CHICAGO - Chicago’s Catholic community is celebrating the elevation of one of their own.
On Sunday, Pope Francis announced Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. would become the first African-American Cardinal in the United States. Gregory’s long journey to the top of the Catholic Church began right here in Chicago.
“I’m extremely excited. I’ve known Wilton since high school,” said Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church.
Pfleger says his friend Gregory decided to become a priest when he was just a child, attending St Carthage Elementary in the Englewood neighborhood. That school is now closed and the church is gone, but Gregory’s mark on Chicago remains deep.
“He has so many ties here, so many friends here in Chicago. So many friends wherever he’s been,” said Dr. Michael P. Murphy, Loyola Director of Catholic Studies.
Gregory served parishes in Glenview and Park Ridge, and then became an administrator in the Chicago Archdiocese.
In 1994, he left to become Bishop of downstate Belleville, and then Atlanta and now Archbishop of Washington D.C.
“Just a really human guy, sensitive guy, caring person, pastoral person. And speaks his truth,” Pfleger said.
Indeed, Gregory has been outspoken about racial inequity and has criticized President Donald Trump. Observers say it is likely Pope Francis intended to send a message during this time of racial reckoning.
“He is the right guy for the job no matter what. Now because there’s such a racially charged environment it has that patina,” Murphy said.
“You know the sad news is it took until 2020 to get the first African American Cardinal. But it happened and hopefully he’ll be a strong voice in the church,” Pfleger said.
Father Pfleger hopes Wilton’s promotion will spark new African American interest in the Catholic Church. Although there are three-million black Catholics in the United States, there are only 250 black priests.