When Pope Francis appointed Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to become the first African American to lead the Archdiocese of Washington in 2019, many 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 were inducted in the College of Cardinals while leading the Washington archdiocese in the 20th and 21st centuries. Pope Francis’ demonstrated commitment to more equitable representation 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. Church history has taught me to be radical in my prayers but reserved in my expectations.
Yet, on Nov. 28, via livestream, I watched Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s first leader from Latin America, elevate Wilton Gregory, a devout Black Catholic man from the South Side of Chicago to the College of Cardinals. And, I proudly said with all the Church’s angels and saints: Amen.
To be sure, the appointment of Cardinal Gregory is first and foremost a recognition and celebration of his record of moral and servant leadership in the U.S. Church.
A champion 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.
Cardinal Gregory’s appointment also is significant to the nation’s longstanding and long-denied Black Catholic community.
The roots of the nation’s sins of slavery and racism are connected to the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565. The slavery and segregation that, for the next four centuries, plagued the land area that became the United States were practiced by the first settlers here, including those who were Catholic.
Race has mattered in the modern Catholic Church since the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade and Europe’s colonization of the Americas and Africa. One cannot accurately tell the story of the Black Catholic community without acknowledging the African roots of the U.S. Church and reckoning with American Catholics’ involvement in 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 from the earliest days of the Church to the present day.
This tradition has always understood that Black lives matter and that Black history is Catholic history.
Cardinal Gregory’s elevation took place during this 30th anniversary of Black Catholic History Month. U.S. Black Catholics 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.”