The first African-American cardinal is a tribute to the faith of Black Catholics—and a gift to the entire church

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington holds a box containing his pallium as he poses with a well-wisher after Pope Francis' celebration of Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The quiet of my Sunday morning was interrupted on Oct. 25 as my phone exploded with text messages: “First African-American Cardinal!!!” “Wonderful news!” “Fantastic!” “About time!”

Without a doubt, the announcement that Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will be elevated to the College of Cardinals next month is a milestone in U.S. Black Catholic history. Yet perhaps few truly grasp its significance for both Black Catholics and the wider Catholic community.

Every Black Catholic priest, sister, brother, deacon and lay pastoral leader can relate experiences of how our presence in the church was met with wariness, hostility or incredulity (“You’re Catholic?”); our leadership abilities were doubted or dismissed; our vocations were denied or challenged; and our Catholicism was deemed suspect.

Moreover, most Black Catholics resonate all too well with the conclusion reached by our pioneering historian, the late Benedictine monk Cyprian Davis, who at the end of his groundbreaking book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, observed: “The story of African American Catholicism is the story of a people who obstinately clung to a faith that gave them sustenance, even when it did not always make them welcome. Like many others, blacks had to fight for their faith; but their fight was often with members of their own [Catholic] household.”

Every Black Catholic priest, sister, brother, deacon and lay pastoral leader can relate experiences of how our presence in the church was met with wariness, hostility or incredulity.

My own experience as a Black priest illustrates the truth of this conclusion.

I arrive at a suburban parish, whose members are overwhelmingly white, to celebrate Mass for a fellow priest who had suddenly taken sick. I ask the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He hesitates and then asks, with suspicion, why I want to know. I explain the situation to him, thinking my visible Roman collar is already a complete explanation. He further interrogates me: “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” After replying “Yes” and explaining myself again, he responds, “Well, why didn’t Father send us a real priest?”

The only salient factor needed to fully understand this story is my racial identity, the pigment of my skin, my blackness. Too often in the United States and in the Catholic Church, it is the only thing that matters.

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Some readers will dismiss any racial interpretation I attach to this exchange—only one of hundreds accumulated over almost 40 years of ministry. They will say this is only an “isolated incident” or accuse me of “playing the race card” by alleging a nonexistent bias. And that is the problem. Many white Americans refuse to acknowledge my experience. They minimize it, dismiss it or even blame me for it: “What did you do to provoke this reaction?”

The experience of Black Catholics, then, is best conveyed in the haunting words sung by our enslaved forebears. They are words also sung in 1989 to the U.S. bishops by Sister Thea Bowman, who when she died in 1990 was the only Black member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

This is why the elevation of Archbishop Wilton Gregory as the first African-American cardinal of the Catholic Church was met with such joy among Black Catholics.

The reasons for this communal jubilation are two-fold.

First, many of us believe this promotion is a long-overdue recognition of Archbishop Gregory’s significant leadership and contributions to the church. On the pressing issues facing the church—including the scandal of racial injustice, the scourge of sexual abuse and the treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. persons—he has been a voice of foresight, courage and conviction.

As the first Black president of the national bishops’ conference; as the ordinary of the Diocese of Belleville and the Archdiocese of Atlanta; and now, as the soon to be cardinal archbishop of Washington, Cardinal-designate Gregory demonstrates that Black Catholic faith, leadership and talent are important resources not only for the Black Catholic community. They are gifts for the entire church. We rejoice in this acknowledgment of his generous contributions to the church over many decades of dedicated ministry.

Cardinal-designate Gregory demonstrates that Black Catholic faith, leadership and talent are important resources not only for the Black Catholic community. They are gifts for the entire church.

Second, and perhaps more important, the Black Catholic community rejoices because this event is an affirmation of our “uncommon faithfulness.”

