Wilton Gregory was just a little boy when he first entered the doors of St. Carthage Grammar School on the South Side of Chicago in 1958. The school had just recently decided to begin to admit Black children, a decision precipitated by the flight of white families to the suburbs.
In a matter of weeks, young Wilton felt called to become a priest and he converted to Catholicism.
In October 2020, after decades of service rising through the ranks as a priest, bishop, and archbishop, Gregory was selected by Pope Francis to become the first Black American to serve as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church. On Nov. 28 he will officially become one of 216 men selected to lead 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world.
It takes moxie to move from the margins to the center of power, and Gregory has it. Here’s how:
Moxie makes it right.
In the early 2000s, the Catholic church in the United States was reeling from scandal. The Church had long covered up priests’ sexual abuse of children, failing to report the abuse to civil authorities or care for the abused, and moving offending priests around in an effort to hide the scandal.
Gregory would have none of that. As the head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, he pushed to make things right.
“He was offended. He became Catholic as a young man and felt this was a horrific abuse of power and trust. And so when others were saying, don’t go so far; don’t go so fast, he simply insisted that there was no place in the Church for people who abuse children, that clergy alone could not judge these cases,” John Carr of Georgetown University told NPR in an interview last year. “And so what came was the Dallas Charter, which has zero tolerance for abuse, lay people involved in making these judgments and frankly a lot of education and awareness building within the Church.”
There’s still much work to do in the American Church and around the world, and Gregory may just be the man to take it on.
Moxie is humble.
Gregory’s judgment is far from infallible, however. He made a significant stumble when he went forward with plans to construct a new $2.2 million home for himself in the tony Buckhead section of Atlanta, where he served as archbishop.
The mansion was to be used as a conference and reception center, but the optics were just bad. Diocese across the country had been selling off mansions that had previously been occupied by clergy in more opulent times, and Pope Francis had just issued guidance that church leaders should reconsider lavish homes.
When the controversy flared, Gregory listened to parishioners, sold the mansion, and moved into far less pricey digs. Gregory expressed regret over the project, and said he’d learned important lessons from the experience.
“I stand recommitted by your confidence to continue to apply the lessons learned over the past twelve months to my life and ministry in our Archdiocese of Atlanta. I have been challenged in new ways by an increased level of candor and honesty in conversations with my staff and consultative groups, a frankness that — had I more actively sought and recognized it — might have prevented the situation” Gregory said in a letter to the diocese.
Gregory made a mistake, but he admitted it and did his best to make it right. That takes moxie.
Moxie speaks out.
Last summer President Donald Trump and his wife Melania made a visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Typically, a visit from a sitting U.S. President would be cause for celebration. But this time, the archdiocese was in no mood to celebrate.
The nation had been rocked for weeks by protests in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. In DC protestors gathered in the park just outside the gates of the White House to voice their displeasure with systemic racism.
The evening before the Trumps’ visit to the JPII shrine, the president had protestors cleared from the park by law enforcement officials wielding tear gas and billy clubs. The president then strode across the park to the front of a church, where he held a Bible aloft and posed for photos.
Gregory was appalled that just hours after using violence against Americans exercising their free speech so he could stage a photo op Trump would be welcomed to a Catholic shrine.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree,” he said in a statement at the time.
It takes moxie to stand up to Trump, especially for a Catholic leader, considering that 50 percent of Catholic voters cast their vote for Trump.
If I ever get the opportunity to sit down with Cardinal Gregory, what would you like me to ask?
Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilton_Daniel_Gregory