Washington’s next archbishop meets the press (and students, Catholic Charities workers, Little Sisters, and seminarians)
Apr 17, 2019
On April 4, just four hours after Pope Francis announced that Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory would be the next archbishop of Washington, the archbishop-designate held an opening press conference at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, where a contingent of media awaited him.
“This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges – throughout our entire Catholic Church certainly, but nowhere more so than in this local faith community,” Archbishop Gregory said, alluding to how the abuse crisis has hit the Archdiocese of Washington this past year in a personal way, with one former cardinal archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, being removed from the priesthood after the Vatican found him guilty of abuse of minors and misconduct with adults, and after Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl was criticized in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report for how he dealt with some abuse cases when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh.
Washington’s next archbishop said he would work to offer hope, foster healing and rebuild trust, and pledged always to be truthful with his new family of faith.
“And as with any family, challenges can only be overcome by a firmly articulated resolve and commitment to be better, to know Christ better, to love Christ better, (and) to serve Christ better,” he said.
Speaking about the man whom he will succeed in leading the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Gregory said, “I’ve known Donald Wuerl for over 40 years, and I know he’s a gentleman who works very hard for the Church.” He noted that Cardinal Wuerl has acknowledged making mistakes in the past and apologized for them. “That’s a sign of the integrity of the man.”
A reporter asked Archbishop Gregory – who will become the first African-American archbishop of Washington when he is installed on May 21 – about the influence of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on his life and work. The announcement of Archbishop Gregory’s appointment to Washington came on the day of the 51st anniversary of Dr. King’s death, and the Atlanta archbishop has preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, at its sanctuary across the street from the civil rights leader’s historic church.
“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, adding that his own life has changed after seeing the impact that the life and death of this “modern day martyr for the cause of justice, peace and unity” has had on this nation and the world.
Archbishop Gregory was also asked what had inspired him to become Catholic when he was a sixth grader attending St. Carthage School in Chicago, and what had helped him keep the faith since then.
“The priests and (Adrian Dominican) sisters of that school were so compassionate, so gentle, so outreaching, that within six weeks of being in Catholic school, and not being from a Catholic background, I said, ‘I want to be a priest,’” he said.
That experience, he said, strengthened his resolve when he was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops between 2001-04, and he led the conference in adopting the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, which includes a “zero tolerance” policy on priests who abuse children.
In that work to protect children and seek justice for those who had been abused, then-Bishop Gregory also sought to defend the good names and the work of faithful priests like the ones who had inspired him.
His voice breaking, Archbishop Gregory explained that, “I was going to do everything I could to make sure their reputations were protected, honored and respected.”
Also at that press conference, Archbishop Gregory was asked how his ministry would interact with the world of Washington politics. “I see this appointment as being pastor of the Archdiocese of Washington. I was not elected to Congress,” he said, adding, “I intend to speak and promote the Church’s moral and doctrinal teaching, that comes with the job.” But he said that instead of being at the negotiating tables with Washington power brokers or spending most of his time at the Pastoral Center, he intended to go out in the field and meet the people of his archdiocese.
In his opening statement, he had noted that Washington is home to the poor and powerful, people from a wide variety of races and cultures, the young and old. “I seek to be a pastor for the entire family,” he said.
And the next day, he did just that. On April 5, amid two days of briefings and background reports on his new archdiocese, Archbishop Gregory visited workers at the headquarters of Catholic Charities, students and teachers at St. Anthony Catholic School, the elderly and Little Sisters of the Poor at the order’s Jeanne Jugan Residence, and he celebrated Mass for young men studying for the priesthood at the archdiocese’s Saint John Paul II Seminary. That evening, he even stopped by the fish fry at Nativity Parish in Washington.
One day earlier, just after his press conference, Archbishop Gregory celebrated Mass for the employees of the archdiocesan Pastoral Center, and joked that the joy he felt seemed incompatible with the somber nature of Lent.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to be with you and to be a part of you. We are brothers and sisters in the Lord,” he said.
Later, Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, said Archbishop Gregory’s appointment “is a source of joy, no denying that” for Black Catholics in the archdiocese.
She added, “I think he’s going to be an archbishop for all of us, for the entire Archdiocese of Washington.”
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