Gregory, Wilton D 1947–
Wilton D. Gregory 1947–
In 2002 Bishop Wilton D. Gregory became the first African–American face of Roman Catholic leadership in the United States. The elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gave “fresh voice” to the Catholic Church’s racial and ethnic diversity, according to USA Today. Aside from setting a symbolic precedent in the mostly white church hierarchy, Gregory took on one of the greatest crisis of the Catholic Church in recent history. In 2002 hundreds of bungled sexual abuse cases surfaced, forcing Gregory and the church to accept culpability for the crimes and try to restore its credibility. The easygoing, telegenic bishop is known as a “consensus builder and projects a confident, good–humored demeanor behind a microphone, whether presiding at a meeting or answering reporters’ questions,” according to Gustav Niebuhr in the New York Times.
Gregory was born December 7, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up on the city’s dicey South Side. He is the eldest of three children and only son of Wilton D. Gregory Sr., a computer technician, and Ethel (Duncan), who were Christians but not Catholic. Gregory decided to become a priest at age nine, and was baptized a Catholic at age eleven, when his parents enrolled him and his two sisters in St. Carthage Grammar School, a Catholic school, for fear they would not be well educated in the local public schools. It was 1958 and John XXIII had just been elected pope, Archbishop Albert Meyer of Milwaukee was appointed archbishop of Chicago the next year, and plans got underway for the Second Vatican Council the year after that. “It was a very exciting time,” Gregory said in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter. “Every year something great was happening in the Catholic Church.”
Gregory’s religious education continued at Quigley Preparatory, a seminary high school, and at Niles College of Loyola University, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969. He earned his Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1971 from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, where he earned his Master of Divinity in 1973, and a Master of Sacred Theology in 1974. He received his Doctorate in Sacred Liturgy in 1980 from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute (Sant’ Anselmo) in Rome, Italy. He was ordained as a priest
At a Glance…
Born December 7, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois; Son of Ethel (Duncan) and Wilton D. Gregory Sr. Education: Niles College of Loyola University, Bachelor of Arts 1969; St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Bachelor of Sacred Theology, 1971, Master of Divinity, 1973, Master of Sacred Theology, 1974; Pontifical Liturgical Institute (Sant’ Anselmo), Rome, Italy, Doctorate in Sacred Liturgy, 1980.
Career: St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, teacher; Titular Bishop of Oliva; Archdiocese of Chicago, auxiliary bishop 1983–93; Bishop of Belleville, 1993–; vice president, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998–01, president, 2001—.
Memberships: Catholic Theological Society of America, North American Academy of Liturgy, Midwestern Association of Spiritual Directors; member of U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, Bishops Commission on the Liturgy, chair, 1990–93, education, 1993, doctrine, 1994; board of trustees, Archdiocese of Chicago Seminaries; Catholic Theological Society of America, 1980; North American Academy of Liturgy, 1981; Midwestern Association of Spiritual Directors, 1981.
Addresses: Office— Bishop of Belleville, 222 South Third Street, Belleville, IL 62220–1985.
on May 9, 1973, and served the neighborhood where he grew up. Gregory served as an associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Glenview, Illinois, a teacher at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, and a Master of Ceremonies to Illinois Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernadin.
He became the youngest bishop in America in 1983 at age 35, and served ten years as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, whom he considered a mentor. As chairman of the bishops’ committee on liturgy from 1991–93, Gregory championed a special rite for African Americans, one that would better reflect black culture. He has published several articles on the topic and also has written extensively on the death penalty, euthanasia, and physician–assisted suicide. He is also a columnist for the publication What I Have Seen and Heard and for the diocesan newspaper The Messenger. It was in this position as chairman on the liturgy committee that Gregory began to “develop a broader public profile,” according to the Black Collegian online. He spearheaded such controversial campaigns as changing holy days of obligation, adopting an English translation of the sacramentary, and approving a list of passages for children’s Masses.
In 1994 the bishop first experienced on a small scale the impact of sex scandals within the church that he would later face on a national level. He was appointed the Seventh Bishop of Belleville to lead the 28–county, southern Illinois diocese that was plagued by sexual scandal. Eleven Belleville priests had been investigated for sexual misconduct in two years. Gregory instituted mandatory background checks for all candidates for the priesthood and restored calm to the diocese. He also was lauded for his “handling of the crisis and his sensitivity to the victims, and for restoring the reputation of the diocese,” wrote Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post.
