Pope Francis Sends 'Message of Hope and Inclusion' as He Appoints First African American Cardinal

Wilton Gregory said he thanked Pope Francis for the appointment with a "very grateful and humble heart"

Wilton D. Gregory
Wilton Gregory. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Wilton Gregory a cardinal on Sunday, making him the first Black cardinal from the United States.

Gregory, 72, is the current archbishop of Washington, and was named to his new post alongside 12 others from around the world.

“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,” he said in a statement, according to The New York Times.

Gregory, a native of Chicago, was installed as the archbishop of Washington in May 2019 and prior to that, had served as the archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years. He converted to Catholicism as a child, and became an ordained priest in 1973, according to his biography.

The Times reported that he’s not just the first African American to be named a cardinal, but is also the first person from the U.S. to be named to the College of Cardinals since 2016.

“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 of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement. “As a former president of our national bishops’ conference, Archbishop Gregory displayed generous and principled leadership. 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. Please join me in praying for the continued ministry of Archbishop Gregory.”

Wilton D. Gregory
Wilton Gregory. Mark Wilson/Getty

Just as Pope Francis — who last week said he supports same-sex civil unions — has displayed a more accepting and progressive attitude, Gregory has in recent months pushed church leaders to improve race relations, called for a reforming of the U.S. immigration system, commissioned climate action plans and expressed support for LGBTQ people, the Times noted.

Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, told the newspaper that Gregory’s appointment is the “culmination of a longstanding Black Catholic freedom struggle against racism, slavery, segregation and exclusion within the U.S. church.”

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Just 250 of the approximately 37,000 Catholic priests in the U.S. are Black, the Times reported, per the U.S. Conference of the Catholic Bishops.

According to the Washington Post, archbishops in Washington are “typically elevated to cardinal after their appointments,” so the announcement was not unexpected, but still is “symbolically significant” within the church.

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