When Pope Francis named 13 new cardinals on Sunday, Oct. 25, local Black Catholic leaders were excited to see Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory become the first Black U.S. prelate to earn the coveted red hat.
In a surprise announcement from his studio window to faithful standing in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said the men would be elevated to a cardinal’s rank in a ceremony Nov. 28.
Born and raised in Chicago, the 72-year-old Archbishop Gregory was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago in May 1973. He served as the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, from 1994 to 2004, when Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Atlanta.
Archbishop Gregory was elected president of the USCCB in 2001 and, under his leadership, the bishops implemented the Dallas Charter that laid out five principles for responding to a sex abuse crisis involving Catholic clergy and conceded they had been remiss in protecting children from pedophile priests.
According to Fessahaye Mebrahtu, MA, M Div, ThM, Director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries, Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is huge and long overdue.
“There was time when 12 active and retired Black bishops were alive; now we have only half of that number, and only two or three are ordinaries. Most Black bishops serve as auxiliary bishops, with little chance to be ordinaries,” he said. “Though we do not understand the process, for us Black Catholics it is apparent – systemic discrimination in the Church hierarchy. Hopefully, this will highlight the disparities in the ranks of the American Catholic hierarchy, as well. Rome is not an innocent bystander, either.”
Sr. Callista Robinson, OSF became acquainted with Archbishop Gregory during his work with the National Black Catholic Caucus, when he participated in joint meetings with Black sisters, priests, brothers, deacons and their wives.
“We got to know him before he was an archbishop, during his time as a priest and auxiliary bishop in Belleville, Illinois, and got to know him more when he became the Archbishop of Atlanta,” she said. “He is very pastoral and a kind man. He is always astute as to what is going on in the world and in the Church. I have known him for more than 30 years; he is a good friend of the National Black Sisters Conference.”
Sr. Robinson is not surprised that Archbishop Gregory will be elevated to cardinal. She expected that following his appointment as Archbishop of Washington, D. C., his next step would be cardinal.
“I think that the fact he was president of the USCCB demonstrated that he had a hand in that kind of administration. He enjoys working with clergy and he has also worked in the parish from the time of his ordination,” she said. “He has his hand in pastoral affairs and also whatever issues are affecting people of color. He certainly understands that. I think that he will be a cardinal for all and will pay attention to social justice issues for Blacks and people of color. He will be looking at health issues, criminal justice reform and other issues. This is happy news all over the Black community. I am very excited and know he going to be a good leader.”
As chairperson of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, Mary Words said that while she doesn’t know him personally, she has read a lot about Archbishop Gregory and said she believes he is a servant of God.
“He has done a lot of work in the area of sexual abuse and spoken about injustices with racism, such as George Floyd and other issues,” she said. “I am ecstatic, excited and enthusiastic, and hopeful that with him being elevated to this position that he has not only been invited into the room, but now he has a seat at the table.”
Words said Archbishop Gregory is unafraid to voice his concerns on big issues, especially those dealing with racial disparity and be able to express them with others.
“He can share his experiences, as well, and being from America and the first African American cardinal, it is a huge blessing. He knows the plight of the Black and Brown people, knows what racism is and can articulate it well,” she said. “It feels so good that the pope will elevate him to cardinal. I was almost speechless when I heard, and excited that we will have an African American cardinal in my lifetime.”
When Fr. Fred Alexander, OCD, was in college and discerning the priesthood, he asked his parish priest at St. John la Salle in Chicago if there were any African Americans in the seminary and he was introduced to Archbishop Gregory. The former pastor of St. Florian, Fr. Alexander is now serving at the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill in Hubertus and recalled Archbishop Gregory studying for his doctorate when he was ordained to the presbyterate.
“He was ordained the first African American auxiliary bishop of Chicago and shortly after, our paths would cross; we would chat when I was the vocations direction and he was the auxiliary bishop,” he said. “He called and we talked about encouraging vocations from African American communities and reached out to neighboring states.”
Fr. Alexander recalled the difficult period when Archbishop Gregory had to deal with the sex abuse and pedophile issues among some of the priests in the Belleville area.
“He tactfully and pastorally dealt with the situation and then moved to the Archdiocese of Atlanta to serve as the archbishop,” he said. “He was an excellent shepherd for the people and brought his administrative skills to the archdiocese. Another period of major rejoicing was when he was elected president of the USCCB. His life has been a number of firsts for the African American Catholic community.”
It is Archbishop Gregory’s commitment to speaking the truth that Fr. Alexander believes will be one of his strong suits as cardinal. Whether it was surrounding racism, sexual abuse of children or other injustices, he explained that Archbishop Gregory is unafraid to speak out.
“He has had stellar leadership and many of us felt that if anyone ever deserved to be cardinal, it would certainly be Wilton Gregory,” he said. “We had been wondering about the delay and there was so much rejoicing when we learned that he would be elevated to cardinal. I have had friends from the Midwest emailing me and calling to chat, and we have all been rejoicing since this news came out.”
While Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is a boon to all Black Catholics, especially those in the United States who have prayed for representation in the hierarchy, he will be good for the whole of the Church, said Fr. Alexander.
“We in the African-American community rejoice but the entire Global Church should rejoice, as well, because of his talent and experience,” he said. “He was relatively young (46) when ordained a bishop under Cardinal Bernadin; he saw the gifts and talents within him and raised him early.”