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Cardinal Gregory’s Strong Ties to His First Parish

New Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington attends a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis with new cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 29, 2020. (Photo: CNS/Gregorio Borgia, Reuters pool)

NEW YORK — When Cardinal Wilton Gregory got his red hat from Pope Francis on Saturday, Nov.28 to become the first Black American cardinal, a group of supporters from a small parish in Glenview, Illinois, tuned in. 

Cardinal Gregory started his priestly work as an associate pastor at the city’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help church decades ago, but its pastor Father Jerry Boland said his ties to the parish remain strong. 

“I bet we would have had 50 or 60 people that would have gone to Rome if they could’ve gone for the consistory, and many, many, many more would’ve loved to go,” Father Boland said. “Here in the parish, he threw himself into all areas of parish life. He made friends here for life.” 

Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the only parish Cardinal Gregory experienced. From there he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983. He was then appointed as the archbishop of Atlanta by Pope John Paul II  in 2004, and the archbishop of Washington by Pope Francis in 2019. 

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago congratulated Cardinal Gregory over social media this past weekend. He said Cardinal Gregory, a Chicago native, makes the diocese proud. He talked about the important qualities Cardinal Gregory brings to the table after his appointment in October. 

“While we take particular pride in this recognition of a dedicated priest, whom we are proud to claim as our own we are also moved that Pope Francis chose this compassionate thoughtful pastor when our nation and world are in desperate need of healing and courageous leadership,” Cardinal Cupich said. 

These are qualities Father Boland mentioned as well. Father Boland was a student of Cardinal Gregory’s at the Mundelein Seminary in Illinois and they have remained friends since. He describes the new cardinal as a very approachable, real person that cares about the people he encounters. 

“When you’re with him he’s talking to you. He remembers, he cares about what’s going on in your life and we just so desperately need people in leadership positions with those qualities right now,” Father Boland said. 

In addition, he noted that Cardinal Gregory has always risen to the moment. He points to Cardinal Gregory’s handling of the sex abuse scandal in the diocese of Belleville, Illinois in the mid 1990’s as a bishop. And how that influenced him to take decisive action when dealing with the national sex abuse scandal as president of the United States Confernce of Catholic Bishops, a role he held from 2001-2004. 

Father Boland also acknowledged the impact Cardinal Gregory’s had as a Black American in the episcopacy. 

“Thinking this was an all white suburban community and most people had never experienced a black priest before and they were just really impacted by his ministry,” Father Boland said. “Then the impact he had on the African American church in Chicago to finally have a Black bishop serving here and in Atlanta having such a dynamic bishop must’ve been something.” 

Cardinal Gregory has recently spoken on race, president-elect Joe Biden and the Holy See’s report from earlier this month on how ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose through the ranks of the American Catholic Church despite the sexual misconduct and abuse allegations against him. 

In an interview with The Tablet last week, he said it’s important for the Church to have a dialogue with the Biden administration on issues of both agreement and conflict to move forward productively over the next four years. In the same interview, he also talked about race in the country since the killing of George Floyd. 

“This is not one of those issues that was important on Monday and forgotten by Thursday,” Cardinal Gregory said. “It is something that has captured, I hope, the attention of society, and I hope it continues in that vein, because it’s going to take a long time, an honest dialogue, and sincere conversation, speaking and listening, so that we understand one another more effectively, and that involves the church as well.” 

In a statement after the MCarrick report he was clear that McCarrick rose in the episcopacy  “through failures of competence, communication and culture” from Catholic leaders.

Father Boland said all the statements and actions Cardinal Gregory has taken is just who he is. 

“He has always risen to the moment. I guess that’s why I’m so blessed to know him. He’s a priest and a bishop who’s really made a difference,” he said. 

“He was at an age where he had retirement on the horizon and then he was asked by the Holy Father to take on the diocese of Washington D.C. and that’s just the way he is wired. If the Lord is calling me I’m going.”

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