New Archbishop Brings Joy, Hope to the Capital
If an applause meter measured hope, its arrow would have surpassed maximum when Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was installed in May as the new shepherd of the Archdiocese of Washington (DC). As the new archbishop—known as a joyous priest—entered the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, booming applause erupted in North America’s largest Catholic church.
An additional explosion of clapping and cheering then greeted the formal announcement by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, who read the pope’s proclamation to appoint Gregory to the top Church position in the nation’s capital. Another ovation followed Gregory’s brief, deeply theological homily. Finally, during the recessional, the estimated 3,000 congregants cheered so loudly that their rapturous voices echoed in the vast domes.
Gregory, seventy-two years of age, is an enormously popular choice to replace Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who resigned because of complaints about his handling of sex-abuse claims. Gregory came East after serving as the archbishop in Atlanta since 2005, where he experienced many successes, a record that is in keeping with his life in the Church.
An early calling
The priesthood has captivated Gregory since he was quite young. In the sixth grade, he told an Adrian Dominican nun that he wanted to be a priest. She explained to the Protestant pupil that he would first have to become a Catholic. Gregory remembers he never felt pressured but freely made the choice to join the universal church as a boy. “The environment exuded the pride and joy the teachers had in their Catholic faith, a faith that was touched on and reflected in each subject,” he said.
At an Easter vigil in 1959, eleven-year-old Wilton was baptized and received his first Communion. He was inspirational even then, for his mother eventually would follow her son and join the Church.
His commitment to God and the Church was rewarded over the years. In 1983, just a decade after his ordination to the priesthood, Gregory was named a bishop by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who was then the archbishop of Chicago. At that time, at thirty-six, he was the youngest bishop in the nation.
Throughout his service in the Church, Gregory often impressed upon seminarians how important it was for their own life of service to be joyous—a fitting response to Jesus’ selfless and infinite love.
After serving a term as auxiliary bishop of Chicago, Gregory was installed as the seventh bishop of the diocese of Belleville, IL, arriving during the time in the 1990s when parishioners began learning of sexual abuses by priests. He had no template on how to help his shocked and angry flock, but he took to heart Bernardin’s idea that the Church was meant to serve those who were hurting.
Night after night, Gregory drove to rural parishes in his car—which featured license plates that read, “Wilton”. First, he visited parishes where nine abusive priests had served. He listened to survivors, their families, and other parishioners. He called for all victims to come forward. Despite dealing compassionately with heart-wrenching pain, “joy still radiated from Gregory’s gentle smile,” said Patty Schilling, who served in that diocese in Southern Illinois as his secretary for nearly a decade.
Gregory’s history of serving the Church with joy and an altruistic spirit encourages many Catholics in Washington, who were stung by the sex-abuse scandals.
“I hope he will make all Catholics respect the faith’s traditions and its rich culture of diversity,” said Renee Coles, a parishioner at St. Thomas More Parish in southeast Washington and a member of the Archdiocesan Gospel Choir. “I hope he can help Catholics understand that we all follow the same Gospel and serve the same God.”
In answer to that hope and more, Gregory told Liguorian that he intends to visit every parish in the archdiocese, a commitment that Kate Hennessy Finan of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, MD, sees as “a sign of hope, peace, and grace.” She noted that St. Camillus members come from 110 nations. “Instead of calling the parish multicultural, we call it intracultural. We all blend together while keeping our own individual identities. After all, we are all one in the body of Christ.”
He has had many successes and has more to do
In his forty-six years as a priest, Archbishop Gregory has been a national leader on many issues, including the environment, social justice, criminal justice, regulating the death penalty, gun control, and advancing abortion reform. He’s a good listener, a trait that has helped him gain successes in all of those issues and more. He said he has listened to many Catholics convey their distress at the tone of the current national dialogue.
In response, he wants the faithful “to return to a level of civility. Instead of echoing others, we need to put aside the vicious, harsh rhetoric that is used against other human beings. The level of discourse has grown so coarse in how we speak to each other and how we speak about issues and ideas,” he said.
While the archbishop has listened to Catholics from all over express distress over the disrespect shown nationally, he feels this problem is even more prevalent in the nation’s capital.
“You hear harsh rhetoric from elected leaders and other public figures,” he said. “It is destructive and a terrible example for children to hear leaders they are taught to respect spew disrespectful trash talk on public airwaves.” In both public discussions and private interactions, Gregory encourages Catholics to avoid vitriol and instead echo their gospel-rooted belief in the worth of every individual.
Responding to racism
Catholics are known to respond generously to the poor and downtrodden. Catholic charities nationwide offer one example of a long tradition of respect exhibited by American Catholics. These organizations have a presence in nearly every state and give to those in need regardless of faith, denomination, race, or nationality. But the problems the charities address abound in America, as does the sin of racism.
As the first African American archbishop to be appointed to a North American archdiocese, Gregory speaks specifically to the problem of racism. “Some of the evilest rhetoric that has arisen in recent years is racist. Only the naïve thought racism dead,” Gregory said. “We can’t ever say that racism is over and move on to other things. It might be excised in one part and exercised in another. Racism is a constant challenge. It is not ever a situation that is set and over. Some Americans seemed to reject it years ago, but it is now uglier than ever. Racism is the corruption of the human spirit in every age in every area.”
