AVENUE, Maryland — On a day of history for the U.S. Catholic Church, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory — who four hours earlier had learned Pope Francis had named him a cardinal — celebrated his first Mass as a cardinal-designate Oct. 25 at Holy Angels Church in Avenue in Southern Maryland.
The church is near the cradle of U.S. Catholicism, a few miles from St. Clement’s Island, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Mass in the English-speaking colonies March 25, 1634, after colonists from England made landfall there.
“It takes us back to the beginning. I thought about it all during Mass, (that) I’m so close to the beginning of the faith here in the United States on this first day of the announcement of my appointment,” Gregory said in an interview after the Mass.
He added, “It takes me back to the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel and the care of God’s people” in what became the United States.
Noting the irony of the situation, he pointed out that celebrating the 250th anniversary Mass for Holy Angels had been on his calendar for a long time.
“It wasn’t something I planned. It was something God planned,” he said.
The announcement made history in another way: At the Nov. 28 consistory, Gregory will become the first African American cardinal in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church.
When asked what his elevation to the College of Cardinals meant to him personally, to be the first African American cardinal in the United States, and what that would mean to the nation’s Black Catholics, Gregory’s voice broke slightly.
“I’m deeply humbled,” he said. “I know that I am reaping a harvest that millions of African American Catholics and people of color have planted. I am deeply grateful for the faith that they have lived so generously, so zealously and with such great devotion.”
Gregory said he saw his appointment as “another opportunity to serve and to care for the church and to have the church (of Washington) in closer union with Pope Francis.”
He added, “I hope it is a sign of the continued investment of the church in the work of justice, peace and harmony among people.”
Gregory will become the sixth cardinal archbishop of Washington. The Archdiocese of Washington includes the nation’s capital and the five surrounding Maryland counties: St. Mary’s, where he celebrated that morning’s Mass, and Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Asked if he had a special message for the people of the Archdiocese of Washington, said, “I renew my deep love for this local Church. Obviously my predecessors shared this title. I hope that I can continue to love and care for the people of the archdiocese with the same depth of devotion that the former cardinal archbishops have done from the beginning.”
Pope Pius XII established the Archdiocese of Washington in 1939. Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, who became the first resident archbishop of Washington in 1948, was named as Washington’s first cardinal archbishop in 1967. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who led the archdiocese from 2006 until his retirement in 2018, was its most recent cardinal archbishop after being elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2010.
Considering that the last five archbishops to lead the Archdiocese of Washington had been named cardinals, Gregory’s appointment wasn’t a total surprise, but the timing was a surprise, even to him.
“The Holy Father makes these announcements now spontaneously,” said Gregory. “This morning at the Angelus where the crowd was gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father prayed the Angelus with them, made a Scripture reflection for today, then he said, ‘I’m going to have a consistory on the 28th of November, and these are the new cardinals I will create.”
Gregory said he learned the news about 6:30 that morning, from a phone call from Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life who earlier served as the bishop of Dallas and was an auxiliary bishop, archdiocesan administrator and parish priest in Washington.
In the phone call, Farrell said, “I want to be the first to congratulate you,” Gregory said, smiling. “I didn’t know anything!”
In an interview about his appointment with the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper, after Mass at Holy Angels, Washington’s archbishop joked, “So Kevin Farrell was my archangel this morning!”
As he welcomed Gregory to Holy Angels Church at the beginning of the morning Mass, Father Stephen Wyble, the parish’s administrator, noted the surprise news that Pope Francis had named Washington’s archbishop as a new cardinal that morning, which drew applause from the congregation and a broad smile from him.
Noting the parish’s special history, Wyble said, “Holy Angels Parish is the historical ‘descendant’ of the oldest of the Maryland Jesuit missions.”
The priest pointed out that after White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies at nearby St. Clement’s Island in 1634, the Jesuit established his first mission on White’s Neck, both of which are in the present-day confines of Holy Angels Parish.
St. Clement’s Island is regarded as a landmark of religious freedom, since the Maryland colony was established on the principle of religious toleration.
Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.