Published December 4, 2008
Chicago pastor Father Dominic Grassi was ordained a priest with Father Wilton Gregory in 1973. Along with two other seminary classmates, they became inseparable, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the four musketeers,” Father Grassi said.
As seminarians, they worked as chaplains at a juvenile detention center, taught religion classes at a nearby high school and had a storefront teen drop-in center.
“We created a program where we could live off campus … and work in a parish. It was never done before or since,” Father Grassi said.
“It was an incredible time. It was just when the effects of the Second Vatican Council were coming. … The old structures were torn down. The new structures hadn’t been put in place yet. A guy like Wilton, with his innate intelligence, his incredible ability to listen, his ability to form consensus, all really were able to blossom and develop in that time. It was wonderful to work with him side by side. ”
They liked exploring “creative ways to minister, not wait for the people to come to us, but to go to the people. We really wanted to be people-centered. That was really most important to us.”
A storyteller and author as well as a pastor, Father Grassi related how Father Gregory’s mother, Ethel, “an incredible singer,” sang a couple of Billie Holiday numbers at the Grassi family celebration after Father Grassi’s first Mass.
“She just brought the house down,” Father Grassi recalled.
He said she chose to stop appearing as a jazz singer because she didn’t think it was right after her son became a priest.
She is “an incredibly beautiful person on so many levels,” Father Grassi said.
In his high school seminary, Wilton Gregory was elected president of the student government. “He was always respected,” said the priest, but he particularly remembers his great laugh and sense of humor. “He would laugh until he would cry. He never took himself too seriously.”
He remembered the foursome traveling from one parishioner’s house to another at the holidays, eating desserts and drinking eggnog, until Father Grassi complained he needed a turkey sandwich “to settle his stomach,” which they never let him live down.
When a list was leaked of deacon assignments and two of the four horsemen were left off the list, he enlisted Wilton to call for a class meeting on their behalf.
“Wilton was the calm one who got the meeting together. I was the one bouncing off the walls,” Father Grassi recalled.
It worked out. Now only Archbishop Gregory and Father Grassi are still ministering, with the death in 2006 of their longtime friend, Father Larry Craig, chaplain of Chicago’s Kolbe House Catholic prison ministry. Father Jim Noone died in 1991.
Father Grassi said his friend, Wilt, has “a heart as big as all outdoors” and an unusual talent for listening and synthesizing what he’s heard.
“People realize he has respected them because he has heard them. He is able to bring to it his own wisdom, the wisdom of the church, but not in a way that is heavy-handed. There is always a sense of listening to the person. … He is always listening, always trying to build consensus. He is willing to respond, willing to put himself out on the limb once he realizes what is right.”
“When you are talking to him, you have his full attention. No matter what is going on around him he is just talking to you. … He really hears what you have to say. And that is the kind of bishops we need.”
As president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, he had to lead them in responding to the sexual abuse crisis.
The crisis “was hard for every good priest because we loved the priesthood and we saw the priesthood being destroyed by a few priests who never should have been priests,” Father Grassi said.
Although Bishop Gregory was USCCB president, he was not a cardinal, as some in the body of bishops were, Father Grassi observed. To achieve a consensus, and to oversee the drafting and approval of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and then to complete the accomplishment with subsequent acceptance by the Vatican was unprecedented, the pastor said.
“I am going to guess pretty strongly that that took some pushing and maneuvering on his part,” Father Grassi said. “He has that consensus-building ability, and he has that integrity to do what he thought was right.”
“I knew nobody was going to be pleased with what he did, but he did what he had to do. He did what had to be done. … He is a man of integrity.”
He added, “He is a man of prayer. He really takes time to reflect and pray over what he is doing.”