Especially in the wake of last weekend’s racially charged tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, the highest-ranking African-American prelate in the United States, says it’s time for him and his fellow bishops to step up – and, to be clear, he means all of them.
“For bishops who govern local churches that don’t have a very diverse community, they too have to speak,” Gregory told Crux on Monday.
“The people in their pews, whether they have African-Americans or Hispanics or Asians, or even Muslim neighbors, they have to know that silence in these matters is construed as approval,” Gregory said.
“We all must raise our voices in condemning the vile acts that have taken place, and also standing in solidarity and union with those who are speaking out in their communities,” he said.
Gregory spoke on “The Crux of the Matter,” Crux’s weekly radio program that airs Mondays at 1 pm E.T. on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129.
Now closing in on 70, Gregory came of age in the 1960s and, as a teenager, was involved with the Civil Rights Movement. He says he recalls being “mesmerized” by the quality of leadership it attracted – pointedly, he added, from both blacks and whites. He said he saw some of that same spirit among the counter-protestors in Charlottesville.
“As you look, and as I think the nation looked, at the counter-protestors in Charlottesville, and those people who are voicing their outrage today, the images are of a very diverse group of people,” Gregory said.
“There are many, many young white, Hispanic, black, Asian people who are protesting, publicly, because they are offended, and they want to offer hope, I believe, to the next generation, to their children and grandchildren,” he said.
Gregory is a Chicago native, who’s previously served as an auxiliary in the Windy City and as bishop of Belleville, Illinois. He remains the lone African-American ever to have served as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and he picked a whale of a time to do it – 2001 to 2004, during the white-hot period of the sexual abuse scandals, when Gregory is remembered for his firm commitment to a “zero tolerance” policy and his grace under pressure.
When the U.S. bishops in 2016 decided to convene a task force on race relations in the wake of a series of police shootings that once again spotlighted racial disparities in America, it was also Gregory they turned to for leadership.
On other fronts in his Crux interview, Gregory said:
- Immigration and the race problem are really two sides of the same coin – whether the United States wants to be one, inclusive country, or not. “If we think that we can solve this problem simply by focusing on race, we will leave the head of this dragon unaffected,” he said.
- He confirmed that the U.S. bishops are currently working on a successor document to 1979’s “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops’ last pastoral statement on race. This time, he said, it will have a broader focus, including not simply African-American concerns but also those of Hispanics, Asians, and other communities.
- He called on Catholic institutions in America to make a serious push to teach the history of African-American Catholicism. “There have been giants within the Catholic church, who’ve been faithful, who’ve been leaders, who’ve been involved with the life of the church, and they happen to have been African-Americans, people of the African diaspora, whatever their origins,” he said. “Their contributions have been extraordinary, and life-giving for our church.”
The following are excerpts from the Gregory interview, which I conducted.
Crux: Like many Americans, I sat Saturday and watched the images roll in from Charlottesville with a mixture of disbelief and dismay. Where were you, and what was your initial gut reaction?
Gregory: On Saturday, I was at a ceremony in one of our parishes celebrating confirmation with about 50 of our young people. When I heard about this event, the ceremony had concluded. I was very grateful that I had spoken to those young people about an issue that, I think, is paramount in this entire episode.
We’re a country comprised of peoples of different ethnic, language, cultural and racial heritages, and we have to be, in this country, together, respecting the diversity and the differences, but desiring to be one nation, with no one segment of that nation claiming superiority, authority or privilege over another.
The community I was with is largely Hispanic, and many of these wonderful people are living on edge because some of them lack proper documentation. I spoke to those young people, in the ceremony at confirmation, not knowing what was going on in Charlottesville, about their dignity, their importance to the church and to our nations, and how they have a place, a very important place. I was happy to recognize that.
Listening to you speak, I’m struck that often we treat the “racial” issue as basically a “black” concern, and immigration as an “Hispanic” topic. Are you saying they’re really two sides of the same coin, meaning whether we’re going to be one, inclusive nation, or not?
When we last talked in our interview in Orlando [during the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” sponsored by the U.S. bishops], I referenced the preparation that is now ongoing for a pastoral statement on racism [forthcoming from the U.S. bishops’ conference]. I spoke, and I think we both agreed, that it has to be broader than simply race.
The issues that we confront in our nation at this time, and perhaps have always had before us, are about seeing other people as ‘the other,’ as though they don’t belong, as though they don’t have dignity, as though they don’t have rights.
