ROME — Pope Francis announced on Sunday that he would name Washington’s archbishop, Wilton Gregory, a cardinal next month, making him the first African American to earn such a title.
Gregory will be one of the 13 cardinals in the new class, a promotion that comes at a time when he is also trying to rebuild trust in an archdiocese rocked by sexual abuse cases.
The move was widely anticipated, as Washington archbishops are typically named as cardinals after their appointments. But it is nonetheless symbolically significant in the U.S. Catholic Church, where Blacks have been underrepresented among the leadership.
Gregory was appointed as Washington’s archbishop last year, taking over for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who had been accused of mishandling clerical abuse cases.
Gregory, 72, will be eligible to vote for the next pope until he reaches the cutoff age of 80. Francis announced the names of his new cardinals while speaking from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where he delivers his Sunday Angelus. The Vatican said the ceremony to name the new cardinals would take place Nov. 28, though it is unclear if tightening coronavirus restrictions in Italy might interfere.
Among the other new cardinals, four are already over the age of 80, according to the Vatican. The new cardinals include Marcello Semeraro, an Italian who was recently appointed as the head of the church’s saint-making body, and the archbishop of Kigali, Rwanda, Antoine Kambanda.
Gregory has long been among the foremost Catholic leaders in the United States, having lead the national conference of Catholic bishops in the early-2000s, when it was making its first attempt to draw up anti-abuse guidelines. Gregory had been the archbishop of Atlanta before coming to Washington.
From his purview in the capital, he has faced plenty of challenges beyond the church — in a year with rising racial tensions that have sometimes played out in his new city.
After President Trump and the first lady visited a D.C. shrine honoring Pope John Paul II, Gregory called 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.”
In that statement, Gregory noted that Pope John Paul II would not have condoned Trump’s actions earlier in the week — a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in which the path was aggressively cleared of peaceful protestors.
“Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth,” Gregory said. “He 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.”