With testing, strict crowd limits and a dramatic reduction in pomp, Saturday’s ceremony to elevate new cardinals is stranger than any other in recent church history. Because of pandemic-related travel issues, two of the 13 soon-to-be cardinals did not come to Rome and will follow the proceedings remotely. Like Gregory, the others went into quarantine upon arrival.
But the event is also historic, particularly for the U.S. Catholic Church, where Blacks are a minority inside the faith and an even smaller minority among top leadership. Gregory earns the title at a time of fierce racial inequities and division, and he said in a videoconference interview that he hopes to be a “voice for the African American community in the pope’s ear.”
“Among the people that have congratulated me and wished me well, friends and colleagues, I’ve heard this: It’s about time,” Gregory said, referring to a Black American becoming a cardinal. “But it is also an important recognition that the African American, the Black Catholic community, is an important component within the larger, universal church.”
This will be the seventh time that Pope Francis has convened a consistory, as the ceremony is known. The events generally are colorful and full of ritual, and they have played an underappreciated role in Francis’s efforts to remodel the church, as he gradually builds a church leadership that reflects his priorities and styles.
In recent years, he has selected new cardinals interested in migration and critical of nationalism. He has also gone further than his predecessors in appointing non-European cardinals, an acknowledgment of how Catholicism’s power base has tilted toward Africa and South America.
Cardinals are the highest-ranking figures in the church aside from the pontiff, and those younger than 80 will be eligible to vote for Francis’s successor. After Saturday’s ceremony, there will be 128 voting members. Gregory, who turns 73 in December, will be the fourth American named a cardinal by Francis.
Gregory said he received the news of his elevation only after Francis had announced it publicly, in an October Angelus service in St. Peter’s Square. Gregory was told of the decision in a 6:30 a.m. phone call by Cardinal Kevin Farrell.
“I want to be the first to congratulate you,” Gregory remembers Farrell saying.
“I was humbled and grateful and a little tearful all rolled up in one,” Gregory said.
When Francis first announced the new cardinals, it was unclear whether the Vatican would even try to hold an in-person consistory. But Gregory and most of the other new cardinals have decided to come. Gregory tested negative for the coronavirus before leaving Washington, was tested again upon arrival in Italy, and then went into quarantine in the same residence where Francis lives.
“I thought I could do it safely,” Gregory said. “And finally, I think the Holy Father wants a face-to-face consistory.”
Gregory’s promotion to cardinal had been anticipated, dating to his appointment last year as archbishop of Washington — a position that normally comes with a cardinal’s hat. The position is both high-profile and complicated, part religion and part politics, and it has pushed the normally moderate, mild-mannered Gregory to become more outspoken. In June, he criticized President Trump’s visit to a Washington shrine to Pope John Paul II, taking particular aim at the shrine’s leadership, saying the facility was being “egregiously misused and manipulated.”
Days earlier, law enforcement used rubber bullets and tear gas to clear peaceful protesters outside the White House so Trump could stage a controversial photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s, the Episcopal church on Lafayette Square.
Gregory’s next challenge involves working with President-elect Joe Biden, who will be the first Catholic president since John F. Kennedy. Some Catholic traditionalists say that Biden, who regularly attends Mass, should be denied the sacrament of Communion because of his support for abortion rights.
The Catholic News Agency noted that in 2004, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — soon to be Pope Benedict XVI — told U.S. bishops that politicians “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion” laws were committing a grave sin. Such politicians, Ratzinger wrote, should be informed of church teaching and not given Communion.
But individual bishops have greatly differing interpretations, with some arguing that pastors should not withhold Communion as a way to pressure politicians.
Biden last year was denied Communion during a campaign stop in South Carolina. But Gregory noted that the bishop in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Del., Fran Malooly, has not imposed such a restriction. Gregory indicated he would follow in Malooly’s path.
“I don’t envision imposing any restrictions on his participation in the church. I have to challenge him,” Gregory said. “I have to confront him. I have to remind him of what the church believes and teaches. But I have to respect and treat him with the dignity he deserves, not just as president but as a human being.”