WASHINGTON — Pope Francis on Sunday named Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, a cardinal, elevating the first African-American to the Catholic church’s highest governing body, a groundbreaking act in a year when demands for racial justice have consumed the country.
The rise of Archbishop Gregory, who is also the first American named to the College of Cardinals since 2016, comes as debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and racism have extended to the Catholic church, which for centuries excluded African Americans from positions of power.
“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, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.
The move is the latest sign that, seven years into his papacy, Pope Francis continues to redirect the church toward greater acceptance of those on the margins. He has worked to diversify the College of Cardinals, center the poor and migrants and warned of the threat of climate change. Last week Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions, staking out new ground for the church’s recognition of gay people.
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, Archbishop 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,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory, 72, was one of 13 new cardinal appointments around the world that Pope Francis announced on Sunday. A Chicago native, he served for years as the archbishop of Atlanta until last year, when the pontiff made him the first African-American archbishop of Washington. He is also a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose vision is considered in line with Francis’ pastoral and welcoming approach in the church.
Archbishop Gregory, who did not come from a Catholic background, converted as a child after he began attending a Catholic grammar school in Chicago. It was 1958, and the school had decided to accept African-American students as white families were leaving, and within six weeks of joining the school, Archbishop Gregory reflected later, he decided to become a priest.
On Sunday, Archbishop Gregory said in a statement, “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 did not respond to a request for an interview.
Like many institutions in other spheres, the Catholic church in the United States has long minimized 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 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only one other diocese beyond the Archdiocese of Washington is currently led by an African-American: Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana.
The majority of Black American adults are Protestant, but about 5 percent 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, Dr. 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.
Archbishop Gregory’s appointment is the “culmination of a longstanding Black Catholic freedom struggle against racism, slavery, segregation and exclusion within the U.S. church,” she said.
“The significance of his role as the first Black Archbishop, now Cardinal, of Washington D.C., which was the center of power of the U.S. church’s slaveholding elite, also cannot be overstated,” Dr. Williams said. “His presence, voice and advocacy against racism as a ‘pro-life’ issue in the Church is needed now more than ever.”
Archbishop 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.
Pope Francis stripped Mr. 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. Cardinal 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, Archbishop Gregory publicly clashed with President 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,” Archbishop 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.”
Archbishop Gregory has called on Congress to reform the nation’s immigration system and create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He also commissioned a climate action plan for Catholics at home and at church to protect the environment, after Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment in 2015.
He has also been a relatively strong supporter of L.G.B.T.Q. people in the church, and last summer told a transgender Catholic that they “belong to the heart of this church” and that “there is a lot that has been said to you, about you, behind your back that is painful and is sinful.”
Nine of the 13 men named as new cardinals on Sunday, including Archbishop Gregory, are under age 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 on 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.
Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., president of the National Black Catholic Congress and an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington, hopes to be able to join for the historic moment.
Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is a sign of hope, he said, especially for young Black Catholic men considering a call to the priesthood.
“You are not living your faith in vain,” he said. “God will use you."
Elizabeth Dias reported from Washington andJason Horowitz from Rome. Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.