WASHINGTON, D.C. – In his opening words as the new leader of Catholics in the nation’s capital, Archbishop Wilton Gregory acknowledged the tempests facing the Church, telling the 3,000 people on hand for his installation that faith in Christ, “not any single minister,” will calm the Church’s storms.
Although he never uttered the phrase “sexual abuse,” Gregory referenced the “waves of unsettling revelations” which he said has “caused even the hardiest among us to grow fearful and perhaps even, at times, to want to panic.”
“We have been tossed about by an unusually turbulent moment in our own faith journeys recently and for far too long,” he said during his homily on Tuesday, before noting that, “Our recent sorrow and shame do not define us; rather, they serve to chasten and strengthen us to face tomorrow with spirits undeterred.”
Gregory succeeds Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the seventh archbishop of Washington. Wuerl’s resignation was accepted by Pope Francis in October following scrutiny of his handling of sex abuse cases earlier in his career.
Drawing on the Book of Mark’s Gospel readings of Christ in a boat with his disciples and calming the stormy seas, Gregory said that “life on the sea continues to serve as a worthy metaphor for us — as people of faith.”
Gregory returned to that metaphor throughout his homily, both to describe the Church’s ongoing crisis over clergy sexual abuse and to describe the type of leader he hopes to be as he helps a divided church steady its course.
“While I know in my heart — and I believe that you know in your hearts as well — that Jesus is in the boat with us during tempestuous times, I confess that I don’t possess the words to put every soul at ease, to assuage every fear, to lessen every pain,” he said.
Catholics in the nation’s capital have felt the pain of the clergy abuse scandals in an acute way since last June when revelations were made public about its former archbishop Theodore McCarrick. In February, McCarrick, who led the archdiocese from 2001 to 2006 and was one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic cardinals, was removed from the clerical state by Francis after a Vatican trial into his abuse of minors.
Since then, questions have lingered over the U.S. hierarchy about who potentially knew and covered up for his actions, including a reexamination of Wuerl’s record on the matter. On Tuesday, Gregory was welcomed to the archdiocese by Wuerl, and in return, Gregory referred to him as “a cherished friend” and “a true Christian gentleman.”
Gregory sought to assure Catholics on hand for the occasion that even in the midst of such a tumultuous season for the Church, Christ had not abandoned them.
“But I do remind you — even as I sometimes have to remind myself — that He is here. He is here when the seas are calm, and He is here during every moment of uncertainty, anger, fear, and shame,” he said.
“He invites us to place our trust in Him — not in trite and easy answers or programs — but in Him and Him alone,” he continued. “He will calm and steady His Church not through any single minister. Rather, He wants nothing more than for us to trust Him to bring us back safely to shore and even be bolstered by the trials that we have endured. And He always does.”
Gregory first rose to prominence in the U.S. Church as the leader of the U.S. bishops from 2001 to 2004 who shepherded the Church during the fallout of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002 and will now bookend his career by once more tackling clergy abuse.
In 2002, he — heroically, by some accounts — walked a tightrope battling the concerns of lay faithful demanding accountability and Vatican officials who were reluctant to relent to American demands of stricter punishment for priests.
The result, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (known as the “Dallas Charter”), was widely hailed for its “zero tolerance” policy for priests found guilty of abuse. However, as the events surrounding McCarrick revealed, it left a glaring omission in holding bishops accountable for abuse or its cover-up.
In his roughly 20-minute homily Tuesday, Gregory explicitly pointed to the failings of Church leaders for the abuse crisis.
“If indeed we are to trust more in Him and less in ourselves, we must admit our own failures. We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest. The entire Church must recall that we all belong to Christ first and foremost. Our dignity is not to be found in numbers, influence, or possessions — but in Him who remains with us even during the most turbulent moments of life,” he said in one of the most searing moments of his homily.
News of Gregory’s appointment to Washington has largely been greeted by Catholics with enthusiasm, both for his past record on abuse and the significance of being the first African American to lead one of the most important centers of African American heritage in the nation.
Just over forty percent of residents of the capital are black, and the archdiocese of Washington is comprised of over 15 percent black Catholics, a rarity compared to most Catholic dioceses throughout the country. Ahead of his installation, song and dance from the city’s diverse parishes filled the steps of the basilica.
During his time as archbishop of Atlanta, where he has served since 2005, he was known for his work on race relations and a special focus on liturgy. Long viewed as a moderate within the Church, Gregory has previously said that he arrives in Washington as a pastor, not a politician.
Gregory steered clear of any neuralgic issues during his homily, saying that he stands “should to shoulder” with Francis and the “righteous challenge” of serving with “uncompromising faith and intractable joy.”
“Pope Francis has now summoned the Church – and by that I mean all the baptized – to leave our comfortable confines and to encounter and welcome the poor, the marginalized, and the neglected, and to place them at the very heart of Christ’s Church,” he said.
“Beginning today, that is my task here in the Archdiocese of Washington,” he added. At age 71, however, he will be required to submit his resignation to the pope when he turns 75, starting the clock on what is likely to be a fairly short tenure, although should the pope wish, he could extend his time in office.
While the bilingual installation Mass was originally scheduled to be held at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the official seat of the archbishop of Washington in downtown D.C., earlier this month it was moved to the much larger Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds of the Catholic University of America (CUA), where by virtue of his post, Gregory will serve as chancellor of the university.
Filling the nation’s largest church were 8 U.S. Cardinals and more than 40 bishops and 300 priests, along with the city’s public officials. Noticeably missing was Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the USCCB, who is currently recovering from a stroke.
Returning once more to his metaphor of rocky seas, Gregory said “the example that I wish to set forth for you is that of a man filled with the faith, hope and joy of knowing Jesus Christ is in this boat.”
“I want to be a welcoming shepherd who laughs with you whenever we can, who cries with you whenever we must, and who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed,” he said.
“Today, my old and new friends, my family, my brothers, we begin a journey together on undeniably choppy seas. We are informed by Christ’s reprimand of his disciples that their fear and uncertainty were not products of the tumult around them, but of an inexplicable lack of faith in the One Who was literally right beside them,” he continued.
“When Jesus Christ, with a phrase, in a breath, finally leads us out of this storm of our own making, may He not feel compelled to admonish us for exhibiting a collective lack of confidence in Him, but rather to be proud of the undaunted, uncompromising faith that we never lost, for the gospel makes it clear — and I believe, and you believe — that ‘the One whom even wind and sea obey has never left our side’,” he concluded.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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