Former Atlanta Archbishop Gregory to be first African American cardinal

In 2019, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory talked about his impending move to Washington to become the first African American to lead that influential archdiocese.

The Atlanta archbishop hoped it would send a message to African American, Latino and Asian youths in the archdiocese covering metro Atlanta and North Georgia that “they can dream big.”

Now, he’s reached another milestone – wearing the red hat of a cardinal. He will become the first African American to do so.

On Sunday, Pope Francis announced that Gregory, 72, the archbishop of the nation’s capital, is among 13 worldwide newly named to the College of Cardinals.

As a cardinal, Gregory would, among other duties, have say in the election of the next pope.

The new cardinals will be installed Nov. 28. Coincidentally, November, when the Chicago native becomes the first Black cardinal from the United States, is also celebrated by some in the U.S. as Black Catholic History Month.

“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,” said Cardinal-elect Gregory in a statement.

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Although the timing came as a surprise, there had been speculation that when Gregory moved to lead the Washington archdiocese that becoming a cardinal would be in his future.

The news was long-awaited, particularly by Black Roman Catholics in Atlanta and elsewhere, especially as the nation grapples with sharp racial and cultural divisions such as sexual orientation — that sometimes lead to the church itself.

“It was always a question of when and who,” said Ashley Morris, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta and associate director of the Atlanta Archdiocese’s Office of Intercultural Ministries.

Morris has known Gregory for more than a decade.

“It’s a momentous occasion for us as a global church and in the United States,” said Morris. “For African American Catholics it gives us a seat at the table and adds to the many voices that the pope gets to hear on a regular basis. … It’s a huge moment, especially for reconciliation and bridge building.”

He was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004. Under his leadership, in June 2002, the bishops implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which lays out a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, according to the USCCB website.

In 2018, Gregory invited the Rev. James Martin to Atlanta to discuss how the Catholic Church can be more welcoming to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. That invitation angered some of the more conservative elements of the church.

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He also made news earlier this year with a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump’s visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine as protests were being held across the nation and in the capitol.

“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree,” Gregory said in a statement. “Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”

Gregory was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1973 and was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983. In 1994, he was installed as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, where he served for 11 years before coming to Atlanta as archbishop in 2005.

Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, who succeeded Gregory, called the appointment “a sign of real confidence and, also, gratitude on the part of Pope Francis" for someone who had served the church faithfully for decades.

Gregory is known as an intelligent, seasoned, yet compassionate administrator. However, some said, the Washington archdiocese presented real challenges because of the handling of sex abuse scandals.

Going to Washington, said Hartmayer, gave Gregory “a renewal. A new start. A new energy. The pope asked him to do it and he did it without hesitation. That’s the way he’s been all of his life.”

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The news wasn’t welcomed by everyone. Tim Lennon is president of the board of directors of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which works with survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

In a statement, the SNAP leader said, “The elevation of Archbishop Gregory to the position of Cardinal does little to increase confidence in the Church hierarchy for protecting children or making the community safer.”

Many others praised Gregory and the landmark moment Sunday.

Kimberly Daniels, a cradle Catholic and member of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Atlanta, struggled to find the words to express her feelings.

“I’m ecstatic to see in my life time not only the first Black president, but now we have the first Black cardinal in the United States,” she said. “I don’t even know how to articulate how happy I am.”

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a 2019 news conference when he led the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a 2019 news conference when he led the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

She said Gregory has spoken about about issues of race and respect for life that “includes everybody having a fair and equitable life.” And it helps, she said, that it comes from someone who understands that on a personal level.

Matthew J. Cressler, author of “Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration,” said there have been Black Catholics of African descent in the Americas for as long as there have been Catholics in the Americas.

“They’ve always been part of the U.S. Catholic Church, but it’s taken until 2020 for a Black archbishop to be made a cardinal. It’s a huge deal," said Cressler, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston. It’s also a nod to the “unique and ongoing” contributions that Blacks have made to the Church.

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that naming Gregory sends a powerful message of hope and inclusion.

“As a former president of our national bishops' conference, Archbishop Gregory displayed generous and principled leadership,” Gomez said in the statement. "The naming of the first African American cardinal from the United States gives us an opportunity to pause and offer thanks for the many gifts African American Catholics have given the Church.”

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