The pastoral statement, which will be a successor statement to the bishops’ 1979 statement ‘Brothers and Sisters to Us,’ has to broaden the horizon to include other cultures, other races, other languages, because if we think that we can solve this problem simply by focusing on race, we will leave the head of this dragon unaffected.
On the racial dimension, you know I grew up in rural Western Kansas. I was born in 1965, so I came of age in the 1970s. I must have been about 10 when I first realized there was a racial problem in America, and I remember asking my mom what it was all about. God love her, she told me it was in the past, and by the time I grew up it wouldn’t be an issue. Here I am, 52 years old, and it’s obviously still around.
If a young kid came up to you today and asked what the racial issue is all about, what would you say?
First of all, John, I applaud your mother, because her answer to you, I think, reflects the hope that people of her generation, now our generation, have that we can solve this issue, that it’s not intractable.
Having said that, we also have to be realists. The realism we need is to understand that it’s always just under the surface. We have to both offer hope to our young people, but also realism that it’s not a ‘done’ issue.
I’ve got a few more years attached to me than you do. As I was growing up, I was a part of the Civil Rights Movement as a teenager. I was always mesmerized by the quality of leadership that came from the African-American community. I was also impressed by those wonderful white people who joined in the leadership and in the struggle. We still have those people around.
As you look, and as I think the nation looked, at the counter-protestors in Charlottesville, and those people who are voicing their outrage today, the images are of a very diverse group of people. There are many, many young white, Hispanic, black, Asian people who are protesting, publicly, because they are offended, and they want to offer hope, I believe, to the next generation, to their children and grandchildren.
Over the weekend, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Bishop Frank Dewane, who chairs your committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement explicitly condemning ‘the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism.’ Crux did a story on it, and when we tweeted it out, one African-American priest commented, ‘That’s great, but the real issue is what bishops are going to do to fight racism in their dioceses.’
So, let me put that question to you: What should Catholic leaders be doing?
First of all, I was very grateful that Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Dewane issued those statements in their capacity as leadership in the conference. That’s important.
But I think the observation made by the priest you spoke with is equally important. This is not an issue that can be solved on the global horizon, it has to be solved in the local community. It has to be solved in local dioceses, and in local parishes. Bishops, as I intend to do, must offer guidance to their pastors and to their people, including in Sunday worship opportunities that will be forthcoming. We have to help our children understand the importance of racial dignity and harmony, and that has to be done on the local level.
You’ll recall that the task force I led [a body created by the U.S. bishops in 2016, in the wake of a series of racially charged police shootings], in the report I issued, I said that bishops working on the local level, in dialogue with their ecumenical and interfaith partners, have to bring the issue to their people. We as Catholics believe in the principle of subsidiarity, that is, issues, problems and opportunities have to be solved or taken advantage of on the local level.
People have to see, and hear, and believe, that they have an important role to play, even if it’s simply to join others in prayer and solidarity.
For bishops who govern local churches that don’t have a very diverse community, they too have to speak. The people in their pews, whether they have African-Americans or Hispanics or Asians, or even Muslim neighbors, they have to know that silence in these matters is construed as approval. We all must raise our voices in condemning the vile acts that have taken place, and also standing in solidarity and union with those who are speaking out in their communities.
Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, one of your fellow African-American prelates, spoke recently at the National Black Catholic Congress about what he described as the frequent ‘invisibility’ of African-American Catholics in the larger church. Very concretely, what’s one thing Catholic communities all across the country could do to signal that they want to hear the voices of African-American Catholics?
Well, Bishop Braxton is certainly one of the most informed and, I would say, erudite, of local African-American leaders. One of the things is to make sure that the voices, the gifts, the art, the music, the language, of the African-American community is woven into our ecclesial experiences. Black art, black music … inviting our kids to study and to know about the wonderful black American heroes and heroines that we have, and who’ve been a part of our church from its very beginning.
Going back to the 1960s that were formative years for both of us, one of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement and the way it played out was highlighting black history. Up until that time, many Americans never even knew about the artists, the poets, the scientists that the African-American community has produced. Black history began to bring that reality into play.
We still have a long way to go, but I think a similarly inclusive effort must also be a part of our church experience. Our young people, our adults, should be fully aware that there have been giants within the Catholic church, who’ve been faithful, who’ve been leaders, who’ve been involved with the life of the church, and they happen to have been African-Americans, people of the African diaspora, whatever their origins. Their contributions have been extraordinary, and life-giving for our church.