On Sunday, I rushed downtown from drive-in mass at St. Nicholas in Evanston to bring my mom Communion — and the news.
“Did you hear …” I asked, bursting through the door.
“About Archbishop Gregory? Of course! Isn’t it wonderful?” said mom, already seeing the news on the EWTN Global Catholic Network.
We weren’t the only ones excited about Pope Francis’ elevation of Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., to cardinal — the first African American ever to serve on the highest governing body of the global Catholic church.
My Black Catholic church family was abuzz.
But our celebration of this new entry in Black History books — symbolic affirmation to African American Catholics of our place within a religion that Pew Research Center estimates is subscribed to by only 5 percent of African-American adults — was tempered.
Tempered because we knew why it took so long.
Gregory, the 72-year-old Chicago native who first broke barriers on April 4, 2019, when Pope Francis made him Washington’s first African-American archbishop, could only have broken this barrier in a post-George Floyd era.
America’s reckoning with race has swept the globe.
But the Catholic church — with its own history of racism and centuries-long efforts to move past it, and which — as with all religions — is supposed to set a moral example for its flock — could have broken this barrier long ago.
Like all sectors of American society, it remained mired in the structural racism from which the church too now seeks to break free.
As one of 13 new cardinals to be installed on Nov. 28 in Rome, Gregory — along with Archbishop Antoine Kambanda of Rwanda — will join fewer than 25 Black cardinals from African and Caribbean nations found among some 220 cardinals.
One cannot rise, of course, without first being counted among ranks.
In the U.S., the Catholic church continues to struggle to replenish priestly numbers, in general, much less Black priests. Only 250 of some 37,000 American priests are Black, a large number of them hailing from African and Caribbean nations. Of the nation’s bishops, only five are Black; Gregory, one of only two leading a U.S. diocese.
Black Catholics traditionally have struggled with racism in the pews. Many have left for other religions where cultural nuances are not only welcomed, but integrated. Others solidified their own style of mass at Catholic churches with predominantly Black congregations, like Holy Angels or St. Sabina.
Archdiocese of Chicago Auxilliary Bishop Joseph Perry, currently the episcopal vicar for Vicariate VI, is a preeminent scholar on race issues within the church, entrusted by the late Cardinal Francis George in 2010 with the Herculean task of building a case for sainthood for Augustus Tolton, America’s first African-American priest.
In June 2019, after nearly 20 years of work by Perry and others, Pope Francis put Tolton — a former slave who escaped to freedom as a child during the Civil War, and served in Downstate Quincy, Illinois, then Chicago, before his death at age 43 — on the path to sainthood.
Perry has lectured much on Tolton’s journey to serve within a Catholic church reflecting American society. No Catholic seminary would admit a Black man, so he eventually had to study at the Vatican, returning to battle racism in meeting his calling to minister to the poor.
“It was not America’s nor the church’s finest hour, the 19th century. Slavery … was considered particularly by the southern states … to be the natural condition of Black people. The Civil War, fought over the debate about the morality and feasibility of … brutalized servitude, literally tore the nation apart,” Perry said in a Nov. 20, 2019, lecture at Wheaton College.
“It also eventually cost us the assassination of our 16th president, who tried to mediate the cultural differences between North and South and solve the dogged problem that was left unresolved about human dignity — specifically, the dignity of Black skin. In many ways, our country continues to suffer the residuals of that conflict. It is not solved.”
Indeed, it isn’t, not in any sector of American society, and not in the church.
“His mother must be so proud,” mom said Sunday as we reflected on Gregory’s self-assured but humble demeanor when watching him preside over mass these past 10 months of the pandemic, when the home-bound faithful have attended masses globally, via the Internet.
“The gift of faith is the counterpoint to these heart-troubling times in which we find ourselves. Faith always finds a way,” Gregory had preached in a Mother’s Day homily. “These are heart-troubling times for sure, but with the faith that Christ first recommended to his disciples, we are not afraid to face even these great difficulties. Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
As our nation and the world grapples with the reverberations, after a veil was torn off America’s racism by the killing of Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, there is no question of intent underlying Pope Francis’ move.
We as Black Catholics understand it as much. But many believe the Vatican should have led the battle against racism, not followed.