This morning, my local ordinary, Washington’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory, was named by Pope Francis as one of 13 new cardinals who will be elevated during a November 28 consistory in Rome. Archbishop Gregory has served the Church for many years as a priest, bishop, and archbishop. He came to Washington last year to help heal our local Church following the revelations that our former archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, had a long history as a sexual abuser and was moved to our archdiocese and promoted to cardinal by Pope John Paul II, despite his predatory behavior being well-known in the hierarchy.
Today, however, offers hope for another type of healing in our Church. This is a historic appointment, not only because of Gregory’s tremendous history as a faithful shepherd, but because he will become the first Black cardinal in the history of the US Church in a year filled with racial tension and conflict. But this year has also seen many Catholics begin to wake up and realize the depth to which deep-seated racism and eurocentrism have corrupted our Church and our ability to share the Gospel.
Like many other Black Catholics, Archbishop Gregory is a convert to the faith. In 1958, as a non-Catholic sixth grader at a Catholic school in Chicago, he asked his parents if he could become Catholic. When they agreed, no one could have imagined that this young boy would someday become the first African American “Prince of the Church.”
At his installation Mass as Archbishop of Washington last year, Archbishop Gregory spoke about what it means for him to serve the Church as a bishop in communion with the pope:
“I made a solemn promise to live in union with and in obedience to the one who occupies the Chair of Peter. I happily, readily, resolutely renew that promise today as I accept the appointment of Pope Francis to the extraordinary See of Washington.
Over the years I have come to know personally and to admire deeply the three men who have taken Peter’s place within the Church during my life as a bishop. These sentiments of affection and loyalty are borne of first-hand experience, fostered by the warmth and wisdom of these three pontiffs, each distinct yet bound together by faith and a genuine love for Christ’s Church – each bearing unique gifts that have enriched us as a universal Catholic family.
Pope Francis has now summoned the Church – and by that I mean all the baptized – to leave our comfortable confines and to encounter and welcome the poor, the marginalized, and the neglected, and to place them at the very heart of Christ’s Church. Beginning today, that is my task here in the Archdiocese of Washington. I thank the Holy Father for that righteous challenge – more an opportunity – and I pledge my loyalty, respect, and fraternal affection to him once again. I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with him as he governs and guides Jesus’ Church as a man of uncompromising faith and intractable joy.”
Despite this momentous and joyous news, the fact remains that there are still deep wounds of racism in our Church that must be healed. For example, earlier this year, reactionary internet commentator Michael Voris described Archbishop Gregory using a crude and racist name. After an outcry, he offered a half-hearted apology, but suffered no repercussions. In another incident, Gloria Purvis—one of the few Black women on Catholic radio in the US—had her daily “Morning Glory” program dropped from the Guadalupe Radio Network (the largest network of EWTN-affiliated radio stations in the country) due to a supposed “spirit of contention” among the hosts in their discussions about race in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. This injustice was multiplied when, on October 5, the same radio network gave a sympathetic platform to Fr. Robert Altman, an outspoken and politically-charged priest who delivered what Patheos blogger Rebecca Hamilton accurately called “the most viciously racist and anti-life sermon I have ever heard by any clergy of any denomination.” Here’s how she described it:
Father Altman claimed in his homily that he had done “research” on lynchings. He said that his “research” indicated that lynchings were caused by “homicides and rapes.” He taught from the pulpit that lynchings were “capital punishment,” then added “carried out by a mob, which is never good,” as a sop.
In spite of these and many more challenges, numerous Black Catholics in the US are making their voices heard. In different ways, they are working to educate the Church about the ongoing evil of racism in our society, to lift up the indispensable voices of Black Catholics, and to unify around and promote the rich, profound, and authentically Catholic cultural expressions of the faith in the Black community.
One of these voices is our own Nate Tinner-Williams, who has undertaken several projects in digital media to help promote the voice of Black Catholics. One of these projects involves a resource that many people around the world use every day. He has created and written new Wikipedia pages for Black Catholicism and the Black Catholic Movement. This may seem like an unusual undertaking, but he explained to me why he created these pages:
I would guess that most Americans who use the internet also read Wikipedia. It is the storehouse of the internet’s crowd-sourced information. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, and I’ve come to find it quite useful myself.
I was surprised to discover that the 3 million members of Black Catholicism had no Wikipedia article explaining Black Catholic history, identity, or what it means to be a Black Catholic.
We are over 60 years into the phase of Black Catholicism where anyone even slightly in-the-know can give a rough explanation of what makes it distinct from the average American Catholic experience. Yet if someone innocently Googled the topic—while they would certainly find a wealth of useful results—they would not get a Wikipedia article summing everything up in one place.
When I asked him how the idea came to him, he told me:
“I am a Wikipedian. I read the articles, edit the articles, interact with other editors—the whole shebang. I realized it was silly (because it is) that no article on Black Catholicism existed, and I decided to remedy this by creating the article myself. I also created one for the Black Catholic Movement, the decades-long revolution that made Black Catholicism what it is today.
I don’t plan to stop working on this project anytime soon (let the edit wars begin!) and welcome all available editors to join the fray. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
But that’s not all. Nate is also working with a talented group of Black Catholic writers and scholars to launch a publication called Black Catholic Messenger, which will be a news and opinion site for Black Catholics. Check out their Facebook page, where you can donate to help build it up. It also links to a Patreon page.
There are many, many encouraging things happening in the Black Catholic world. But as Nate said, We’ve got a lot of work to do. Please pray for the success of these initiatives, new and old.
This goes for Cardinal-designate Gregory as well. There are many eyes on him and a lot of weight on his shoulders. We must pray for him as he takes on this new responsibility, so that he may continue to lead people to Christ and serve the Church prayerfully and selflessly.
Image: Archdiocese of Washington