FAIRFIELD — For Wilton Cardinal Gregory, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, his entrance into the Catholic Church was influenced by the racial issues affecting the south side of Chicago, where he grew up, during the late 1950s.
Gregory said that his parents, recognizing that the public schools in the area were becoming “increasingly deficient,” decided to enroll him and his two younger sisters in a local Catholic elementary school, St. Carthage. He was one of only a handful of Black students in his 6th-grade class when enrolled, Gregory said, but by the end of year the racial balance had completely flipped.
“Every week on a Monday, there were white kids being transferred out and black kids being welcomed,” Gregory said.
After six weeks at the school, he had decided he was going to be a priest.
Gregory, formerly the first Black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the first African-American to reach the level of Cardinal in the Catholic Church, spoke to a crowded auditorium at Fairfield University on Wednesday in the first in a series of talks about the interplay between faith and social justice.
Gregory said that the world was facing an immensely difficult historical period that included the “continued racial reckoning” in the United States.
“That includes repeated news headlines of African American young men and women experiencing frequent and too often unprovoked incidents of police brutality regularly caught on cell phone, video and posted online,” said Gregory. “We turn on the news and or check our cell phones to see our Latino brothers and sisters not only not being welcomed or assisted, but instead being carelessly confined to living outside under interstate bridges or dropped off late in the night.”
He said that faith leaders and people of faith were called to speak out against the mistreatment of others, to call out bias and injustice and to “act on behalf” of the communities of color who are disenfranchised, responding instead with the love of Christ.
“The world says that it is just too bad that the poor and those escaping violence and poverty in their homeland had to make the decision to flee, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” he said. “The attitude of our world says it’s just too bad and plain unfortunate that lower income families disproportionately suffer due to economic healthcare and education disparities, or the effects of our collective neglect to care for creation and this beautiful planet that we all share. We see these stents happening all around us and know that we cannot sit by and just let them continue.”
Gregory said that Catholic social teaching, the part of Catholic doctrine that outlines how Catholics should behave in society and respond to issues of social justice, is frequently forgotten, although it’s not new. He said that the social justice teachings of the Church go back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was written during the time of the Industrial Revolution when workers were being routinely exploited by their employers.
“I think we need to re-educate ourselves along the long history of where the Church has stood with the poor, with the immigrant, with workers,” Gregory said. “Catholic Social teaching is a rich library of the application of the gospel as it applies to the lives of the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised.”
He also pointed to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (All brothers and sisters) as a “roadmap.”
In his talk, Gregory referred to racism as having “damaged the psyche and soul of our nation.” He referenced the examples of multiple Catholic saints and religious leaders, including the priests and sisters who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.
“People are crying out to faith leaders in every faith tradition as they suffer inequity, violence, hatred and discrimination,” he said. “Catholic social teaching supports Catholics fighting against the injustices that affect people of color…It is abundantly clear. Our faith calls us to act.”
He said that when it came to making reparations for the Church’s past actions, the Church needed to not only acknowledge the past, but commit to a better future.
“If reparation is simply focused on what happened two centuries ago, it’s missing a great opportunity to focus on what should be happening in the centuries ahead of us,” he said. “Reparation has to be much more than a financial gift or a repayment. It has to be a commitment to making sure that the future is much better than the past.”
Gregory praised the Jesuits for the efforts they had made toward racial reckoning in their ministries and institutions. After it was revealed that Georgetown University in Washington D.C. sold 272 slaves and used part of the funds to pay off the university’s debts, the university committed to raising $100 million to invest in scholarships for the descendants of the 272 slaves as well as organizaitons that promote racial healing.
“Does that solve everything? No, but it does make this crystal clear that the Society of Jesus is acknowledging something awful happened and it happened because of us,” said Gregory.
Gregory praised the church’s investment in the Cristo Rey (Christ the King) schools, a network of Jesuit-run Catholic high schools that serve students with low-income backgrounds. According to the organization’s website, the vast majority of their students are students of color, with 65 percent of their students identifying as Latino and about a quarter of their students identifying as Black.
As for the U.S. Latino community, Gregory said he felt that members of the Latino community who came to the United States were leaving the Church because they did not feel welcome in the parishes. He said that parishes tend to forget that the Latino communities include people from a multitude of countries, each of whom come with their own cultures and traditions.
He also referenced a recent study showing that church ushers tended to greet people that they already knew — starting with the parish priests — rather than the new faces in the crowd.
“We’re losing many of our Hispanic people who come to this country with the Catholic faith because some of our fellow Christians do a better job of saying welcome than we do,” he said.
Gregory has also spoken out against the Catholic Church being used for political purposes, most notably after then-president Donald Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington for what Gregory referred to as a “photo-op.”
“Our churches are not props. They are places where people come to worship,” said Gregory.
Gregory said that not long after the incident, he traveled to Rome to be ordained a Cardinal, and had Thanksgiving lunch with the Pope.
“[Pope Francis] made reference to what I said, and he said, ‘When you said that, I said to myself, That man has pantalones,’” Gregory said.
In response to a question about whether the United States Bishops were generally in agreement with Pope Francis, Gregory said that while there had always been disagreements within the higher levels of the church, the degree of animosity had grown, with the result that sometimes the Church reflected the larger divisions in society.
“Obviously, I believe Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air in our church,” said Gregory. “I believe that most bishops would agree with that. They don’t necessarily agree with everything, but that’s been true all along. But what’s different is, sometimes the level of hostility is disproportionate to the issue at hand.”
Gregory acknowledged that the Church had more work to do to address social inequality. He encouraged people to engage in “little acts of compassion and understanding,” and urged leaders in the church not to become “falsely comfortable” and regress to social patterns that perpetuated racism.
“When our brothers and sisters are treated unjustly because of their country of origin, or subjected to structural racism due to the color of their skin or discriminated against because of a disability or anything else, we are called to proclaim the gospel message,” he said. “It is through our encounters with our brothers and sisters from various cultures, races, religions, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds that we come to appreciate the beauty and diversity of the people of God, the people that God has created.”