Chicago native Wilton Gregory’s historic appointment stirs pride in area Catholics who claim him ‘as our own’
Some see Wilton Gregory’s appointment by Pope Francis — after a summer of racial reckoning in the United States — as “a statement of the Church to say, ‘We stand with you.’”
When Pope Francis on Sunday elevated Chicago native Wilton Gregory to cardinal — the first African American to get the appointment — the joy was shared by local Catholics.
“Gregory deserves the role with his work in the Church,” said Dr. Michael Murphy, the director of Catholic studies at Loyola University of Chicago, who was “overjoyed” when he heard Sunday’s news. He said he’s met Gregory on several occasions and believes the cardinal-elect is “deeply talented” and “very holy.”
“He’s the right choice no matter what his background is,” said Murphy, the director for Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage.
The 72-year-old Gregory, who was born in Chicago and ordained a priest here in 1973, was one of 13 new cardinals named by Pope Francis in a surprise announcement from his studio window that overlooks St. Peter’s Square in Rome.
“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 news from the Vatican.
Gregory has more than earned his spot on the Catholic church’s most senior governing body. Before becoming a central figure in leading the church’s response to a sex abuse scandal by Catholic clergy, Gregory served as an associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview and was a faculty member at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. After serving as a master of ceremonies to Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernardin, Gregory was ordained an auxiliary bishop in Chicago in 1983 and later was installed as the bishop of Belleville in 1994.
A decade later, Gregory, who served as the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was appointed archbishop of Atlanta before he was named archbishop of Washington, D.C. last year.
This June, Gregory made national headlines slamming President Donald Trump for using the Saint John Paul II National Shrine as a backdrop for a photo.
Gregory’s appointment comes after a summer of racial reckoning in the U.S. during which Gregory joined eight fellow bishops from his region in acknowledging the church’s “sins and failings” on racial justice.
“Prayer and dialogue, alone, are not enough. We must act to bring about true change,” the group said in a joint statement in June.
Cardinal Blase Cupich said he was “grateful” for the pope’s appointment of Gregory.
“While we take particular pride in this recognition of a dedicated priest, whom we are proud to claim as our own we are also moved that Pope Francis chose this compassionate, thoughtful pastor when our nation and the world are in desperate need of healing and courageous leadership,” Cupich said in a statement.
While Murphy believes Gregory earned the elevation to cardinal on his own merit, he also believes his appointment was a thoughtful move by the pope.
“[Pope Francis] knows what this means at this moment ... to have Cardinal Gregory inhabit this role,” Murphy said. “And it’s a statement of the Church to say, ‘We stand with you.’”
Murphy can’t exactly pinpoint why it took so long for an African American to reach the ranking of a cardinal. However, he said: “There’s not as many Black bishops as there should be.”
About 3 million of the nation’s 69 million Catholics are African American, according to the national bishops’ conference. With that, only 250 of the 36,500 priests in the U.S. are Black priests, and there are only five active Black bishops. Gregory was one of only two African Americans who currently leads a U.S. diocese, according to the conference.