On a mild spring Sunday morning with the sounds of birds chirping and the hum of downtown traffic on nearby Connecticut Avenue, new Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory quietly walked up the steps to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. With a mallet, he knocked three times on the cathedral’s majestic central doors, and when the doors opened, he was greeted by Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, the cathedral’s rector, who handed him a cross to venerate. 

Archbishop Gregory knocks on the cathedral door with a mallet, before being welcomed inside for his first Mass as Washington's new archbishop. At left is Father Conrad Murphy, his priest secretary. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Then the archbishop sprinkled holy water at the rear of the cathedral, and the congregation of between 600-700 people greeted him with resounding applause, and he then processed down the center aisle toward the altar, where on May 26 he would celebrate his first Sunday Mass as the archbishop of Washington, five days after his installation at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Archbishop Gregory sprinkles holy water on the congregation attending his May 26 Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Moments later, Msgr. Jameson said, “Today we welcome you to your cathedral.”

The Mass marked Archbishop Gregory’s formally taking possession of the cathedral church as the archbishop of Washington, with its bishop’s chair, cathedra, (the Latin word for chair) symbolizing his teaching authority and his role as the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Washington.

“Today begins a new chapter in the history of St. Matthew’s,” the rector said.

Since it became the cathedral church for the new Archdiocese of Washington in 1939, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle has witnessed many moments of history. In 1945, Catholics gathered there to pray in thanksgiving when World War II ended, and in 2001, people prayed in sorrow there after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Leaders from around the world gathered at the cathedral in November 1963 to attend the Funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, after his assassination. During their papal visits to Washington, the cathedral hosted Pope St. John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Francis in 2015.

And on this sunny May morning, the cathedral welcomed Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the seventh archbishop of Washington and the first African American prelate to serve in that role. Msgr. Jameson noted that St. Matthew’s Cathedral as a downtown landmark of faith has been hailed as a jewel, but he said the real jewel is the parish community there.

“Today I present to you a vital faith community,” the priest said, adding, “This is your home, and you are always welcome.”

The concelebrants at the Mass included Washington’s Auxiliary Bishops Mario Dorsonville, Roy Campbell Jr., and Michael Fisher; along with Archbishop Charles Gabriel Palmer-Buckle of Cape Coast, Ghana, who was visiting the Washington area; Msgr. John Enzler, the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington; Father Agustin López, a parochial vicar at the cathedral, and Father John J. Hurley, who is in residence there.

Archbishop Gregory celebrates the May 26 Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. From left to right are Washington Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fisher, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville, Archbishop Gregory, Washington Auxiliary Roy Campbell Jr., and Archbishop Charles Gabriel Palmer-Buckle of Cape Coast, Ghana, who was visiting Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

As he began his homily, Archbishop Gregory said that day he was continuing his “hellos” to the Archdiocese of Washington after his “not so subtle knocking on the cathedral doors.”

“This is a very happy moment for me as I begin my new service as your archbishop,” he said, noting, “we are establishing a new friendship, a new relationship that we all pray will be fruitful and filled with joy. Together we will face our future, and we pray this morning that it will be a future blessed by God.”

Noting the Gospel reading from St. John where the disciples were fearful when Jesus told them he would be departing from them, Archbishop Gregory said that just as the Holy Spirit helped Jesus’s disciples be transformed into bold witnesses of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit can offer “the help we need to face the challenges ahead.”

Pointing out how the bishop’s ministry includes bestowing that gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation, the archbishop said, “I hope to confirm in you that same Spirit and rediscover that in my own life.”

As he concluded his homily, Archbishop Gregory said, “As I knocked on the door of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I sought entry not into a building but into the lives of the people of this local Church. I pray that you will let me in so that together we can strengthen one another, encourage one another, and together wait in hope for the return of the One we seek most of all.” Then he added, “God bless you, and I’m glad you let me in.” The congregation applauded his remarks. 

Moments later, the archbishop led the people in renewing their baptismal promises, and afterward he smiled as he sprinkled holy water on the congregation. Two children and two adults from different backgrounds brought up the gifts, representing the diversity of the cathedral’s faith community.

The singing at the Mass was led by the cathedral’s Schola Cantorum choir, which after Communion sang the spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

Archbishop Gregory offers a blessing as he processes down the center aisle of St. Matthew's Cathedral after celebrating his first Sunday Mass as the new archbishop of Washington on May 26. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

After Mass ended, Archbishop Gregory bowed before the altar and began processing down the center aisle, smiling and offering a blessing to the people, who applauded him as he walked by.

Washington’s new archbishop then walked down the cathedral’s steps that he had entered for the Mass, and he greeted the Massgoers, who lined up to meet him.

“I’m hopeful, like so many others,” said Sallybeth Bumbrey, a parishioner of St. Matthew’s, who added, “People are hoping for a positive influence, a voice, someone to listen to the concerns of everyone in the archdiocese.”

Archbishop Gregory holds a baby as he greets people who had attended his May 26 Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Dominic Nguyen and his wife Ninh, also members of the cathedral parish, brought their 6-month-old son Gregory, who has the same first name as the new archbishop and received a blessing from him. In two weeks, the baby will be baptized at St. Matthew’s.

“I’m so happy he’s here,” said Dominic Nguyen, praising the new archbishop. Nguyen, who works as a foreign service officer for the State Department, said he appreciated that Archbishop Gregory in his homily emphasized “that we have the strength and courage to face the challenges ahead.”

Stephen and Nicole Caruso, who attend St. Thomas Apostle Parish in Washington, came to the Mass with their daughter Cecilia, who is 5, and their one-year-old son Louis. Stephen Caruso noted that day was the anniversary of their daughter’s baptism.

“The opportunity to renew our baptismal vows with him was personally very gratifying and gives me hope for the Church here and its renewal,” he said.

Nicole Caruso added, “We heard from our friends in Atlanta that he’s a wonderful shepherd, and we prayed for that.”

Olivia Crosby – the coordinator of the RCIA program at St. Mary’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland, and a religion teacher at St. Mary’s School – came among a group of seven people from her parish that included RCIA participants who had received the sacraments at the Easter Vigil and became full members of the Catholic Church.

Crosby, who had volunteered as a catechist and in the RCIA program at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, an experience that inspired her to leave her job as a government economist and work in that ministry full-time, said the story of Archbishop Gregory’s own journey of faith – he became Catholic as a fifth grader attending St. Carthage School in Chicago 60 years ago – offers an inspiring example for RCIA participants.

She said she was inspired by the personal, heartfelt words of Archbishop Gregory’s homily, and by his “wonderful singing voice.”

“I can tell that he loves us,” she said.