After Pope Francis named Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington on April 4, 2019 and he was introduced at a press conference that morning, a reporter noted that day was the anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and asked the archbishop about the civil rights leader’s influence on his life and work.

“I was 20 years old on April 4 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. It was a turning point in my life to have seen this extraordinary American, preacher of the Gospel and this great humanitarian cut down in his youth,” Archbishop Gregory said.

In his 37 years as a Catholic bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory – who will be made a cardinal by Pope Francis at a Nov. 28 Consistory – has spoken out strongly for racial justice and against racism. Cardinal Gregory, the first African American to serve as the archbishop of Washington, became the first African American cardinal after he was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis during a Consistory on Nov.28, 2020.

From 2005 until his appointment to Washington in 2019, he served as the archbishop of Atlanta, and while there, he preached in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s home church, and in 2006, Archbishop Gregory was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

In 1984, then-Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Gregory was one of 10 Black Catholic bishops in the United States who issued “What We Have Seen and Heard: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization,” which said that historic racism, and subtle contemporary racism, has hindered efforts to evangelize Black Americans and to promote vocations in those communities.

In 2018, then-Archbishop Gregory served on the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism that produced a pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”

And since becoming the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Gregory launched an archdiocesan initiative to combat racism and spoke out strongly about the deaths of unarmed Black Americans killed during encounters with police, and praised the nationwide peaceful protests for racial justice and against police brutality.

At a Mass for Peace and Justice celebrated at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Aug. 28, 2020 to mark the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, then-Archbishop Gregory announced the Archdiocese of Washington’s new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which he said will include a wide range of pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work. He said the initiative is being launched “in light of current events in our country and the need for ongoing work in the fight against racial injustice everywhere.” 

Tying that effort to the legacy of the March on Washington, which he described as a “deeply faith-inspired event,” Archbishop Gregory noted how on that day, when Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the civil rights leader “spoke movingly about what our nation was destined to and must become.”

“We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony,” Archbishop Gregory said in his homily at that Mass. “…Men and women, young and old, people of every racial and ethnic background are needed in this effort.” And he closed his homily by noting, “We must take heart and not be dissuaded or intimidated by the voices that seek division and hatred, because we shall overcome!”

Earlier that year in Catholic Standard newspaper, Archbishop Gregory noted how January’s holiday honoring Dr. King and the annual March for Life against abortion “are linked in very many ways, as they call our nation to our glaring need to recommit ourselves to the unfinished quest for the recognition of the worth of all human life.”

The next month, Archbishop Gregory issued a statement after the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was shot after running in a predominantly White neighborhood in Georgia, saying that brutal killing showed how “racism inflicts hatred, violence and death in our society and in the lives of far too many people.” The archbishop said that as people of faith, “we already have the balm that cures racism – compassion, mercy, love and justice… Through Jesus, we become more compassionate, merciful and loving to seek justice for all our neighbors.”

After the May death of George Floyd, an African American man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, Archbishop Gregory issued a statement saying, “This incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope  with the coronavirus pandemic.” In his statement, he called on people to “examine our own attitudes and actions in order to seek conversion from sin and turn our hearts towards Christ in order to end personal and structural racism… This moment calls us to be the Church of hope that Jesus Christ created us to be…”

Participating in an online dialogue in June sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life that examined racism, Archbishop Gregory said George Floyd’s death reminded him of “a whole collage of individuals who have been assassinated for no other reason than the color of their skin.” 

The archbishop said then that for him, “a big sign of hope is the huge number of young people who have taken up this as a personal concern,” and seeing so many people, including many White Americans, marching together for justice gives him “a spirit of hope that somehow, this is more than a passing moment… People realize if we don’t work together, we will miss perhaps the most significant moment for real national transition that I’ve witnessed.”

During an online discussion later that month sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Archbishop Gregory said that while America grapples with societal ills like racism and anti-Semitism, people of different faiths must reach out to and listen to one another, rediscovering that all religions teach that hatred is wrong, and teach the young members of their faiths that all religions call for respecting the lives of others.

When asked if being an African American archbishop impacts the way he leads the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Gregory said, “I feel a special responsibility as a member of the African American community, but as the archbishop of Washington, I am not just the archbishop of African American Catholics, but of all Catholics of every age and culture and language. It is a dual responsibility.” That echoed his statement at the press conference when he was introduced as Washington’s new archbishop, when he said, “I seek to be a pastor for this entire family of faith.”

The Maryland Catholic Conference convened a virtual town hall on police reform in October 2020 that drew the insights of four panelists representing law enforcement, the state legislature, the legal system and the religious community. Archbishop Gregory noted, “Our nation has watched as too many African Americans have been killed or seriously wounded in an encounter with police,” but he added it is important to remember that the vast majority of people working in law enforcement are dedicated guardians of public safety.

During the town hall, Archbishop Gregory mentioned a personal issue regarding police – “the talk” that Black parents must have with their sons and daughters about being on their best behavior around police, so they are not subjected to police aggression. The archbishop says “the talk” was a fact of life for him growing up in Chicago decades ago, and remains a reality for Black families today, and he notes, “Until we get to the point where a young Black kid or a young Black man can feel safe when he’s encountering a police officer, you’ve got trouble.”

After Pope Francis on Oct. 25 named Archbishop Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals from around the world, the cardinal-designate was asked what it meant to him personally, and what it will mean to the nation’s Black Catholics, when he becomes the nation’s first African American cardinal.

“I’m deeply humbled. I know that I am reaping a harvest that millions of African American Catholics and people of color have planted. I am deeply grateful for the faith that they have lived so generously, so zealously and with such great devotion,” he said.

Cardinal Gregory said he hopes his appointment offers “a sign of the continued investment of the Church in the work of justice, peace and harmony among people.”

Cardinal Gregory participates in the first Black Catholic Voices interview, where he reflected on racism in society and the Church and the drive for racial justice. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Just before the beginning of Black Catholic History Month in November 2020, the Catholic Standard launched its Black Catholic Voices series with an interview with Cardinal Gregory, who reflected on racism in society and the Church and the drive for racial justice. 

He noted the archdiocese’s “Made in God’s Image” initiative to end the sin of racism “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.”