Who is Wilton Gregory? Pope Francis names 1st African American cardinal

Race in America

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., is set to become the first African American cardinal in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis named 13 cardinals from eight countries in a surprise announcement to the faithful outside of his window in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.

Gregory, who was installed as the first Black archbishop of the Washington area last year, was among those named by the pope over the weekend.

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

A ceremony to elevate the newly named cardinals to the rank will be held Nov. 28.


The historic appointment of Gregory, an outspoken civil rights advocate, comes months after nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice. The 72-year-old carries a legacy of combating racial discrimination and sexual abuse in the church, and some faith leaders say the announcement also signals to this moment of reckoning.

“Pope Francis is sending a powerful message of hope and inclusion to the Church in the United States,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the head of the country’s largest Catholic community. “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.”

FILE – In this Sunday, June 2, 2019, file photo, Washington D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory arrives to applause at St. Augustine Church for Sunday mass in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Gregory was ordained to the priesthood in Chicago in 1973. Roughly 10 years later, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Chicago, and then became the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, in 1993.

In 2001, Gregory became the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Leaders. He was the first African American to hold that position.

He was also one of Pope John Paul II’s last episcopal appointments when he became the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2004.

“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 following the pope’s announcement.

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.

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

He’s also called for dialogue following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes in May.

Under his leadership, the Archdiocese of Washington created an anti-racism initiative with focused prayer and listening sessions.

Gregory has worked to highlight the church’s role 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 at a Georgetown University event in June.

That same month, Gregory made headlines when he issued a statement criticizing President Donald Trump’s visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine a day after police used tear gas to clear protesters so the president could be photographed in front of a historic Washington church.

“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.

President Trump has not issued any statements on Gregory’s appointment, as of early Monday.

Gregory has also acknowledged the need for more inclusive treatment of LGBTQ Catholics. In 2014, he wrote a column about his conversations with parents of LGBTQ children.

“I assured them that the Church must welcome all of her sons and daughters—no matter what their sexual orientation or life situation might be—and that we have not always done so with a spirit of compassion and understanding,” he wrote. “I spoke of the distinction that our Church makes between orientation and behavior, which admittedly needs reexamination and development.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of LGBTQ Catholic advocacy organization New Ways Ministry, praised Gregory’s record.

In a statement published Sunday, he called Gregory “one of the few members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy who is willing to offer affirming messages to the LGBTQ community.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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