When Pope Francis named Archbishop Wilton Gregory as a future cardinal this week — making him the first Black American appointed as one — Gregory said he was "surprised" and "certainly deeply grateful."
Gregory, who currently serves as the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, notes that he will be the first Black American cardinal in the Catholic Church, but not the first Black cardinal.
Church inclusivity "is part of our heritage," Gregory he tells NPR. "That's our nature: to be welcoming to cultures and to languages and to peoples throughout the globe."
He will be formally elevated to the position on Nov. 28.
Even before Pope Francis announced Gregory's cardinalship, Gregory had been in the news this summer, first by putting out statements condemning racism after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and later by criticizing the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington for having President Trump visit. Trump went to the shrine a day after federal police cleared protesters with tear gas so Trump could pose with a Bible in front of St. John's Church 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," he said in a statement in June.
In an interview with NPR's Audie Cornish on Friday, Gregory reflected on the historic nature of his position, polarization in the U.S., the political issues that inform his work in the church and more. Interview highlights contain extended and Web-only questions and answers.
On presiding over a flock in Washington, D.C., and divisions among Catholic leadership
It's symbolic of the very divisive quality that seems to have captured our entire society, our nation. But I also have to say that in looking at the pastoral situation here in the Archdiocese of Washington, as I saw it in Atlanta, as I saw it in Belleville, as I lived it in Chicago, there are those who find reasons to be divisive racists. But there are also many, many good people who want to heal the divisions. So if we focus, and I try to be balanced in this, if we focus only on the conflict, the rhetoric, the racism, we will get a skewed impression of the whole community.
If you saw only the positive, you'd be accused of being Pollyanna; if you saw only the negative, you would be accused of being cynical. What I have to do as the archbishop is to encourage those who are working for racial and societal justice to carry on and to intensify. And I have to invite those who are negative and are clinging to racist attitudes from the past to set aside that vision of our church, our society, our nation.
On the voting guidance for Catholics listing abortion as a preeminent issue for Catholic voters
My view is that I would much prefer that the bishops of the United States had used Pope Francis' more expansive description of the life issues, which begin with the respect and the reverence due human life within the womb. They begin with that.
But they also have to include the other dimensions of human life, which people who are there deserve our respect, people who are elderly and sick. Those advocating for euthanasia are violating a right to life. Those who denigrate the immigrant populations in their midst, they are violating a gift of human life. And so I wish that we had been more expansive, and so it would make sure that all people who are working for the dignity and the respect of human life felt that their concerns, beginning with life within the womb, but including all of those other moments, were included.
On the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church
I think what we have to do is see it as a continual commitment to providing a safe environment for our children, not just in the Catholic Church, not just in our schools, not just in our sports programs. ...
At that time [in the early 2000s], you will recall that the attention was that this was an American problem.
In the past two decades, we see it as not just an American problem. And so I think it involves the entire church to, as you rightfully suggest, to make sure that leadership is on the right page and that we can never reassign a cleric or another church worker who has been clearly identified as a perpetrator to have public access to young people.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Earlier this year, after the killing of George Floyd, Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory called on Catholics to address racism. When President Trump visited a Catholic shrine the day after having protesters dispersed with tear gas, Archbishop Gregory called the move baffling and reprehensible. And on the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, Wilton Gregory has said...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILTON GREGORY: We must admit our own failures. We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest.
CORNISH: Now Pope Francis has named the outspoken archbishop of Washington a cardinal. He's the first Black American cardinal. Earlier today I asked Wilton Gregory if he was surprised.
GREGORY: Obviously, there's been a lot of speculation, Audie, because Washington has traditionally had its archbishop named to the College of Cardinals. But as you are aware, Pope Francis has not always followed the game plan. So I was surprised, certainly deeply grateful. But I wasn't going to put all of my eggs in one basket.
CORNISH: Now, I understand you actually converted as a child as you were attending Catholic school in Chicago. And this was in the late '50s.
CORNISH: And shortly after integration - and I want to bring it up because there were families - white families that left the school because of integration.
GREGORY: I came into a Catholic school on the South Side of Chicago. When I entered the sixth grade, approximately maybe six, seven Black kids in September in the sixth grade - by the end of the sixth grade, there were only about six or seven white kids left. So each week, there was a transfer out of white students and a transfer in of Black students.
CORNISH: And this is your introduction to Catholicism or at least this Catholic community as a kid. Why do you think you were drawn to convert?
GREGORY: Well, because the priests, who welcomed Black students, were extraordinarily good, faithful, loving people and witnesses to the goodness of the church. They were enthusiastic about their Catholic background, and they invited the new Black students - many of whom if not most of whom were not Catholic - to join them. It was a clear moment of outreach and evangelization, and I was attracted by it.
CORNISH: I want to ask just about one or two more political issues for a moment. A recent documentary quoted Pope Francis as endorsing civil unions and same-sex relationships. And you've expressed support for LGBTQ Catholics. Do you expect to see this issue getting more attention? And what role do you expect to play in it?
GREGORY: He didn't talk about the relationships. He talked about the individual. He talked about the respect that is due the lesbian and gay community, the transgender community and their rights and their dignity as human beings. And he suggested that the laws that protect all of us should also protect them. In other words, members of the lesbian and gay community deserve the respect that comes to them because they are human beings.
CORNISH: I would think that presiding over a flock here in Washington, D.C., means you have some idea about leadership over a polarized community. Can you talk about that polarization right now? How divided is the U.S. Catholic leadership? I mean, you've got people who are fighting over Pope Francis.
GREGORY: Yes, it's symbolic of the very divisive quality that seems to have captured our entire society, our nation. But there are those who find reasons to be divisive racists, but there are also many, many good people who want to heal the divisions. I think what I have to do as the archbishop is to encourage those who are working for racial and societal justice to carry on and to intensify. And I have to invite those who are negative and, you know, are clinging to racist attitudes from the past to set aside that vision of our church, our society, our nation.
CORNISH: Archbishop Wilton Gregory, soon-to-be cardinal, thank you so much for your time.
GREGORY: Thank you, Audie. God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.