Pope Francis appoints first African-American cardinal

  • >> Elizabeth Dias and Jason Horowitz, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-26 12:35:45 BdST

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FILE PHOTO: Roman Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory speaks to parishioners in Atlanta, Georgia, December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Pope Francis on Sunday named Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, a cardinal, making him the first African American to hold a position in the Catholic church’s highest governing body.

The elevation of Gregory, who is also the first American named to the College of Cardinals since 2016, comes as demonstrations for racial justice and debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and racism have shifted the conversation about race in the United States.

“By naming Archbishop Wilton Gregory as a Cardinal, Pope Francis is sending a powerful message of hope and inclusion to the Church in the United States,” Archbishop José H Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.

In recent months, Archbishop Gregory has urged the church’s leaders to improve race relations, recalling his time as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago and how important it was for young Black Catholics to see a bishop who looked like them.

In August, during a Mass commemorating the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, Gregory said, “Ours is the task and the privilege of advancing the goals that were so eloquently expressed 57 years ago by such distinguished voices on that day.” He added that “men and women, young and old, people of every racial and ethnic background are needed in this effort. We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony.”

Gregory, 72, was one of 13 new cardinal appointments around the world that Francis announced Sunday. A Chicago native, he served for years in the diocese of Atlanta before coming to Washington last year, when the pontiff made him the country’s first African American archbishop. He is also a former president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose vision is considered in line with Francis’ pastoral and welcoming approach in the church.

Like many institutions in other spheres, the Catholic church in the United States has long minimised the experience and value of African Americans, said Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, the country’s only historically Black and Catholic university.

“It is our great sin,” he said. “The Vatican is leading us in a new direction, and I think Pope Francis is showing a new opening for us as a church, that we are one church.”

Only about 250 of the estimated 37,000 Catholic priests in the United States are African American, according to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only one other diocese beyond the Archdiocese of Washington is currently led by an African American: Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana.

The majority of Black American adults are Protestant, but about 5% are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. The Catholic church historically had a smaller presence in the Deep South, which has long been significantly Baptist, but the Black Catholic community grew in places where the church had a stronger presence, like Texas and Louisiana as well as in the Northeast as immigrants met and married Black people who had moved there during the Great Migration, Verret said.

For centuries, Black Catholics were excluded from seminaries and religious orders, and when they were included, they were often given positions with little power and were not allowed to lead African American parishes, said Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor of history at Villanova University.

Gregory’s appointment is the “culmination of a long-standing Black Catholic freedom struggle against racism, slavery, segregation and exclusion within the US church,” she said.

“The significance of his role as the first Black Archbishop, now Cardinal, of Washington DC, which was the centre of power of the US church’s slaveholding elite, also cannot be overstated,” Williams said. “His presence, voice and advocacy against racism as a ‘pro-life’ issue in the Church is needed now more than ever.”

Gregory’s leadership in Washington was a turning point for a pivotal diocese previously led by Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl, two prelates tarnished by the church sexual abuse crisis.

Last year, Francis stripped McCarrick first of his title as cardinal and then of his status as priest after accusations of sexual abuse against him that the church deemed credible. Wuerl left the position under a cloud of controversy amid accusations that he had failed to prevent abuse decades earlier in his diocese in Pittsburgh.

This summer, as protests spread against the police killing of George Floyd, Gregory publicly clashed with President Donald Trump, who visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine the day after armed officers unleashed tear gas and rubber pellets on peaceful protesters near the White House.

“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 wrote.

Pope John Paul II, he said, “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.”

Nine of the 13 men named as new cardinals Sunday, including Gregory, are younger than 80 and therefore eligible to participate in the next conclave to elect Francis’ successor. The new cardinals chosen by Francis reflect his priorities, making it more likely that the college will elect someone like him. His list included prelates from Rwanda, the Philippines and Brunei.

The ceremony to install the new cardinals is set for Nov 28 in Rome. The Vatican offered no details about how it would conduct the consistory, an ornate ceremony in which the pope physically puts red hats onto the heads of the new cardinals, given concerns over the coronavirus and new restrictions announced Sunday in Italy. With travel restrictions in place for many countries, it is unclear whether some of the bishops will be able make the trip.

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