On Oct. 25, 2020, Pope Francis named 13 new cardinals. One of them is the Catholic Church’s first African-American cardinal.
To be clear, there have been many, many African leaders in the Church — St. Augustine was the most famous bishop, but there were also at least three popes from North Africa. But Archbishop Wilton Gregory will be the first African-American cardinal when he’s officially elevated in a ceremony on Nov. 28.
Archbishop Gregory was born and raised in Chicago, and currently serves as the head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Three times, he has served as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The title of cardinal is bestowed by the pope to those Church leaders who serve as his advisors. They also gather to elect a new pope from among their own ranks if the current pope dies or retires. There are currently more than 200 cardinals; about 120 are younger than 80 and thus able to vote for a new pope.
For a primer on the hierarchy, check out this video:
So why is this a big deal?
First of all, it’s customary for the archbishop of Washington, D.C. to be named a cardinal — it’s an important place for the Church in this country, and the bishops who serve there are in a unique position to be of service to the pope. So this is not a complete surprise.
All the same, it’s hard not to see additional significance to this announcement following this summer of racial protest. The move signals to the American Catholic Church that the Black Catholic experience is an important dimension to our community, not a marginal one. The Church makes God’s love known in all times and places — with all people — so having a Black American cardinal reminds us that white, European expressions of faith are only one manifestation of the Church’s presence.
“Pope Francis is sending a powerful message of hope and inclusion to the church in the United States” with this announcement, said Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. “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.”
Archbishop Gregory has been leading the Catholic Church in this country in several important ways. He was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when they confronted the clergy sex abuse crisis in 2002. As archbishop of Atlanta, he met with parents of LGBTQ people, and affirmed their experience. Most recently, he criticized the President when he visited a shrine to Pope St. John Paul II at a time when police and protestors were clashing over racial injustice. So he’s no stranger to conflict — he knows how to lead in difficult circumstances.
And now, it seems, he has additional validation from Pope Francis in that leadership.