Pope names Catholic Church’s first African American cardinal

Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, celebrates an Easter Sunday mass in front of empty pews at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on April 12, as the Basilica remained closed to the public due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

Pope Francis named U.S. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory as the first African American cardinal, elevating a key voice for racial justice to the body that will elect the next head of the Catholic Church.

The appointment was one of 13 new cardinals announced by Francis during Sunday mass at St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

“With a very grateful and humble heart, I thank Pope Francis for this appointment which will allow me to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s Church,” Gregory, who runs the important archdiocese of Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

In recent months Gregory, 72, took a key role in calling for dialog to reduce social tensions in the U.S. after the killing of George Floyd. Before coming to Washington last year, he was the archbishop of Atlanta for over a decade and has worked closely with Black communities throughout his career.

In the early 2000s the U.S. was shaken by a series of sex abuse scandals committed by the clergy against children. Gregory was one of the leading voices demanding the church take a hard-line approach. For decades, the crimes had been swept under the carpet and widespread cases across the globe tarnished the church’s reputation.

That zero-tolerance approach is one embraced by Francis and Gregory’s elevation sends a powerful message to the body that will choose the next leader of 1.3 billion Catholics.

Gregory took over the diocese once run by the disgraced Theodore McCarrick, who was ousted from the church and stripped of his cardinal title for sexual misconduct.

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