Gregory stresses that racism extends beyond the division between black and white communities. He brings to light the discrimination against immigrants and other religious communities, like Muslims and Jews. “Racism recalls all those horrific human actions we must, as Catholics, Christians, and Americans of goodwill overcome,” he said.
Considering Washington’s demographics—with African Americans representing about 49 percent of the population—Gregory’s knowledge of racism is very much needed in the Washington area. Some suburbs close to the city have black majorities. In addition, the archdiocese has many traditionally black parishes that have lost their youth. Chris Chatman, a parishioner at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in northwest Washington, is deeply concerned.
She recognizes that priests and adult parishioners try to evangelize youth but often end up disappointed when teens and young adults gravitate toward nondenominational churches. Chatman hopes that Gregory’s joy in being a priest and bishop and his love of the Catholic Church will inspire youth of all races. This hope is buoyed by Gregory’s ability to express his joy while preaching, one of his best skills. He won the Great Preaching Award from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis when he was the bishop of Belleville.
Held in highest esteem, especially in troubled times
Still, at seventy-two, Gregory likely would not have been faulted if he had turned down Pope Francis’ invitation to shepherd the Archdiocese of Washington. Perhaps he could have continued his work in Atlanta. In his fourteen years there he built twenty-five new parishes and missions and helped every parish within the diocese grow their endowments.
“I have always held him in the highest esteem, but when he said he was going to Washington I was overwhelmed with even greater admiration,” said David Spotanski, who served in the archbishop’s office in both Belleville and Atlanta. “He is a gift to the Church.”
When Gregory was appointed to Washington, he announced: “I’ll always tell you the truth,” which is “exactly what he told Belleville Catholics,” Spotanski recalled. “And, he kept his word.”
Gregory hopes to help restore confidence and strengthen the faith of Catholics in Washington, one that is recovering from the heartbreak of scandal. In February 2019 Pope Francis confirmed that Theodore McCarrick, a former Washington archbishop, had been removed from the priesthood for violating minors. He was forced to resign from the College of Cardinals the previous summer.
Archbishop Gregory has been thinking long and hard about helping heal the Church after the abuse scandals. “It seems to me that I have been doing this since the last millennium,” he said. When the larger clerical scandal publicly erupted first in Boston and then across the nation, Gregory was the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He helped the pope, St. John Paul II, call a summit of US Cardinals to the Vatican. That led to the adoption by the USCCB of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, known as the Dallas Charter, in June 2002. Later that year they accepted what amounted to changes in canon law to implement a zero-tolerance policy for abuse by priests.
Under Gregory’s leadership, bishops laid out the American Catholic norms for the protection of youth and children. Gregory hired Kathleen McChesney, formerly the second-ranking FBI leader, to oversee professional investigators’ audit of each diocese’s compliance. His honesty and direct pastoral efforts have served as a model for the whole United States Church.
“I want to do the same thing [in Washington] I have been doing, invite our laypeople to reflect on the values of their Catholic faith, a faith that’s been rocked with some serious challenges,” said Gregory. He wants to remind Catholics that, while they have been disappointed, it was individuals who disappointed them. He has often spoken to the fact that even the apostles had faults. The archbishop is adamant that laypeople must continue to help monitor and investigate clerical crimes and misbehavior.
As bishops move to monitor other bishops in response to the McCarrick revelations, Gregory hopes the laity will play a key role, as it did in Dallas, he said, asserting: “We must do better for the sake of all the victims and of survivors of sexual abuse and for the sake of everyone whom we serve.”
Those who know him best expect he will not fail.
“He never does,” Spotanski said. A
Wilton Gregory’s Life of Service
1947 Wilton Daniel Gregory was born on December 7 to a Protestant couple, Wilton and Ethel Duncan Gregory, in Chicago.
1957 He was baptized after his divorced mother and his grandmother, Etta Mae Duncan, enrolled him in St. Carthage Grammar School. At eleven, he was confirmed as a Catholic.
1960 He continued preparing for the priesthood at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL. He helped to establish a teen drop-in center in a blue-collar neighborhood. Then he was sent to Rome to earn a doctorate in sacred liturgy.
1973 He was ordained a priest. He served in two Chicago parishes and taught at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. Using his liturgical expertise, he served as master of ceremonies for John Cardinal Cody and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.
1983 He was ordained an auxiliary bishop, making him the youngest US bishop.
1994 He was installed as the bishop of Belleville, IL, near St. Louis. While serving in Belleville, from 1998 to 2001 he also was vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
2001-2004 He served as president of the USCCB during these years.
2005 He was installed as archbishop of Atlanta, where he built more than twenty churches and missions. He led parishioners in forming an endowment at every parish, with seed money from the estate of descendants of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind.
2019 On April 4—coincidentally the fifty-first anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—Gregory was named archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington (DC).
Patricia Rice is a journalist who has covered religion for three decades, reporting from four continents. She has written about Archbishop Wilton Gregory since the early 1990s. Her published work includes the booklet “A Catholic Funeral,” © 2005 Liguori Publications. Patricia lives in St. Louis.