Pope Francis appoints first African American cardinal

The elevation of Gregory, the first American named as a cardinal since 2016, comes as demonstrations for racial justice and debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and racism have dramatically shifted the conversation about race in the United States.

In this Sunday Oct. 6, 2019, file photo, Washington D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory greets churchgoers at St. Mathews Cathedral after the annual Red Mass in Washington.
In this Sunday Oct. 6, 2019, file photo, Washington D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory greets churchgoers at St. Mathews Cathedral after the annual Red Mass in Washington. – (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

ROME — Pope Francis said Sunday that Wilton Gregory — the archbishop of Washington and an architect of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church’s zero-tolerance policy in response to its clerical sexual abuse crisis — would be elevated to cardinal, making him the first African American to hold such a position.

The archbishop is one of 13 new cardinals announced Sunday.

The elevation of Gregory, the first American named as a cardinal since 2016, comes as demonstrations for racial justice and debates over how to address the legacy of slavery and racism have dramatically shifted the conversation about race in the United States. In recent months, Gregory has urged the church’s leaders to improve race relations.

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“Ours is the task and the privilege of advancing the goals that were so eloquently expressed 57 years ago by such distinguished voices on that day,” Gregory said in August during a Mass commemorating the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. “Men and women, young and old, people of every racial and ethnic background are needed in this effort. We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony.”

The archbishop of Washington is often elevated to cardinal. Gregory took over a diocese once led by Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl, two prelates tarnished by the church sexual abuse crisis of the early 2000s. 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.

Gregory, who served for years in the diocese of Atlanta, is also a former president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference and is considered in line with Francis’ pastoral and welcoming approach in the church.

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The ceremony to install the new cardinals is set for Nov. 28, and 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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