Why the nation’s first Black cardinal matters

Pope Francis places the red biretta on new Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington during a consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

When Pope Francis appointed Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to become the first African American to lead the Archdiocese of Washington in 2019, many observers considered it a foregone conclusion that the Catholic Church would soon have its first Black cardinal from the United States.

Five of Cardinal Gregory’s six immediate predecessors had ascended into the highest-ranking body of Church officials while leading the powerful and historically significant Washington archdiocese in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Pope Francis’ demonstrated commitment to more equitable representation in the College of Cardinals — including his historic appointments of the first Black cardinals from Haiti and Saint Lucia in 2014 — raised the chances of Cardinal Gregory’s selection even higher.

However, I, like many other Black Catholics in the United States, still held my breath.

More than anything, Church history has taught me to be radical in my prayers but reserved in my expectations.

Yet, on Nov. 28, via livestream, I witnessed a miracle. Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s first leader from Latin America, formally elevated Wilton Gregory, a devout Black Catholic man from the South Side of Chicago who currently leads a former seat of power of the U.S. Church’s slaveholding elite, to the College of Cardinals as a potential choice to one day lead the world’s largest Christian denomination. And, I proudly said with all the Church’s angels and saints: Amen.

I say amen because I, as a historian of the Catholic experience, know well all that it has taken to get the Church to this monumental milestone.

I also shout alleluia because I understand exactly why the nation’s Black sisters — the first representatives of the African American community to embrace religious life — priests and lay members joyously but also tearfully state that they never thought this day would come.

To be sure, Pope Francis’ appointment of Cardinal Gregory is first and foremost a recognition and celebration of the pioneering Black prelate’s long and distinguished record of moral and servant leadership in the white-dominated and former slaveholding U.S. Church.

An unyielding champion of racial equality and advocate for the Church’s marginalized, neglected and abused, he has consistently demonstrated a commitment to the common good and all humanity without distinction. This is why news of his elevation heartened a large cross section of the U.S. Catholic community.

Cardinal Gregory’s appointment also is uniquely significant to the nation’s longstanding and long denied Black Catholic community. In fact, we Black faithful know that Cardinal Gregory’s elevation is even more significant than the 2008 election of the nation’s first Black president.

After all, the roots of the nation’s original sins of slavery and racism do not lie in colonial Virginia in 1619 despite popular contention. Instead, those roots lie in the Spanish Catholic colony of St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, where the Church inaugurated over four centuries of slavery and segregation in the land area that became the United States.

While some might feel inclined to argue that Cardinal Gregory’s African American heritage should not matter in this conversation, the fact remains that race has mattered in the modern Roman Catholic Church since the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade and Europe’s violent colonization of the Americas and Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Indeed, one cannot accurately tell the story of the Black Catholic community that seeded Cardinal Gregory’s rise without acknowledging the foundational African roots of the U.S. Church and reckoning with the Church’s long and largely unreconciled histories of colonialism, slavery, segregation and exclusion in the Americas.

Yet, the story of Black Catholics in the United States is not all pain and suffering. Cardinal Gregory is also the product of a longstanding tradition of Catholicism that has fought against racism and white supremacy at every turn from the earliest days of the Church to the present day.

It is a tradition that has always understood that Black lives matter and that Black history in the United States and wider world is, and always has been, Catholic history.

That Cardinal Gregory’s formal elevation took place during this 30th anniversary of Black Catholic History Month is simply icing on the cake for U.S. Black Catholics, who have long fought to institutionalize the history and rich heritage of Black Catholics in the Church.

It is a history that has given rise to millions of Black faithful in the United States, including Mother Mary Lange and Sister Thea Bowman, Sister Henriette Delille and Father Augustus Tolton, Bishop Harold Perry and Sister Teresita Weind, holy women and men who made a way out of no way and blazed Cardinal Gregory’s path to the Vatican.

While the individual and structural barriers of anti-Black racism persist in our society and continue to circumscribe the moral leadership of our Church, Cardinal Gregory’s very presence in the College of Cardinals marks an important new beginning.

Cardinal Gregory is a powerful reminder of where the Catholic Church has been and where we must go if racial justice, reconciliation and peace are ever to be achieved: forward ever and backward never.

And for that alone, let the Church say amen.

Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University. She is completing her first book, “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.” This is the first of her new Catholic News Service column, “The Griot’s Cross,” where she intends to honor the legacy of Sister Thea Bowman by telling “true truths” about the Catholic Church and its longstanding Black faithful. Follow her on Twitter at @Blknunhistorian.

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