Pope Francis appoints first African American cardinal

The rise of Gregory, who is also the first American named to the College of Cardinals since 2016, comes as debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and racism have extended to the Catholic church, which for centuries excluded African Americans from positions of power.

Written by Elizabeth Dias and Jason Horowitz

Pope Francis on Sunday named Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, a cardinal, elevating the first African American to the Catholic church’s highest governing body, a groundbreaking act in a year when demands for racial justice have consumed the country.

The rise of Gregory, who is also the first American named to the College of Cardinals since 2016, comes as debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and racism have extended to the Catholic church, which for centuries excluded African Americans from positions of power.

Gregory, 72, was one of 13 new cardinal appointments around the world that Francis announced Sunday. A Chicago native, he served for years as the archbishop of Atlanta until last year, when the pontiff made him the first African American archbishop of Washington. He is also a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose vision is considered in line with Francis’ pastoral and welcoming approach in the church.

Only about 250 of the estimated 37,000 Catholic priests in the United States are African American, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only one other diocese beyond the Archdiocese of Washington is currently led by an African American: Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana.

Gregory’s leadership in Washington was a turning point for a pivotal diocese previously led by Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl, two prelates tarnished by the church sexual abuse crisis. Last year, Francis stripped McCarrick first of his title as cardinal and then of his status as priest after accusations of sexual abuse against him that the church deemed credible. Wuerl left the position under a cloud of controversy amid accusations that he had failed to prevent abuse decades earlier in his diocese in Pittsburgh.

The ceremony to install the new cardinals is set for Nov. 28 in Rome. The Vatican offered no details about how it would conduct the consistory, an ornate ceremony in which the pope physically puts red hats onto the heads of the new cardinals, given concerns over the coronavirus and new restrictions announced in Italy on Sunday.

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