For Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, his journey of faith that began when he converted to Catholicism as a sixth grader at St. Carthage School in Chicago – after it opened its school doors to Black children in the neighborhood – would ultimately lead to Pope Francis making him a cardinal at a Consistory in Rome on Nov. 28, 2020, where he became the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

But the weekend where he learned of the pope’s surprise announcement that he was one of 13 new cardinals from around the world unfolded as he was keeping a promise that he made when he was introduced as the archbishop of Washington in the spring of 2019 – to visit the parishes and get to know the people in his new, diverse archdiocese.

On that day in 2019, Archbishop Gregory – who had served as the archbishop of Atlanta since 2005 – said he would work to help bring healing and restore trust in the Archdiocese of Washington, which had been shaken by the abuse scandal involving its former cardinal archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Then-Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois had confronted the abuse crisis when he served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and led the nation’s bishops in adopting and implementing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.

Archbishop Gregory pledged that as the new archbishop of Washington, “I seek to be a pastor for this entire family of faith,” and he added, “The best time for any bishop is the time they spend with their people. I want to be in the midst of our people, listening to them (and) praying with them.”

On Oct. 24, 2020 Archbishop Gregory celebrated Mass at a convocation for deacons held at St. Joseph Church in Largo, a suburban Maryland parish located not far from the Washington football team’s stadium. Then that afternoon, he visited St. Luke Church in the city of Washington, D.C., celebrating Mass for a congregation that included African Americans and parishioners from the African countries of Cameroon and Nigeria.

Then on Oct. 25, after hearing the news that he was named a new cardinal, Cardinal-designate Gregory set out on a long drive to Holy Angels in Avenue, a country church in rural Southern Maryland, to celebrate a Mass marking the parish’s 250th anniversary as a mission.

“Happy birthday, Holy Angels, at 250 years of age, you look marvelous,” he joked in his homily.

But that parish visit had special poignance, because the church was located near the cradle of U.S. Catholicism, a few miles from St. Clement’s Island, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies in 1634 after colonists from England made landfall there.

After the Mass, the cardinal-designate said he thought about that all during Mass. “It takes back to the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel and the care of God’s people” in what became the United States, he said.

On that day of history, Cardinal-designate Gregory was asked about making history as the nation’s first African American cardinal, and his voice broke slightly as he said, “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.”

Wilton Gregory is shown as a 12-year-old altar server at St. Carthage School in Chicago, which he entered as a sixth grader in 1958. (Georgia Bulletin photo)

Roots of faith

When he was introduced as the archbishop of Washington 18 months earlier, Archbishop Gregory noted how he was inspired by the example of the parish priests and Adrian Dominican sisters at St. Carthage School, so “that within six weeks of being in Catholic school, and not being from a Catholic background, I said, ‘I want to be a priest.’”

Father Wilton Gregory was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1973 and earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy in Rome in 1980. After serving as a parish priest and seminary faculty member, Bishop Gregory was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983 just after turning 36, becoming the nation’s youngest Catholic bishop at that time. A key influence on him was the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a churchman whom he said “was my pastor, my mentor, my friend and my brother,” a man he said taught him the importance of finding “common ground to address the challenges facing the Church.”

Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Chicago celebrates a 1982 Mass. At right is Father Wilton Gregory, who served as his master of ceremonies. The next year, Cardinal Bernardin ordained him as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago. (Georgia Bulletin photo)

Leading as a bishop

When he became the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, in 1994, Bishop Gregory faced the challenges of helping that rural diocese rebuild from a devastating flood of the Mississippi River from one year earlier, and also help that faith community recover from the clergy abuse crisis there. The bishop made sure that all priests with credible allegations against them were removed from ministry, and he met with dozens of abuse survivors to hear their stories and try to bring healing to them.

Bishop Gregory drew on that experience as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference as it adopted the “Dallas charter” for the protection of children in 2002, with its “zero tolerance” policy that prevented abusive priests from serving in ministry and emphasized pastoral outreach to abuse victims and their families.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrates a 2007 Mass in Atlanta. (Georgia Bulletin photo/Michael Alexander)

In 2005, Archbishop Gregory was installed as the archbishop of Atlanta, where he led a growing diocese, and inspired by Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ encyclical on the ecology, he issued an innovative action plan that offered steps that individual Catholics, parishes and the diocese could take to help protect the environment.

According to the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Gregory is now the longest serving active bishop in the U.S. Catholic Church. He has been a bishop for 37 years and a priest for 47 years. 

