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JesuiticalMarch 28, 2024
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, speaks during a May 2023 interview with the Catholic Standard and El Pregonero newspapers. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, Catholic Standard)

What is the role of the Catholic Church in a polarized world? That’s the question Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless brought to Cardinal Wilton Gregory during a recent live recording of the “Jesuitical” podcast. The event was part of the 2024 Catholic Partnership Summit, organized by Leadership Roundtable and The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. Cardinal Gregory is the archbishop of Washington, D.C., which he called “the epicenter of division,” and was a participant in the first session of the Synod on Synodality in Rome last October. He spoke about his experience of synodality, the dangers of social media and the role of young people in overcoming divisions in our church and country.

The following excerpt of their conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can get early access to the entire interview by becoming a member of Jesuitical’s Patreon community.

Ashley McKinless: When Pope Francis first mentioned synodality as a priority, I think a lot of us thought, “What does that mean?” Was synodality a term that you understood and was it a way that you experienced the church before the Synod on Synodality?

Cardinal Gregory: Whenever I have experienced the church being in true dialogue and open conversation, I experience synodality. I didn’t refer to it as that, but wherever the church gathers, where everyone feels respected and has an opportunity to open their hearts, that’s synodality. But the meeting we had in October, which we will have again this coming October, was the entire church in microcosm—men and women, young and old, clergy and religious. We sat at those tables, and we got to know each other and speak to each other about things that were important to us as Catholics.

One of the first things we did at our table was ask: What do you want to be called? So bishops and cardinals introduced themselves: “Well, I’m Wilton.” The best one was Archbishop Timothy Costello, the archbishop of Perth. He said, “Well, my name is Timothy Patrick, but don’t call me Timothy Patrick because that’s the name that my parents used when I was really in trouble.” So he was Tim. And it broke the ice. It allowed us to exchange and to engage and to disagree—without destroying the other person’s humanity.

Zac Davis: What was the local process like here in D.C.? What were you hearing from people? What was it like trying to reach out to people who maybe aren’t always super engaged in the church?

CG: People saw their bishops in a different moment. The auxiliary bishops went around and participated in some of the meetings, and I did the final one. And people told us a couple of things. They said, “We want to know our bishops, and not just when you come for confirmation or a parish jubilee.” There was a desire that came from those meetings to have a greater affinity between the people of God and their bishops, and to talk about tough things.

There were some very challenging moments in those meetings. We talked about the church’s attitude toward marriage, gender identity, the traditional Mass. Folks put it out on the table and they listened. There were times when people started talking about their experience with the church, and it drove them to tears. But I’m glad they had the opportunity to open their hearts in front of me and in front of the other bishops. Many of them carried sorrows of things that had happened to them in the church that they finally got to put on the table.

AM: Zac and I were able to go to Rome to cover the synod as journalists, and one thing we picked up on is that bishops from different parts of the world had different degrees of familiarity with these kinds of conversations. It sounds like you were used to having these conversations and listening. What about this process has challenged you to go beyond that? What more is being asked of you in terms of creating a listening church?

CG: In the Archdiocese of Washington, the epicenter of division, we have to learn how to focus on the issue and not the person. It seems to me that one of the reasons we’re in such a divisive stance is that we’ve shifted our focus, in many cases, from questions of opinion to personal attack. In every political arena that I’ve ever read about, especially if it’s a time of election, politicians have always had differing attitudes and opinions. But social media has given differences an energy and a power that I don’t think they’ve ever had before.

When Abraham Lincoln or some of these other great American political figures were running for election, there were people that threw lobs against them. But they could do that with 5,000 leaflets or pamphlets, which may or may not have been read. Now with social media, whatever was suggested on Monday morning—including insulting things about people or their lives or their families—is broadcast to every place. And it has infected our church. In the theological world, there’s been lots of disagreement. I think Aquinas and Bonaventure didn’t see eye to eye, and they may still be arguing in the heavenly kingdom. But right now, [difference] has degenerated into personal attack.

ZD: As archbishop of Washington, what advice do you have for young people or anyone who feels checked out of politics or deeply distrustful of it?

CG: I have a great deal of hope that our young people will be able to guide us through this. In the ’50s and ’60s, the young people who were confronted with the civil rights movement—that was a lot of pressure. And I think every generation inherits the problems and the possibilities that belong to a given age. For example, in the Archdiocese of Washington, our Catholic Charities outreach is the largest social service vehicle outside of the government. We have a ton of young adults who work constantly with the social service arm of Catholic Charities. [But] we can’t get them to [come to] Mass. We can get them to feed the poor, to help the poor find housing, to help immigrants find legal assistance, but we can’t get [young people] to the Lord’s table.

And let’s face it, Catholicism needs both lungs. Pope John Paul II used to talk about breathing with two lungs from the Eastern and Western traditions of the church. Our social justice [activities] and our faith doctrine have to be wedded to each other [too]. One of the difficulties that the Covid [pandemic] presented was that it added to this attitude that you can go to church by watching it on social media. You can podcast your Mass! But Catholicism is a physical experience. You need the smells and bells. You need to look down the pew and see the woman that lives two blocks away, and you need to hear the music.

We can’t be Catholics just visually; we have to be Catholics next to each other. I’ve gotta break bread with you.

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