Black Catholic Voices series: Cardinal Wilton Gregory reflects on racism in society and the Church and the drive for racial justice
Oct 30, 2020
(On Oct. 13, 2020, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory was interviewed by Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington, to get his insights on racial justice and racism for a new series, Black Catholic Voices. The interview took place at the Our Mother of Africa Chapel of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. On Oct. 25, Pope Francis named Archbishop Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals from around the world, and Cardinal Gregory was elevated to the College of Cardinals at a Nov. 28 consistory in Rome. Cardinal Gregory, a native of Chicago who was installed as Washington’s seventh archbishop in 2019, became the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The following is the transcript of Cardinal Gregory’s interview.)
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Cardinal Gregory – “My faith journey as an African American Catholic has been a moment of grace for me, and grace always comes with challenges. So, it’s not been a perfect ascent to the heights, but it also has been a moment when I am deeply grateful for the wonderful people that have entered my life, and many of them though their own good example are the reasons that I became a Catholic. Those priests and nuns that I encountered when I went to Catholic school as a sixth grader, and their goodness and their generosity and their enthusiasm about the faith inspired me, but I also know that the Church is a community, a family of sinners, as well. So, it’s not been without its challenges but the rewards in my life and its manifestation in my life, I believe has been a grace from God.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?
Cardinal Gregory – “The witness that I have seen in the lives of Black Catholics that I have known has really been an encouragement, two in particular.
“One was a man by the name of Herman Porter. Herman Porter was a Chicagoan, and in the early ‘40s he applied to Mundelein because he wanted to be a priest, and he was rejected because Mundelein, the seminary at that time, was not accepting African American candidates. And that was pretty universal at that moment. There were very, very few seminaries, diocesan secular seminaries, that were accepting Black candidates for the priesthood, which is one of the reasons why the religious orders, the SVDs (the Society of the Divine Word), the Josephites, the Franciscans, are such a great of sign of the faith of the Church because they were taking African American seminarians. And that’s why so many of our senior African American priests and bishops belonged to those communities, because there they were welcomed. But Herman applied to study for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was rejected. Well, he eventually became a priest in the Diocese of Rockford, one of the neighboring dioceses of Chicago. And I was a newly ordained auxiliary bishop when Herman died. And I made the trip to Rockford, to pray at his wake, because his tenacity, his determination to become a priest, even facing the rejections that he faced, was a source of inspiration for me.
“The second was another African American priest, Rollins Lambert, who happened to be the first Black candidate who was accepted a few years later after Herman’s rejection, and Rollins was ordained a priest in 1949 for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was our first African American priest, and I got to know Rollins very well as a young priest. He worked for the (bishops’) conference here in Washington for the desk for African affairs, he was a pastor, he was just an extraordinarily gifted, talented and determined man.
“And when he died, he died out at Holy Family Villa, a nursing home in Palos Heights, where my mom actually lived. So he and my mom got to know each other, as they were both residents at this seniors citizens place, and I was told by people who knew, my mom and Father Lambert would say the rosary together, and I hope they prayed for me. I suspect that they did. When Rollins died, he willed me his chalice, and it is the chalice that I use at our Pastoral Center. I used it in Atlanta, and now I brought it with me. Whenever I say Mass at our Pastoral Center, (I use) that silver chalice that was Rollins’ chalice and his gift to me.
“Now, those two priests inspired me because they would not be deterred. They felt God was calling them to be a priest, and they found the courage to do so. What a wonderful witness of faith they are for me. But then there are many other African Americans Catholics that I have known, laypeople, religious whose devotion to the Church and love for the Church was greater than their unfortunate experience of rejection and racism.”
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Cardinal Gregory – “I don’t believe that there is an African American in our nation who cannot recall at some point feeling the sting of racism. It’s an unfortunate but almost a universal experience on the part of African Americans.
“There are several experiences that I can recall but one in particular stands out. I was the archbishop of Atlanta and there I was very well respected and loved, and I felt very much at home and the people in the archdiocese were tremendous brothers and sisters to me and members of the flock of the archdiocese.
“However, on this one occasion, I was out in Palm Springs and I was going to play golf at a very exclusive golf course called the Eldorado in Palm Springs. It’s the same golf course in which President Eisenhower had lived, one of his retirement homes was there. Anyhow, I had been invited by a friend and obviously as I came up to the golf course my host knew I was the archbishop of Atlanta but no one else did, and there was a gentlemen who drove up in his car, saw me there at the golf course getting ready to begin the round and he said, ‘Could you get my clubs out of my car,’ because in his mind any Black man that was on that course was not there to play, he was there to work. So, I thought to myself, this is a good experience for me, because it reminds me that, while I may be the archbishop of Atlanta, in the eyes of a lot of people when I am not wearing the episcopal garb, I am a Black man and I belong in a Black man’s place.”