As I absorbed the news of Archbishop Gregory’s elevation, I thought of the many Black Catholic pioneers—whom we call “ancestors”—who are not here to witness this milestone. Even though their labors paved the way for it, I thought of Father Cyprian and of Sister Thea but mostly of Sister Antona Ebo, a Franciscan Sister of Mary.

Sister Antona was one of the “Sisters of Selma” who answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s plea for religious leaders to march with him in that 1965 civil rights campaign in Alabama. She was a prominent presence, with her dark face framed by her traditional habit and its black and white veil. She marched and protested at a time when “good nuns” didn’t do that; when most thought their proper place was in a chapel behind convent walls or in a schoolroom grading papers. Sister Antona responded to the criticisms she received by declaring at a national press conference, “I am here because I am [Black], because I am a nun, because I am Catholic and because I want to bear witness.”

[Related: Sister Antona Ebo’s lifelong struggle against white supremacy, inside and outside the Catholic Church]

I tell Sister Antona’s story because she is an exemplary witness of the Black Catholic faith heritage in which Archbishop Gregory stands. For many Black priests of my generation—and Archbishop Gregory is but a few years older than me—Sister Antona was an inspiration, a role model and an unfailing support. She encouraged us to persevere in our vocations when our paths were difficult and lonely. She modeled a Catholic faith that has both a deep love for the church and the courage to challenge it—and the country—to live up to their ideals and values.

Naming Archbishop Gregory as the first African-American cardinal is a tribute to Sister Antona’s faith and to the faith of many lesser-known “ancestors” who shaped the African-American Catholic community in the United States and who nurtured the environment that made priests like myself and Archbishop Gregory possible.

As Black Catholics, we rejoice because we are now visible as never before. We are seen. We matter. What’s more: We rejoice because in the next conclave, there will be someone who looks like us helping to discern who will be the new pope. We rejoice because in the next conclave, there will be the voice of a cardinal who knows our pain of loving and serving a church that often does not love us back.

We rejoice because in the next conclave, there will be the voice of a cardinal who knows our pain of loving and serving a church that often does not love us back.

This leads to the meaning of Cardinal-designate Gregory’s elevation for the wider U.S. church. It is an unmistakable summons for the Catholic Church to make racial justice a major badge of its public identity in this country.

In his essays, Father Cyprian noted how the Vatican historically has been far more solicitous and concerned about the plight of Black people than white U.S. Catholics. That was evidenced this summer when Pope Francis issued a forthright denunciation of the destruction of Black lives, while many white bishops, priests and church leaders issued tepid statements calling for dialogue on both sides, vilified the Black Lives Matter movement, or said nothing at all.

[Related: What Black Lives Matter can teach Catholics about racial justice]

Moreover, the sad reality is that the leadership of most Catholic diocesan offices, seminaries, religious formation programs, schools and universities and media organizations are not only predominantly but overwhelmingly white.

Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is both a “reality check” and a “wake-up call” to the church in the United States. It is a reality check in that it calls upon Catholics to understand that we not only have racial and ethnic diversity in the church; we are a diverse church. It is way past time for the leadership of Catholic institutions to reflect that reality. It is a wake-up call because the church is “browning.” As the generations of the church get younger, its complexion becomes browner. So much so that of Catholics born after 1982, only a minority are non-Hispanic whites.

Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is both a “reality check” and a “wake up call” to the church in the United States.

The first African-American cardinal, then, is an event that summons U.S. Catholicism to consider its future. And that future depends on its ability and willingness to become more honest about its shameful complicity in American racism and become an ally in the struggle for racial justice.

Can U.S. Catholicism rise to this challenge? Is it capable of such racial metanoia? History does not provide much evidence for optimism. Meeting this challenge requires a level of racial honesty for which white Catholics have seldom evidenced the capacity or will.

Yet Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is a sign of hope. It is an affirmation of the power of Black Catholic faith, courage and endurance even in the face of opposition, ridicule and neglect. It also carries our sorely tried hope that one day—someday—our faith community can become what it professes to be: truly “catholic” and universal, a place of welcome for people of every race, language and way of life.

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