New Archbishop's Life and Legacy
In interview, Archbishop Gregory reflects on his life and work as he is about to become archbishop of Washington
May 16, 2019
US & World
(Archbishop Wilton Gregory – who will be installed as the archbishop of Washington on May 21 – was interviewed on May 16 by Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. Here is a transcription of that interview.)
Archbishop Gregory what is going through your mind and heart as you are about to begin your new life and your new work as the archbishop of Washington?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, there are several things that are filling my heart. One is a sense of excitement at a new challenge. This is the third diocese that I have been asked to care for, and to love and to lead. And so there is something in my heart that says that I have always found both new challenges, but new treasures, in each of these local places. Coming to know the people, coming to know their history, their heritage but also letting go of what I‘ve had for the past 15 years in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. One of the big challenges that I’ve always seen is that I have to stop saying, ‘in Atlanta we do it this way’ because I am not in Atlanta. I have to allow the people to reveal to me their heritage, their hopes, their dreams and the way we do it in Washington. One of the other challenges that’s going on is I’ve just moved, or I’ve been helped to move, and I’ve got to find things. Anyone who has ever moved, and I suspect that involves just about everybody, knows that the first four or five months you can’t find anything. And so, that is a good metaphor for what’s going on. I am trying to find things, old things and new things.”
How has your family shaped your life and work?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, I’m fortunate. I grew up, as you well know, in Chicago. I grew up in a single-parent home. My mother worked, and we were very very fortunate to have a major influence in our lives with my grandmother Etta Mae. She was a woman from the South. She was born in Oxford, Mississippi, and came north in the Great Migration, and she was just an incredible woman of faith and wisdom, and joy and discipline. So, she and my parents. Later on as I became an adolescent, I got to know my father, I got to know him very, very well. So, I could see both in the home that I lived in and in my father’s life -- he was a computer technician, so he was a ‘geek’ before we knew what that word was -- and I saw in him both high standards of professionalism. And so together, those two experiences have shaped me and given me a good foundation, I believe.”
And what have been your greatest blessings as a priest over the years?
Archbishop Gregory: “My greatest blessings have been encountering the people that I have been assigned to serve. I was a deacon at a suburban parish in Chicago, Mary Seat of Wisdom in Park Ridge. It was an extraordinary community – and many of my friends are still those people that I met in Park Ridge. Then that followed up with an equally wonderful experience for three years as an associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview. Again, each different and each pivotal in my life, helping me to understand there is a great commonality that binds us together, whether we are in an affluent White community or a struggling impoverished Black community. There is more that unites us than divides us.”
And what did you learn in your experiences as a bishop in Chicago, and then in Belleville and then in Atlanta that you will bring with you to Washington?
Archbishop Gregory: “I was very, very fortunate. I was appointed a bishop as a very young man, probably by today’s standards too young. But one of the great graces that God gave me was my 10 years with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who was the archbishop, who obviously had suggested to Pope John Paul II that appointing a young auxiliary would be something that he would both want and he would use effectively for the care of the people of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and (he) shaped and formed me. He gave me a great example of equilibrium, of the ability to identify with people. I have said this on more than one occasion, he never lost the common touch. For the first year and a half, I was one of his emcees, and I just marveled at how this man could enter into a parish and within five minutes he was talking to everybody, and people felt close to him. I marveled at his ability to reconcile sometimes very divergent opinions, and to model a level of charity and joy that remained with me (as) a great example.”
When the abuse crisis hit in the early 2000s, then you were the head of the bishops’ conference when the Dallas charter for the protection of children was adopted. What did you learn from that experience and how will that guide your work in addressing that issue in the Archdiocese of Washington?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, Mark, to put some historical context to that: I was elected in mid-November of 2001. I had been vice president under Archbishop, then-Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston. I was elected in mid-November, and the media focused on two questions, or two observations: One, the bishops of the United States has elected the first African American president (of the conference), and he was the first convert to Catholicism to be president. So, those two questions played out for the first six weeks.
“Then on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the first article in the Boston Globe on the situation in Boston was issued. And from that moment on, to be perfectly honest, I do not ever think I had to respond to the media question of, he is the first Black, he is the first convert, because what that focused on was how is he going to respond to this burgeoning crisis, and it was burgeoning. It spread from Boston across the county, and what it told me was it was a systemic problem that needed a national response. We could not address this in a patchwork fashion. And while 2001, 2002 emerged as kind of a flashpoint, the bishops of the United States had been dealing with this from the earliest years of my episcopacy and there had been efforts to do things, but it wasn’t a joined effort and it wasn’t an obligatory effort.”