Archbishop Wilton Gregory preaches during a Pentecost Sunday Mass on May 31, 2020 at Our Lady of the Wayside Church in Chaptico, Maryland, on a day when he resumed celebrating public Masses during the coronavirus pandemic, and also issued a statement on the death of George Floyd. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Challenges in Washington

As the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Gregory has confronted the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. In the spring of 2020, Archbishop Gregory, emphasizing that the health and safety of his family of faith were paramount, announced that Catholic school campuses would close and public Masses would not be celebrated in accordance with government-recommended restrictions to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. He began celebrating livestreamed Masses, including for his first Holy Week and Easter at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.

In a column for the Catholic Standard newspaper, Archbishop Gregory wrote, “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.”

Later, as government restrictions eased, public Masses resumed in the archdiocese, and Catholic schools reopened with safety modifications or through virtual learning, with churches and schools implementing strict safety protocols including mandatory mask wearing and social distancing.

As Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Gregory also spoke out strongly after the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died in May 2020 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. 

“This incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again, even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” said then-Archbishop Gregory, who encouraged Catholics to “turn our hearts towards Christ to in order to end personal and structural racism.”

Archbishop Gregory said he found hope in the witness of young Americans from different backgrounds who were marching together for racial justice. That August during a Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral marking the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, Archbishop Gregory announced the archdiocese’s new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which emphasizes prayer, listening sessions, faith formation and social justice work.

In confronting the abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Washington, then-Archbishop Gregory heard the concerns of priests and laypeople during meetings and parish visits. Two months after he was installed as Washington’s archbishop, the archdiocese in July 2019 revised its child protection policy with an expanded scope and a new title, the Child Protection and Save Environment Policy, to emphasize the importance  of ensuring safe environments for people of all ages, protecting children from sexual abuse and adults from sexual harassment or abuses of power.

When the Vatican issued its long awaited report on McCarrick in November 2020, Cardinal-designate Gregory called it a “tragic chronicle” that not only detailed the former cardinal’s betrayal of his priestly calling, but it also showed systematic failure by Catholic leaders to investigate and act upon allegations of misconduct and abuse that would have prevented McCarrick’s rise through the Church’s hierarchy. Those victimized by McCarrick, he said, “should have been able to rely on the ministers of Christ’s Church to protect and respect them.”

On Oct. 24, 2020, the day before he was named as a new cardinal by Pope Francis, Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrates Mass at St. Luke Parish in Washington, D.C. In the photo below, parishioners listen to his homily during the Mass. (CS photos/Mihoko Owada)

A pastor to his family of faith

In his year and one-half as Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Gregory has confronted those challenges head-on, but still centers his life and ministry on visiting the parishes, schools and agencies of the archdiocese and getting to know, love and serve his new family of faith.

In the weeks before he was named as a new cardinal, Washington’s archbishop traveled to the southern tip of Southern Maryland to celebrate a Harvest Thanksgiving Mass for St. Michael’s School in Ridge, where prayers were offered for farm families. Archbishop Gregory also helped ring in the new school year at St. John’s College High School in Washington, celebrating an opening school year Mass and afterward blessing the school’s new bell tower, and smiling as he took a turn ringing the bell.

And on the busy weekend when he was named a cardinal, the three parishes he visited appreciated their special connection to him in that moment of history.

Father Stephen Wyble, the administrator of Holy Angels, said it was providential that the announcement came when the cardinal-designate would be celebrating Mass at their parish, with its historic roots.

“It’s a blessing to us and to the archdiocese that this happened here,” he said.

Meanwhile at St. Luke Parish in Washington, where Cardinal-designate Gregory had celebrated a Mass the afternoon before the announcement, Josephite Father Cornelius Kelechi Ejiogu, a native of Nigeria who is the pastor there, said that when he heard the news in his rectory that Sunday morning, he reacted by screaming with joy and pumping his fists.

In an interview, that priest said the new cardinal’s appointment was a special milestone for Black Catholics who kept the faith over the years, noting how during the era of segregation that they endured the indignity of sitting in the back of church and waiting until the end of the Communion line. Now there would be an African American cardinal from the United States, who looked like them and shared their faith.

When Father Ejiogu told his parishioners at the 8:30 a.m. Mass that morning that Archbishop Gregory had been named a cardinal, they reacted with a spontaneous standing ovation.

That same morning, when Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Largo, told his parishioners at the 8 a.m. Mass that Archbishop Gregory had been named a cardinal, they too reacted with a standing ovation for the archbishop who had also celebrated Mass at their church one day earlier.

“I’m so happy. I’m happy for him, not because he’s a Black man, but I’m happy for him because he’s a good man,” St. Luke’s pastor said.

When he himself heard the news that morning, Cardinal-designate Gregory reacted with a simple statement, “With a very grateful and humble heart, I thank Pope Francis for this appointment which will allow me to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s Church,” words that summarized his ministry as a priest, then a bishop and archbishop, and now his new service as a cardinal.