Virtually addressing members of consecrated life serving the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory shared the hope of Advent and the ongoing challenges of the new year -- including COVID-19, racial injustice, and the need to welcome all to the Church while remaining faithful to Gospel values.

“The biggest challenge for me is not being able to be with the people of God,” Cardinal Gregory told more than 50 members of consecrated life gathered for an online Advent Day of Reflection held Dec. 19, 2020, addressing the challenge of pandemic safety restrictions that impact how Masses can be celebrated. The archdiocese originally canceled public Masses in mid-March during the coronavirus shutdown, and the cardinal and local priests began celebrating livestreamed Masses, which have continued when public Masses resumed in local jurisdictions after Memorial Day with strict safety protocols and following the guidelines limiting the numbers of people allowed for public gatherings.

“We need sacramentality,” noted Cardinal Gregory who described his own background in liturgy and the importance of life’s common things – bread, water, oil, smoke – in dimensions of worship. “Using those ordinary elements that allow us to bridge from ordinariness of life to the mystery of God. We need to be together.”

Later he also asked the women and men religious to pray for the “increase of knowledge and acceptance of vaccines that are out there.” Cardinal Gregory noted that members of his own African American community have real hesitations and mistrust of health professionals because of historical tragedies and mistreatments by the medical establishment.

Cardinal Gregory thanked those in consecrated life for all their efforts during the pandemic. “You brought the perfect gift of Jesus to them on a daily basis. You walked with them,” Cardinal Gregory said. “You stepped in where needed and served despite your own personal concerns and health as you have also cared for one another as you faced the pandemic within your religious community.”

Sharing stories from his Consistory in Rome, Cardinal Gregory said the 10-day quarantine before the Mass where he was elevated to the College of Cardinals allowed him time for additional prayer and reflection on the people and efforts in the archdiocese. Additionally, Cardinal Gregory highlighted Pope Francis’ invitation to him to share lunch on Thanksgiving Day in the pope’s kitchen, where the two pastors spoke about the Church’s challenge to be a welcoming community. 

In his talk, Cardinal Gregory also recalled Pope Francis’ remarks during Mass for the first Sunday of Advent focused on closeness and vigilance. The pope said to use prayer to awake from indifference. “We must continue to pray and be vigilant people of charity,” Cardinal Gregory said.

The cardinal said the pandemic laid bare injustices including the evil of racism. “We know this past year has been one filled with the difficulties of physical and societal sickness,” Cardinal Gregory said. “Yet we also know there are many who are working to remedy that illness.” 

“We gratefully know there are those serving the sick in hospitals, and those advocating for the outcast, the marginalized and the most vulnerable are engaged in that type of vigilance. While there may be civil unrest and strife, many let their voice be heard to combat historic discrimination, hatred, indifference, and bigotry against those who may be different,” he added.

The cardinal said their ministry provides the very hope of the season of Advent. “You are providing hope. This is our call – to respond despite trials and the presence of all kinds of evil including racism, injustice and inequalities that certainly existed prior to this pandemic and somehow have only intensified in this pandemic,” he said.

Cardinal Gregory participates in the Dec. 19 Advent Day of Reflection for women and men in consecrated life in the Archdiocese of Washington. (CS screen grabs/Andrew Biraj)

After his prepared remarks, Cardinal Gregory answered questions and acknowledged although not a member of a religious order himself, he learned from his own encounters with those in consecrated life that “not every prior sees life in the same way.” The prelate advised the women and men religious to “make room for their own differences” and “model good dialogues” in their home communities. 

The cardinal stressed the need for finding common ground in discussions – especially difficult or challenging ones, citing his work with dialogues between Jewish and Catholic leaders. He encouraged the members of the religious communities to speak honestly about their own experiences and more importantly listen “with an open heart.”  

In response to another question asking if the Archdiocese of Washington had plans to implement ways for homosexual Catholics and their families to feel more welcome in local parishes, Cardinal Gregory spoke of the need for the Church to be welcoming and respectful to all. “We as individuals respect, accept our brothers and sisters,” Cardinal Gregory said.

He also spoke of further needs “of acknowledging the sinfulness and brokenness” of institutional racism within the Church. “It’s important for religious communities to know their history – the good, the bad, and the ugly,” the cardinal said, noting it is great to highlight accomplishments as long as the Church also owns the times of legitimate expressions of racism.

And in response to instances of violence that occurred amid the national demonstrations for racial justice highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement, Cardinal Gregory said it is important to “separate the institutional structure from the goals.” The cardinal said the faithful know all men and women are created equal and should be respected at all times – “the goals are what we can support – the goals are Gospel values,” he said, adding, “We cannot support nor do we endorse violence or the kinds of behavior that destroys lives, property or hope.”

During the Advent reflection with members of consecrated life, Cardinal Gregory also addressed questions from the religious communities on issues involving President-elect Joe Biden – set to become the second Catholic president of the United States in January.

Some religious participating in the online meeting expressed specific concerns over the freedom of conscience protections currently in place to exempt religious communities such as the Little Sisters of the Poor from the Affordable Care Act’s “contraceptive mandate” that would require them to provide employee insurance coverage for birth control that goes against Catholic teaching, and wanted to hear more from the cardinal about the challenges and hopes for serving as pastor to the nation’s president.

“I’m going to pursue to the best of my ability the good work of the Church” Cardinal Gregory said. The prelate explained he spoke with the president-elect for the first time “two days ago when he called my office to congratulate me,” on the elevation.

The cardinal said he does plan to share with President-elect Biden “that which he is doing good but also remind him of what he doesn’t want to hear.”

“You’ve got to tell him the truth, but in such a way that he might be able to hear it,” Cardinal Gregory said. 

In response to another question about Cardinal Gregory’s decision to speak out against President Donald Trump’s appearance in June at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine on the morning after protesters had been gassed in Lafayette Square to clear the area for the president’s photo opportunity holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church there, the cardinal said he never welcomes enmity. “I have to speak the truth – sometimes the truth stings.”

Religious Sister of Mercy Gilmary Kay, the Archdiocese of Washington’s delegate for Consecrated Life, organized the annual Advent Day of Reflection. While she preferred to gather in person, Sister Gilmary said the virtual meeting during the pandemic was a “happy medium” for her seeing the women and men religious gathered on the computer screen -- some joining together in a common room with one computer. 

“Religious do so much in the Archdiocese of Washington, (and) we want to thank them and provide something spiritually nurturing for them,” Sister Gilmary said. “We are grateful for the cardinal’s presence,” she said, adding that “hope is interaction. And communion builds trust and relationships – it is wonderfully fruitful that way.”