So what did you learn from that experience and also as bishop of Belleville how to approach the survivors and how to approach the zero tolerance policy that was adopted? What did you learn that’s guided you as bishop since then in addressing this problem?
Archbishop Gregory: “I learned, first of all, that we have to be honest with our people. When you talk about the abuse of a child, it’s impossible to explain it in any other way except that it is a crime and it is completely unacceptable. I learned that from my conversations with many people, including a very dear friend and colleague, David Spotanski, who today serves as the COO (chief operating officer) of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. I learned that you can only understand this by talking to people who have suffered from this terrible tragedy, whether they be victims or survivors who have carried that wound for many, many years or the families of those who were hurt. This is not something that a theological textbook can explain. It’s something that can only be fully comprehended by the conversations that take place with those who have lived it.”
This past year the abuse crisis has hit the Archdiocese of Washington in a very personal way. What would be your advice be to the people of the archdiocese here, how can they find healing?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well first of all, yes, it has (affected) this this local Church in a direct way, having one of its former archbishops resign from the College of Cardinals and then be laicized. The revelation of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, the state’s attorney’s report, and then of course the letters that came from Archbishop Viganò suggesting that it was a known fact and an ignored fact. Those came in three different waves, each one building on the anxiety and the anger and the frustration of the previous one. What I would like to suggest to the archdiocese and to its people, its clergy, its religious, is that first of all, their spiritual depth and health is stronger than the moment of shame and disappointment and anger, and that I will invite them to reach back into their own hearts and into their own legacies where they found faith, and they found the Church and they found education, they found religious formation and to say, all is not lost, that there is hope, that to be captured by your history is to deny your tomorrows.”
Where do you find hope, where does that hope ultimately come from?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, I find hope in the example of the courageous clergy who have served and continue to serve. I want to help them lift up their hearts, because they’ve been embarrassed, they’ve been scandalized, they’ve been angered because leadership has failed them, has driven a wedge between the guys that are in the trenches, and the leadership that they look to, and have looked to for guidance, support, and affirmation.”
You mentioned earlier about unpacking as you move in, what are you most looking forward to as you unpack, as you settle into your new home?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, I hope to be able to have the wisdom and the prudence to discard that which I may have brought from Atlanta and I longer need and to find room in my life and in my heart and in my ministry for the new treasures that I will find. I think that has happened in every one of my previous assignments, going from Chicago to Belleville, going from an urban environment to a rural environment. When I was assigned to the Diocese of Belleville, I had never lived among farmers. I had never come to understand the great wisdom and the experience of faith of small-town communities. So, I had to leave behind Chicago categories in order to make room in my life for the experience of rural America and the expression of faith therein. And I found the same thing going from Belleville to Atlanta, that I was living in the deep South. So, I had to leave Northern attitudes, opinions, experiences, in order to find room in my heart for the treasures that are to be found in the South.”
What have been some of the highlights of your experiences in Washington? This is obviously not your first visit to the nation’s capital, you have been here many times over the years. What have been some of your favorite experiences here in the Washington area over the years?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, yeah, you are right. As certainly as president of the conference (of bishops), I came to Washington with great regularity. One of the experiences and the treasures that I found even as a visitor, and now hope to discover in a more permanent way as a resident, is the importance of history. Washington is a city immersed in the history of our nation. It’s not the only source of history, but it’s kind of galvanized here in the institutions and in the monuments, the heritage that Washington holds as a unique treasure for this nation.”
On a personal note, what do you like to do, do you have any hobbies or outside interests when you’re not doing the work of the Church?
Archbishop Gregory: “Well, I have to be very honest, I love playing golf. I’m a terrible golfer. But there’s no one (more than me) that enjoys getting out on the links and trying to hit it down the fairway. Or if it’s not down the fairway, trying to find it in the rough.
“I also am a bird watcher. When I was in Atlanta, I had a wonderful set up for bird feeders. I just kind of love to watch nature. And I was told, ‘Oh you won’t find many strange birds, they’ll be sparrows and robins and pigeons… But I have always found that if you put out bird feeders with the right bird seed, you will bring lots of different birds to your back door that people will say, ‘I never knew we had those.’ But they came to feed. So I may find a way to hook up a bird feeder or two at the residence to see what strange birds live in Washington.”
And lastly what will be your goals and priorities as you begin serving your new family of faith here?
Archbishop Gregory: “One of the things that I hope to do, and with a certain intensity at the beginning, is to get out in as many parishes and in as many institutions and schools as I can. Because you’ll never know people until you come and visit with them and pray with them and listen to them. So I shared with the staff here that at least at the beginning, you won’t necessarily see a lot of me because I want the people of the archdiocese to see a lot of me.”