Washington D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory is set to become the first Black U.S. prelate to assume the rank of cardinal in the Catholic Church, a historic appointment that comes months after nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice.

Gregory’s ascension, announced on Sunday by Pope Francis alongside 12 other newly named cardinals, elevates a leader who has drawn praise for his handling of the sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the church. The Washington-area archbishop also has spoken out in recent days about the importance of Catholic leaders working to combat the sin of racial discrimination.

The 72-year-old Gregory, ordained in his native Chicago in 1973, took over leadership of the capital’s archdiocese last year after serving as archbishop of Atlanta since 2005. The ceremony making his elevation official is slated for Nov. 28.

“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,” Gregory said in a statement issued by the archdiocese.

Gregory helped shape the church’s “zero tolerance” response to the sexual abuse scandal while serving as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004. During that period, the bishops adopted a charter designed to govern its treatment of sexual abuse allegations made by minor children against priests. The church’s efforts since 2004 have helped achieve a sharp reduction in child-sex abuse cases. But some abuse continues to occur, and the church’s procedures for addressing abuse continue to incur criticism from those who feel there’s a lack of consistency and transparency.

More recently, amid nationwide protests this summer sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Gregory talked frankly about his own response to Floyd’s killing during a June dialogue hosted by Georgetown University, and emphasized the value of church involvement in pressing social issues.

“The church lives in society. The church does not live behind the four doors of the structures where we worship,” Gregory said then.

The Washington D.C. archdiocese has created an anti-racism initiative under Gregory’s leadership, offering focused prayer and listening sessions.

In addition to his work combating racial injustice and sexual abuse in the church, Gregory has drawn notice for his more inclusive treatment of LGBTQ Catholics. In 2014, while serving in Atlanta, he wrote a positive column about his conversations with a group of Catholic parents of LGBTQ children.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which represents LGBTQ Catholics, said his group is “very excited” to see Gregory’s elevation and connected it back to Francis’ recently reported comments supporting civil unions for same-sex couples.

Gregory’s elevation, while pathbreaking for Black Americans in the church, also follows a pattern of D.C.-area archbishops getting named to the rank of cardinal. Five of the six prelates who previously held Gregory’s position were later named cardinals.

The archdiocese, though, has become embroiled in the abuse crisis since its previous two leaders — Donald Wuerl and Theodore McCarrick — were implicated in the church sex scandal.

Francis in February 2019 defrocked McCarrick after a Vatican-backed investigation concluded he sexually abused minors and adults over his long career. It was the first time a cardinal had been dismissed from the priesthood for abuse.

Francis reluctantly accepted Wuerl’s resignation in October 2018 after he lost the trust of his priests and parishioners in the months following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The report accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.

THE OTHER NEW CARDINALS

Other new cardinals include an Italian who is the long-time papal preacher at the Vatican, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, who is a Franciscan friar; the Kigali, Rwanda, Archbishop Antoine Kambanda; the Capiz, Philippines, Archbishop Jose Feurte Advincula, and the Santiago, Chile, Archbishop Celestino Aos Braco.

Another Franciscan who was tapped is Friar Mauro Gambetti, in charge of the Sacred Convent in Assisi. The pope, when elected in 2013, chose St. Francis of Assisi as his namesake saint. Earlier this month, the pontiff journeyed to that hill town in Umbria to sign an encyclical, or important church teaching document, about brotherhood.

Gambetti was so surprised, at first he thought the pope was joking when he heard he was named, convent spokesperson the Rev. Enzo Fortunato said. Gambetti quickly pledged to “put himself at the service of humanity at a time so difficult to us all,” including offering compassion to the needy, Fortunato said in reference to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a reflection of the pope’s stress on helping those in need, Francis also named the former director of the Rome Catholic charity, Caritas, the Rev. Enrico Feroci, to be a cardinal.

Conservative prelates in the United States have openly lambasted Francis for his more liberal stands, including his support for same-sex civil unions that came out in a new documentary this week.

Gregory said in a statement that becoming a cardinal would allow him to work more closely with the pontiff in caring for the Catholic Church.

While Gregory headed the Atlanta diocese earlier in his career, he wrote positively in a column about his conversations with Catholic parents of LGBTQ children. An advocate for LGBTQ Catholics, Francis DeBernardo, told The Associated Press that choosing Gregory for a cardinal’s post signals Francis wants “LGBTQ people to be part of the church, and he wants church people to respect them.”

DeBernardo linked the appointment to Francis’ recently reported comments supporting civil unions for same-sex couples.

He also praised the elevation to cardinal’s rank of a Vatican bishop who comes from Malta, a tiny, traditionally Catholic nation which has made significant progress in LGBTQ civil rights and protections in recent years.

DeBernardo was referring to Mario Grech, 63, who serves at the Vatican as secretary general of the Synod of Bishops office and who formerly headed the diocese on the Maltese island of Gozo.

“Since naming cardinals also affects who the next pontiff will be, the pope also shows that he is planning for the future of the church to continue in this affirming posture on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity,” the U.S.-based DeBernardo said in a written statement.

Not all of the pope’s picks might stir positive recollections.

In 2010, while preaching at a Good Friday service attended by the then-pope, Benedict XVI, Cantalamessa upset both Jewish and sex abuse survivors’ groups when he likened allegations that the pontiff had covered up sex abuse cases against clerics to the “more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” The Vatican quickly distanced Benedict from Cantalamessa’s remarks.

Nine of the new cardinals are younger than 80, and thus eligible to elect the next pontiff in a secret conclave. Some cardinals head powerful Vatican offices, and pontiffs frequently turn to cardinals for advice.

No details were immediately given by the Vatican about the formal ceremony to make the churchmen cardinals, especially in view of travel restrictions involving many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As he has in other groups of cardinals he tapped in his papacy, Francis in this selection reflected the global nature of the Catholic Church and his flock of 1.2 billion Catholics.

Others receiving the honor include Monsignor Marcello Semeraro, an Italian serving as prefect of the Vatican office which runs the saint-making process; Bishop Cornelius Sim, a Brunei native who serves as apostolic vicar of Brunei; the Italian archbishop of Siena and nearby towns in Tuscany, Augusto Lojudice; the retired bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel; and an Italian former Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi.

Churchmen over 80 who are named cardinals are chosen to honor their life of service to the church. Those in this batch too old to vote in a conclave are Cantalamessa, Tomasi, Feroci and Arizmendi Esquivel.

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