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Cardinal Gregory – “Well first of all, I am sorry when those protests go violent or destructive, but I understand the frustration that energizes them, especially in light of many of the experiences of brutality, police brutality or mob brutality, that have been found in these past several months, but well beyond these past several months. So I understand the reasons that people have engaged in protests. I disavow and find offensive the fact that some of these demonstrations have grown violent, but they have to be seen in context.
“The vast majority (0f protests) have been peaceful. I think they are carrying on the legacy of a lot of the Civil Rights leaders of the past century. They are continuing the work, calling for justice, which is still a matter that is incomplete.
“I think one of the things that is going on that gives me hope is the attention that the media is paying to this is a sign that they understand – people in authority, corporate executives, sports figures, people of influence – they see this as an ongoing struggle, and they want to be a part of it. There are a lot more stories that are now covered in the media that might not have not been covered before. And there are a lot more people of influence and importance who have decided to align themselves with this moment in history.”
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this?
Cardinal Gregory – “Well I wrote an article for the Catholic Health Association publication a couple of months ago describing exactly that. The disparity in how this disease has impacted the communities of color – Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, the poor. It’s a lesson that we still have to address, that some communities, some segments of society, bear the brunt of this disease disproportionate to our numbers but because of the inequities that are still very much present in our world. However, I think it’s also a great opportunity for our country to rediscover our heritage of freedom, our American ingenuity, our need to care for one another in a much more aggressive fashion. I think that Pope Francis’s recent encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ is a contextualization of what we have to do as Catholics but also as men and women of goodwill, as he addressed this encyclical saying that we are all called to see each other as brothers and sisters.”
You have noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?
Cardinal Gregory – “As a Church, we still have to align ourselves with the poor and those who are disenfranchised. I think that theme has been paramount in Pope Francis’s pontificate, to say that we have to see the world with eyes that extend to the peripheries and to the ends of society. We have to see those who are most in need of our attention, our affection, our support, our care. As individuals, we’ve embarked on this project within the Archdiocese of Washington, entitled ‘Made in God’s Image.’ It means that we need to talk to each other honestly, charitably and we need to listen to each other, to hear the stories that are personal, the experiences that are personal, so that we can change our hearts. I’ve used this image before, I’ll use it again: To take down a granite statue of someone who was a Confederate hero, or someone whose political or social position encouraged segregation or discrimination, to take down those statues is important, it’s a step, but if we don’t change the human heart, all we’ve done is remove a granite statue while leaving our stony hearts unaffected.”
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Cardinal Gregory –“I have struggled like everyone else, but what’s kept me focused is my love for this country, the good, the potential that I see in this country even though it’s not fully realized in so many different areas, and my love for my Church. We are a Church, a family of sinful people, that’s who we are, and we only delude ourselves when we don’t admit our need for conversion, for metanoia, for change. So, it’s that dual experience of love of my family of faith and love of my national family that spurs me on. “If we focus only on what is wrong we’ll lose heart, so we have to say ‘yes,’ we have to acknowledge the flaws that we discover within our faith, within our nation, within our own hearts, but if we focus only on the flaws we’ll miss the possibility of change, in metanoia that the Lord calls us to.
“The media has so many wonderful capacities, it really does. It gives us information, it can connect us, but if we look at the media images that are negative, and there are many, we will become disheartened. I have decided that I am not going to engage in just looking at the negative images of hatred and violence and bigotry that are rampant in so many media platforms. I’m going to balance those with images that are also in social media of young people working together, of people engaging in acts of charity and kindness. I don’t want to make the negative the sum total of my experiences.
“My sister Claudia told me a couple of weeks ago, ‘Just remember, no one gets to live in your head rent-free.’ And that’s a good image for me, because it means that I have to see the world in a balanced perspective. I think we all do.
“The other day on one of the media platforms that I happened to come across was a story of two little boys, and they were great friends, one was White, one was Black. And these five-year-olds were obviously buddies, and they were doing what five-year-old boys do. And the little White boy decided he was going to ask his parents to have a buzz cut so that he looked more like his buddy, his little Black friend. And he told his mom, ‘If I get a haircut like (the other little guy’s name), the teacher won’t be able to tell us apart.’ I thought, what a great example of the scriptural passage where Jesus tells us unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even get into God’s kingdom. And it’s those images that I think (offer) balance. We have to balance what we take in, both acknowledging the awful things that are there, but taking heart in many of the positive things that are also there. And we have to look for them because they don’t get prime billing. We have to look for them, but they’re there.”