In 1998 Gregory was elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a post that typically leads to the presidency of the group. He also served as chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Personnel and the Third Millennium/Jubilee Year 2000 committee from 1998–2001. Other appointments include posts on the Committee on Doctrine and the U.S. Catholic Conference Committee on International Policy.
One of only 13 African–American bishops, Gregory was elected the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the membership group for the church’s 400 American bishops, in 2002. He replaced outgoing President Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of the Galveston–Houston diocese with a resounding 75 percent of the vote. Though there are an estimated two to three million African Americans of the 62 million Catholics in the United States, there are only a few hundred African–American priests. The bishop’s election, wrote Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post, “could quiet concern among black American Catholics who have questioned their place in the church.” Despite statements from the Catholic Church condemning racism, many African–American Catholics felt “the church’s mostly white hierarchy did not reflect those good intentions,” Rosin continued. “Every time the cameras pan the face of the National Conference over the next three years it will be a multiracial face, an inclusive face,” Rosin quoted Gregory as saying. “It’s a key symbolic stature.” In a news conference, Gregory said that he regarded his election as “an expression of the love of the Catholic Church for people of color,” according to the New York Times.
Gregory, in his three–year term as president, would serve as a spokesman for the church to Catholics, the public, and the Vatican. He is expected to produce research and position papers on church policies and the church’s position on such national issues as abortion, terrorism, immigration, and education. With the United States at war in Afghanistan and possibly beyond, Gregory also had to speak for the bishops on waging war, working with the United Nations, caring for refugees, and peacemaking. “The broad spectrum of issues that I will have to address goes well beyond the issues that are often identified as African–American concerns,” Gregory is quoted as saying at the Black Collegian online. “For example, when I speak out in support of justice for the immigrant community, be they Hispanic or Asian or South Pacific or European, I speak as a Catholic bishop, but I also speak as an African American and we [all] have a stake in those concerns.”
When he took the post of president, Gregory said in interviews that his top goal was to reach out to “lukewarm Catholics”—those who had drifted from the church—and re–engage them with the Catholic faith. No mention was made of the impending national sex scandal that would rock the Catholic Church and put Gregory’s leadership skills to the test. Decades of hidden and mishandled abuse cases against pedophile priests began to bubble up across the United States in 2002. More than 80 priests were implicated in the Boston area alone, and settlements cost the church hundreds of millions of dollars. “We apologize and regret the pain of all of those who have been affected by this horror more than these words can convey,” Gregory said in a formal address to the United States, according to the Christian Century.
Gregory traveled to the Vatican in April of 2002 to “test the waters” he said in an interview with Time, as no policies regarding abuse can be instituted without Vatican support. He came away from the visit feeling that Pope John Paul II agreed: “There is no place in the clergy or religious life for those who harm children,” he continued in Time. “That’s the defining law.” The Conference of Catholic Bishops met that June to decide both how the church would handle the cases at hand and those that arose in the future. They also had to find a way to restore the church’s credibility and Catholics’ faith in the church. “We must convince our people that first of all we are terribly open and contrite,” he told Time. “And we have a firm resolve to mend our ways. If we don’t re–establish our credibility, we will lose our ability to speak about the great moral challenges we face as human beings.” He added that the relationship between the clergy and parishioners had come undone, likely as the result of “the power thing. The clerical and hierarchal community began to enjoy power and prestige more than we should.”
Post–presidency, it looked likely that Gregory would continue his ascendancy in the leadership of the church. “He’s very smart, very personable. He knows how to build coalitions and how to count votes, even on a hot seat like the liturgy committee. He’s the kind of man who may be the first black cardinal from the [United States] some day,” Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, told USA Today.
America, April 13, 1991, p. 411.
Catholic Insight, January–February 2002, p. 28.
Christian Century, February 27, 2002, p. 13.
National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001, p. 7.
New York Times, November 14, 2001, p. A14.
Time, June 17, 2002, p. 58.
USA Today, November 14, 2001, p. D1O.
Washington Post, November 18, 1998, p. A2.
Black Collegian Online, http://www.black-collegian.com/issues/2ndsem02/bishopwilton2002-2nd.shtml (August 20, 2002).
Diocese of Belleville, IL, http://www.diobelle.org (August 20, 2002).
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops online, http://www.usccb.org/bishops/presidentialaddress.htm (August 20, 2002).
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