Pope appoints America’s first African American cardinal, D.C.’s Wilton Gregory

By Chico Harlan, Michelle Boorstein And Ann E. Marimow
October 25, 2020

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory leads Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in observance of the beginning of Lent on Feb. 26.
Photo by Marvin Joseph

[with video]

Pope Francis will elevate Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington to cardinal next month, making him the first African American to hold the title.

Gregory is one of 13 cardinals in the new class Francis announced Sunday, a promotion that comes as he is trying to rebuild trust in an archdiocese rocked by sexual abuse cases.

The move was widely anticipated; Washington archbishops are typically elevated to cardinal after their appointments. But it is nonetheless symbolically significant in the U.S. Catholic Church, where Black people have been underrepresented among the leadership.

The new cardinal is a "caring pastor, a quiet leader and a courageous voice when Washington and the country need all three," said John Carr, who worked with Gregory for 20 years when Carr was a lobbyist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"At a time when racism is tearing our country apart, he has been a consistent, persistent voice for the dignity of all — for Black lives and for racial justice and reconciliation," said Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. "We need healing, and for Pope Francis to recognize his leadership is a hopeful sign."

Gregory, 72, was appointed archbishop of Washington last year to take over for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who had been accused of mishandling clerical abuse cases. As a cardinal, Gregory will be eligible to vote in any papal election until he reaches the cutoff age of 80.

Francis announced the names of his new cardinals from a window overlooking St. Peter's Square, where he delivers his Sunday Angelus. The Vatican said the ceremony to elevate the new cardinals, called a consistory, would take place Nov. 28, but it was unclear whether tightening coronavirus restrictions in Italy might interfere.

Among the other new cardinals, four are already over 80, according to the Vatican. The new cardinals include Marcello Semeraro, an Italian who was recently appointed head of the church's saint-making body, and Antoine Kambanda, the archbishop of Kigali, Rwanda.

Gregory has long been among the most prominent Catholic leaders in the United States, having led the conference of bishops in the early 2000s, when it was making its first attempt to draw up anti-abuse guidelines. Gregory was archbishop of Atlanta before coming to 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," Gregory said in a statement, according to the Catholic Standard, the Washington Archdiocese's newspaper.

The Catholic Church has a strong presence in Washington's Black community, including its sizable middle class. Black Catholics make up about 13 percent of the Washington Archdiocese — which includes D.C. and its Maryland suburbs — compared with about 3 percent for the nation as a whole. Many Black city leaders are Catholic or went to Catholic schools, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and her predecessors Adrian Fenty (D) and Anthony A. Williams (D); D.C. Council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large); and Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D).

From his purview in the nation's capital, Gregory has faced challenges beyond the church in a year of rising racial tensions nationwide — including some that have played out in his new city.

One of the most visible occurred this summer, when President Trump and the first lady visited a D.C. shrine to Pope John Paul II. The visit came days after law enforcement used rubber bullets and tear gas to clear peaceful protesters outside of the White House so Trump could have a controversial photo op in front of St. John's Church holding a Bible.

Gregory said of the shrine and its leadership that it was "baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree."

In a statement then, Gregory noted that Pope John Paul II would not have condoned Trump's actions at St. John's.

"Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth," Gregory said. "He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace."

Gregory was also among Catholic leaders in Maryland this summer who signed a "letter on racial justice" that highlighted Black Catholics who have, over the centuries, led efforts for justice — even when the institutional church was lagging and resistant.

"With regret and humility, we must recognize that as Catholic leaders and as an institution we have, at times, not followed the Gospel to which we profess and have been too slow in correcting our shortcomings. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to place ourselves at the forefront of efforts to remove the inequalities and discrimination that are still present in Maryland and our nation today," the letter read. "Prayer and dialogue, alone, are not enough. We must act to bring about true change" on issues including health care, housing and criminal justice reform.

The question for Gregory is how — or if — he should step out more in D.C., and now nationally as cardinal, at a time of intense division. The divisions among Catholics in the United States mirror the population as a whole. Whether on issues of race, abortion, Trump or a border wall, Catholics are divided based on partisanship — not on the teachings of their church.

Gregory's critique of Trump's actions this summer, for instance, drew criticism from a conservative Catholic publication.

Anthea Butler, a religious history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, pushed back against such criticism and described Gregory as consistently moderate and mainstream. His higher profile, she said, will allow him to speak out strongly and command the respect of the title of cardinal.

"This gives him a lot more power to say certain things, especially with regards to race," said Butler, who writes about race and the Catholic Church. "He will be a voice for social justice and a voice in the middle of the pandemic, talking about poverty."

Gregory's historic promotion was celebrated Sunday at many Catholic services in the D.C. region. When the Rev. Everett Pearson shared the news at Mass, his predominantly Black congregation in Maryland stood to applaud and shouted with joy before pausing to say a prayer for Gregory.

Pearson called the elevation long overdue and said that Black Catholics have for too long been "placed in the back of the church, their culture drowned out by a Euro-Catholic standard."

"We finally have someone who looks like me, who grew up like me and can embrace his African American heritage," said Pearson, who leads Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Forestville. "We've now got an opportunity to at least come to the table."

Gregory happened to lead a service at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Largo, Md., on Saturday. Bishop Roy Campbell, who leads the church, said Gregory is accessible and open, and Campbell hopes he "continues to speak the truth."

Before coming to Washington, Gregory was known for being diplomatic and mild-mannered. He has since become a bit more outspoken in moments that bring together religion, politics and race. After the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Gregory mentioned similar moments and said incidents of police brutality were "tragically" repeating.

The killing of Floyd and others, Gregory said, "clearly" confirms "that racism still endures in our country."

Gregory, whose parents were Baptist and who converted as a child to Catholicism, has been a pioneer. He was one of the youngest bishops when he was named as one at age 36, and is still the country's only Black archbishop. He has been known as a moderate on political issues, including race.

However, experts on the history of Black Catholicism say he embraced the spiritual revolution taking off after the 1960s. In the 1980s, Gregory helped create a hymnal that would become the standard for Black parishes. But he did not side with the aims of a more radical group of Black priests who declared the church "a White racist institution," said Matthew Cressler, a religious studies professor at the College of Charleston who wrote a book about Black Catholicism in the United States.

"It's a given he lives with contentment and doesn't draw attention" to race, Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a professor and former theology school dean at Catholic University, who became close friends with Gregory in 1975 while they were doctoral students in Rome, told The Washington Post for a profile last year.



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