Pope Francis has confirmed 13 new cardinals to the highest rank of the Catholic Church hierarchy, including Wilton Gregory, the first African American to hold the position.
In a ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Saturday, which was scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pope gave the 13 men their ring and traditional red hat, known as a biretta.
Before this event, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, has been held up for the past week in a Vatican guesthouse, receiving meals at his door.
On Saturday afternoon preceding the ceremony it was said that Gregory will step out of his quarters and into history. During the installation ceremony in Rome, Gregory has become the first African American cardinal in Catholic history.
Gregory will be one of 13 men and the only American elevated to the College of Cardinals during Saturday’s ceremony. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, two bishops will not be in Rome, another first in church history, according to Vatican News.
Gregory, 72, already the highest-ranking African-American Catholic in US history said this week that he has been praying, writing homilies and letters to well-wishers, and reflecting on his new role.
“It’s been a time to thank God for this unique moment in my life and in the life of the church in the United States,” Gregory said. “I hope it’s a sign to the African American community that the Catholic Church has a great reverence, respect and esteem for the people, for my people of colour.”
As a Cardinal, Gregory will be one of the Pope’s closest advisors and one of only 120 or so men who will elect the next pontiff. Before Francis chose Gregory as Archbishop of Washington last year, he also served as a bishop in Belleville, Illinois, and in Atlanta. He was born in Chicago to parents who were not Catholic, but converted to Catholicism while attending a parochial school.
He passed over several archbishops who would traditionally become cardinals to promote Gregory. He also moved Augustine Tolton, who died in 1897 after becoming the first African American priest, one step closer to sainthood.
Francis has condemned the “tragic death of” George Floyd, the Black man who was killed by police in Minnesota last May, and supported an American bishop who knelt in prayer during a Black Lives Matter protest.
.”You’ll never find such people protesting the death of George Floyd, or joining a demonstration because there are shanty towns where children lack water or education, or because there are whole families who have lost their income,” Francis said in the book, called “Let Us Dream.”
“On such matters they would never protest,” the Pope continued. “They are incapable of moving outside their own little world of interests.”
Anthea Butler, a scholar of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, said Francis’ upbringing in Argentina, where he lived most of his life, gave him a window into racial attitudes in the Americas.
“He is very aware of racial injustices and white supremacy,” Butler said, “and it’s not just realizing what’s going on here and how things have escalated. You can’t live in Latin America and not see the history of race and slavery.”
Butler, who is African American, said she would have been in Rome for Gregory’s installation if not for the pandemic.
“For African American Catholics this is huge,” she said. “We have been waiting a long time for a cardinal, and it’s a recognition of the sacrifices that have been made by people of African descent in the Catholic Church.”