Pope Francis on Sunday elevated Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, to cardinal, making him the first African American appointed to the red-hat conclave.
The 72-year-old Gregory, who led the Roman Catholic Church’s response to an internal sexual abuse scandal in the early 2000s, was one of 13 new cardinals named by Pope Francis during his noontime prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The cardinal nominees will be installed during a ceremony on Nov. 28.
“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,” cardinal-elect Gregory said in a statement following the news from the Holy See.
In naming the selections, the pope elevated several archbishops from developing countries, including Cuba, the Congo and Guatemala. Nine of the new cardinals are younger than 80, a requirement to be allowed to vote on a successor to the pontiff.
The pope said the new crop of cardinals have all shown dedication to “the missionary vocation of the Church that continues to proclaim the merciful love of God to all men and women of the earth.”
The new appointments will expand the College of Cardinal’s from 120 to 128 electors, who hail from 68 countries.
The elevation of Gregory to cardinal will make him the highest-ranking African American prelate in the nation.
The historical appointment came two years after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter condemning what it called an accumulation of “episodes of violence and animosity with racial and xenophobic overtones” and imploring the Catholic church to practice what it preaches in regards to racial equality.
In June, Francis denounced the “sin of racism” and identified George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, as the victim of a “tragic” killing.
“We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion while pretending to defend the sacredness of every human life,” the pope said at the time.
Gregory, who was born and raised in Chicago, was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago in May 1973, according to his biography on the Archdiocese of Washington website. He served as the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, from 1994 to December 2004, when Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Gregory was elected president o the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001 and under his leadership, the bishops implemented the “Charter of Protection of Children and Young People” that laid out five principles for responding to a sex abuse crisis involving Catholic clergy and conceded they had been remiss in protecting children from pedophile priests.
During his tenure in Atlanta, Gregory came under criticism for spending $2.2 million in church money earmarked for charity to build a Tudor-style mansion for the archbishop’s residence. He made national news in 2014 when he sold the mansion and used the proceeds for pastoral work, a move in keeping with the austere priorities set by Pope Francis.
Pope Francis appointed Gregory as the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington on April 4, 2019.
Earlier this year, Gregory issued a statement rebuking a visit by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., for a photo op.
“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,” Gregory said.
His statement came just days after protesters outside the White House were tear-gassed and forcibly removed so Trump could walk to a vandalized St John’s Episcopal Church and pose for photos holding a Bible.
“St. 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’s statement added. “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.”