archdiocese?”
When the bishops were asked how opposition to the death penalty can be seen as a pro-life issue, Archbishop Gregory said, “It makes us violent to do violence against another human being, whether that person is waiting to be born, has reached the end of life or has committed a serious crime. They all belong to God’s creation.” — Wilton Gregory, at an October 10, 2019, U.S. bishops’ roundtable discussion during which the participants were asked to explain how opposing the death could be interpreted as a pro-life issue
“We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony.” — Wilton Gregory at a Mass on August 28, 2020, commemorating the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington
“With a very grateful and humble heart, I thank Pope Francis for this appointment, which will allow me to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s Church.” — Wilton Gregory, in a news statement on October 25, 2020, after announcement that he would be the first African American to be elevated to the position of cardinal
“It isn’t just the African American kids who need to see a Black bishop, it is the White kids that needed to see it. We know that there is systemic racism woven into almost every dimension of the American institution, but I’d like to focus the question of morality on the individual. That is, where is my heart?” — Wilton Gregory, in an October 29, 2020, article in the Indian Express following Pope Francis naming Gregory as one of 13 new cardinal electors
The Stories Others Tell
“Gregory was a youthful 54 years old when he led the church through the early years of the abuse crisis. He’s now one of the senior leaders of American Catholicism, and he carries that bearing among his brother bishops.” — June 16, 2012, article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Archbishop Gregory Fondly Remembers Years in Belleville”
“Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who heads the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is one of the few members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy who is willing to offer affirming messages to the LGBTQ community. He is the first Black bishop from the U.S. to be named a cardinal, has spoken frequently on racial justice, and has connected the 1960s civil rights movement to the LGBTQ equality movement.” — Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ advocacy group, in response to Wilton Gregory’s selection by Pope Francis in October 2020 as one of 13 new cardinals of the Catholic Church
“He’s a convert Catholic, and that’s what I really admire about him … that he wasn’t born into Catholicism. He learned Catholicism … So I say he must really be committed.” — Washington, D.C., native McKinley Rush, in an October 2020 article in AFRO, an online platform for African Americans devoted to offering “images and stories of hope to advance their community.”
“By a rough count, no more than about 50 American Catholic prelates have attained the rank of cardinal since 1900, and every one of them was White. On Sunday, Pope Francis gave word that will change when he announced that the current archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, will be elevated and become the first African American cardinal.
“His installation at the Vatican next month will be an important milestone. It will also amplify the new cardinal’s voice both in the Catholic Church and nationally. His promising track record so far this century, as an archbishop taking over the scandal-ridden Washington archdiocese and, before that, as the first Black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and as archbishop of Atlanta, suggests he may be an influential voice for a church that is more inclusive, tolerant and racially clued-in, unafraid to take firm stances on socially divisive issues.” — October 26, 2020, Washington Post
“Roughly 4 percent of American Catholics are Black, but they represent fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s 36,500 Catholic priests. Including Archbishop Gregory, just eight of 250 American bishops are African Americans. Archbishop Gregory, whose jurisdiction encompasses populous swaths of Maryland, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has acknowledged the church’s shortcomings and cited them as impetus to now ‘place ourselves at the forefront’ of the fight for racial justice in Maryland, as he put it in a letter following George Floyd’s killing this spring. He also aligned himself squarely on the side of police reforms, saying at a virtual town hall meeting, ‘Until we can get to the point where a young Black kid, a young Black man, can feel safe when he’s encountering a police officer, we’ve got to talk.’” — October 26, 2020, Washington Post article, “Archbishop Gregory’s Elevation to Cardinal is an Important Milestone for the Catholic Church”
“Archbishop Gregory has earned a reputation for diplomacy, yet he has also been willing to speak truth to power. He did so during his tenure in Atlanta, when Georgia Republicans pushed legislation allowing worshippers to carry guns into church if their congregations allowed it. In response, he imposed a ban on bearing firearms in Catholic institutions for most civilians. He has also reached out to LGBTQ Catholics, ostracized for years by the hierarchy, saying they too were ‘sons and daughters of the church.’” — October 26, 2020, Washington Post article, “Archbishop Gregory’s Elevation to Cardinal is an Important Milestone for the Catholic Church”
A Life in Brief
Shortly after he was enrolled as a sixth grader in a Catholic school in Chicago in 1958, Wilton Gregory became so impressed with the kindness of the teachers at the parochial institution that, though not Catholic, he decided he wanted to become a priest. The young Gregory wasted no time in converting to Catholicism.
His father, who divorced his mother when Gregory was a boy and never went to church, “was rather silent when I spoke to him about my desire,” Gregory recalled years later. His mother and grandmother, who enrolled him in the Catholic school so that he could get a better education, were “cautiously supportive.”
Gregory realized his life’s dream when he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago on May 9, 1973.
A decade later, he was ordained an auxiliary Bishop of Chicago — and a decade and a year after that he was installed as Bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, where, as President of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, he was lauded for his impartial handling of a major sexual abuse issue and the Conference’s adoption of a zero-tolerance policy on priest sexual abuse. In 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed Gregory Archbishop of Atlanta, and Pope Francis appointed Gregory as Archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2019. The following year, Gregory was named by Pope Francis as one of 13 new Cardinals.
Achievements We’ll Remember
May 9, 1973: Wilton Gregory is ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
December 13, 1983: Wilton Gregory is ordained an auxiliary Bishop of Chicago.
February 10, 1994: Wilton Gregory is installed as the seventh Bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.
November 14, 2001: Wilton Gregory is elected President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, becoming the first African American to occupy that office.
December 9, 2004: Pope John Paul II appoints Wilton Gregory as the sixth Archbishop of Atlanta.
April 4, 2019: Pope Francis appoints Wilton Gregory as seventh Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
October 25, 2020: Pope Francis names Archbishop Wilton Gregory as one of 13 new members of the College of Cardinals.
November 28, 2020: Pope Francis elevates Archbishop Wilton Gregory to the College of Cardinals.
The Religion He Leads
The Catholic Church, or Roman Catholic Church, is the world’s largest Christian denomination with more than 1.3 billion baptized Catholics as of 2018 — just under 18 percent of the world’s population. The Church consists of nearly 3,500 dioceses and is the world’s oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution.
The Bishop of Rome is the Pope, a word that derives from Latin papa and the Greek pappas, which mean “father.” The Pope presides over the entire Roman Catholic Church.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are more Roman Catholics than all other Christians combined and more Roman Catholics than all Buddhists or Hindus. Although there are more Muslims than Catholics, the number of Roman Catholics is greater than that of the individual traditions of Shia or Sunni Islam.
The origins of the Church date back to the very beginning of Christianity — to Jesus Christ and the Apostles, when St. Peter was the first Pope.
From the fall of the Roman Empire through the Dark Ages, monks preserved the Church’s classical literature and learning. In the year 1,000, cathedral schools emerged as educational institutions, which were replaced later by the early universities of Europe. The Church, as an ecclesiastic and theological authority, played a significant role in that transition, wielding tremendous power in every facet of Medieval life.
With the Reformation, beginning in the 16th century, came the establishment of other Christian churches, but the Roman Catholic Church has continued as a vital force in the world.
Care of the ill is an essential Christian responsibility, according to the Benedictine Rule, a book of precepts written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia. It states: “Before all things and above all things, care must be taken of the sick, so that they will be as if they were Christ in person …” Today, the Catholic Church runs some 5,500 hospitals, 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and those with special needs, with 65 percent of the facilities located in underdeveloped and developing countries.
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