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With Ceremony At The Vatican, Wilton Gregory Becomes 1st Black American Cardinal

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., becomes a cardinal during a consistory on Saturday at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Fabio Frustaci
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., becomes a cardinal during a consistory on Saturday at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Kneeling before Pope Francis, 72-year-old Wilton Gregory received the red hat and ring Saturday, becoming the first Black American cardinal in the history of Catholicism.

Gregory, the archbishop of Washington since 2019, is one of 13 bishops and priests elevated to the College of Cardinals at the Vatican on Saturday. With the ceremony, Francis has appointed 73 of the 128 cardinals who can elect the next pope.

Before the ceremony, Gregory told The Associated Press he viewed his appointment as "an affirmation of Black Catholics in the United States, the heritage of faith and fidelity that we represent."

The ceremony, known as a consistory, was subdued compared with years past as the pandemic put a damper on what would normally be a day of pomp and circumstance. Although St. Peter's Basilica normally holds thousands, each cardinal was limited to 10 guests, and the basilica was mostly empty.

Guests and new cardinals alike were wearing masks. As a precaution, the cardinal candidates who traveled to Rome from abroad had been in quarantine at the Vatican for 10 days before the ceremony.

In his homily, Pope Francis cautioned the new cardinals never to lose their connection to the people, nor to think of themselves only as "His Eminence."

"If you feel that, you are off the path," Francis said. "We too — pope and cardinals — must always see ourselves reflected in this world truth. It is a sharpened sword; it cuts, it proves painful, but it also heals, liberates and converts us."

Francis also warned the cardinals not to fall prey to corruption, or to use their positions for personal advancement.

Gregory has developed a reputation as someone who is not afraid to weigh in on salient social issues. "You cannot be a Catholic and sit on the sidelines," he told young adult Catholics last year. "To be a member of the church means you've got to get in and get your hands dirty in the mix of the whole arena of faith from what we believe and profess to how we live and treat one another."

Gregory didn't hold back after President Trump visited the St. John Paul II National Shrine the day after demonstrators were tear-gassed outside the White House. "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," he said at the time.

This week, Gregory told the media he hopes to find common ground with President-elect Joe Biden, who will be the second Catholic president in the country's history.

"The kind of relationship that I hope we will have is a conversational relationship where we can discover areas where we can cooperate that reflect the social teachings of the church," Gregory told the Catholic News Service, "knowing full well that there are some areas where we won't agree."

Sylvia Poggioli contributed to this report.

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Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").