Archbishop Wilton Daniel Gregory © Bob Roller (KNA)
The U.S. church, shaken by the abuse scandal, faces a new beginning. Francis could hardly have made that clearer than with the appointment of Wilton Gregory, a black man, as archbishop of Washington.
Now it's official: the first black president in Washington is followed by the first African-American as archbishop in charge of the influential capital diocese. On Thursday, Pope Francis said "Yes he can" and named Wilton Gregory, the previous archbishop of Atlanta, as the new chief shepherd on the Potomac River.
The filling of the empty bishop's chair in Washington is considered the most momentous personnel decision the pope has had to make in the U.S. to date.
Decision 'good for church, city and country'
In doing so, he overrode previously vocal opposition in conservative church circles that wanted to prevent Gregory's appointment. Gregory is considered a disciple of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who died in 1996 and helped him into the office of auxiliary bishop when he was only 36 years old.
Like Bernardin, he sees church teaching as a "seamless garment" – ies such as poverty, the environment, the death penalty and abortion are all contextualized for him. In doing so, Gregory disqualified himself after the conservative turn under Pope John Paul II. for higher orders. Insiders at the time viewed the talented churchman's appointment to Atlanta as a banishment into exile.
"You can bet Cardinal Bernardin is doing a happy dance in heaven," Jesuit Thomas Reese comments on the pope's expected decision. This is "good for the church, the city and the country". Archbishop Gregory can proclaim the Pope's message of justice, reconciliation and peace with gentleness, empathy and social competence like hardly anyone else.
Restore trust in the archdiocese
Above all, many believe the African-American, who grew up in Chicago, can restore the faith of the faithful in the archdiocese, which has been shaken by the abuse crisis. Shockwaves are still reverberating in Washington over the resignation of 78-year-old Cardinal Donald Wuerl over his handling of the case of predecessor Theodore McCarrick, who in 2018 became the church's first cardinal to step down over his abuse.
A different reputation precedes Archbishop Gregory. His time as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004 included the revelations of child abuse in Boston by clerics. Gregory made some enemies in the hierarchy because, as co-author of the new guidelines for dealing with abuse cases, he focused on uncompromising clarity.
Even before the Boston Globe revealed the scandal, he had cracked down as bishop of Belleville in the U.S. state of Illinois, removing five priests from office. When the crisis took on new urgency with the McCarrick case and the Pennsylvania abuse report, Gregory spoke of "a cloud of shame" hovering over the church. People are rightly angry, he said, because their church is "seen as a haven for criminal behavior".
Archbishop of Washington also has political influence
Terry McKiernan of the organization BishopAccountability praised Gregory as someone who could lead with credibility. "I have a good impression of him."While Gregory's return from 14 years of "exile" in Atlanta to the spotlight of the U.S. church is seen by the pope's supporters as strengthening his course, conservative Catholics fear the worst. The arch-conservative blog "The Church Militant" criticizes the appointment of a bishop "with a long history of pro-homosexual initiatives".
With about 650.000 Catholics in 139 parishes in the District of Columbia and suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, the Archdiocese of Washington is one of the most prosperous in the country. It is growing while others are shrinking. Washington is the seat of the bishops' conference, the "Catholic University" and the "National Shrine".
Above all, the Archbishop of Washington also has political influence. He sets the political tone like no other shepherd in the U.S. With Gregory, the Catholic Church in the U.S. may sound more like Francis. If he were to become a cardinal, he would not only be the first African-American church leader in Washington, but also the first black cardinal in the United States.
By Thomas Spang