By MARK ZIMMERMANN, Catholic News Service | Published October 29, 2020
WASHINGTON (CNS)–Cardinal-designate Wilton D. Gregory, installed as Washington’ s archbishop in May 2019, thanked Pope Francis “with a very grateful and humble heart” for naming him as one of 13 new cardinals Oct. 25. Archbishop Gregory served as Atlanta’s archbishop for more than 14 years during a time of remarkable growth in the Catholic community.
This appointment “will allow me to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s church,” he said in a statement issued shortly after the pope announced new cardinals at the end of his Angelus address.
Cardinal-designate Gregory will be the first African American cardinal from the United States to be elevated to the College of Cardinals. He and the other 12 prelates will be elevated at a Nov. 28 consistory at the Vatican.
Nine of the new cardinals are under age 80 and will be eligible to vote in a conclave; four elderly churchmen will receive red hats as a sign of esteem and honor.
In addition to Cardinal-designate Gregory, the pope chose as cardinal electors two officials of the Roman Curia and bishops from Italy, Rwanda, the Philippines, Chile and Brunei.
“Pope Francis is sending a powerful message of hope and inclusion to the church in the United States” by naming Washington’s African American archbishop as a cardinal, said Los Angeles José H. Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“As a former president of our national bishops’ conference, (Cardinal-designate) Gregory displayed generous and principled leadership. The naming of the first African American cardinal from the United States gives us an opportunity to pause and offer thanks for the many gifts African American Catholics have given the church,” Archbishop Gomez said in statement.
He asked the nation’s Catholics to join him “in praying for the continued ministry” of the newly named cardinal, who was USCCB president from 2001 to 2004.
A native of Chicago, Cardinal-designate Gregory turns 73 Dec. 7. As a sixth grader attending St. Carthage School in Chicago in 1958, he was inspired by the example of the parish priests and Adrian Dominican sisters there to become Catholic.
At the news conference when he was introduced as Washington’s new archbishop, he said, “Within six weeks of being in Catholic school and not being from a Catholic background, I said, ‘I want to be a priest.'”
Wilton Daniel Gregory was baptized as a Catholic during the Easter Vigil that school year.
Later after studying as a seminarian he was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1973 and earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome in 1980.
After serving as a parish priest in Chicago and as a master of ceremonies to Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernardin, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983. Cardinal Bernardin had also served in Atlanta as an auxiliary bishop.
In 1994, Bishop Gregory was installed as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, where he served for the next 11 years. Bishop Gregory was elected USCCB president in 2001 after serving three years as the vice president.
During his three years as president, the church’s clergy sex abuse crisis escalated, and under his leadership, the bishops implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
St. John Paul II appointed Bishop Gregory to serve as the archbishop of Atlanta, where he was installed in 2005 and served until Pope Francis named his as the new archbishop of Washington in 2019.
At the news conference where he was introduced as Washington’s new archbishop, Archbishop Gregory promised to work for healing in the archdiocese, which had been shaken by the clergy abuse crisis, including the resignation and removal from the priesthood of Theodore McCarrick, former Washington archbishop and cardinal, following charges that McCarrick had abused minors and engaged in sexual misconduct with adults.
“I am arriving with a commitment to transparency,” then-Archbishop Gregory said. “The only way I can serve this archdiocese is by telling the truth. I will always tell the truth.”
At his installation Mass as Washington’s new archbishop, Archbishop Gregory pointed to the Gospel story of Jesus calming the stormy seas when he was in the boat with his apostles.
“I remind you … he is here. He is here when the seas are calm, and he is here during every moment of uncertainty, anger, fear and shame. He invites us to place our trust in him,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Archbishop Gregory emphasized that same message in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic initially caused a shutdown of public Masses and the closure of Catholic school campuses.
In a column for the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper, Archbishop Gregory wrote that “even in the uncertainty of this current situation, if we are open, God will use this moment to bring our hearts closer to him and more firmly in union with one another.”
On the morning Pope Francis named him as a new cardinal, Archbishop Gregory was scheduled to celebrate a 250th anniversary Mass for Holy Angels Parish in Avenue, Maryland, which is located near St. Clement’s Island in Southern Maryland.
Cindy Wooden in Rome contributed to this story. Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.