ROME – While the issue of racism was not especially prominent in the thought and writings of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington said the late pontiff nonetheless provided the key to a solution through his Christocentric theology, which implies, among other things, seeing Christ in others.

Speaking to Crux, Gregory said that “if we see the Lord Jesus living in one another, especially those whose backgrounds are different and language and culture are different, if we can see Christ in them, we’ve taken a gigantic step toward responding appropriately to racism.”

Through Benedict’s Christocentric approach, he said, the late pope “identified the solution, he identified the antidote.”

Gregory was in Rome for the Jan. 5 funeral of Benedict XVI, who made history in 2013 when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign. Benedict died Dec. 31 at the age of 95, after nearly 10 years of retirement.

The first African American president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Gregory served in that capacity from 2001-2004, guiding the US church through the explosion of the clerical sexual abuse crisis and the issuance of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Appointed as the archbishop of Washington in 2019, he is also the first African American cardinal in the US church, receiving his red hat from Pope Francis in 2020.

Having made 13 visits to Rome during his time as USCCB president, during a period when the clerical sexual abuse scandals were exploding in the American church, each time meeting with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who served as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 until his election to the papacy in 2005 – Gregory got to know the future pope well. He described Benedict as astute and well aware of the challenges the US church faced, and as someone whose support he could count on.

Below is Crux’s interview with Cardinal Wilton Gregory.

Crux: Can you describe your relationship with the late Benedict XVI?

Gregory: I always thought it was a cordial relationship. During my time in leadership with the conference, I made 13 trips to Rome as president, and in each trip, I did meet with Cardinal Ratzinger. He could not have been more gracious. I always felt that when I spoke to him, I was speaking with someone who understood the difficulties and the dilemmas that we were facing. We had a very good working relationship. I could honestly say to him, ‘Eminence, this is exactly what we’re facing,’ and I always felt that he understood. He was very supportive.

My last meeting as president with him was in October of 2004. I was going out of office in November, and obviously things were going on here in Rome that would affect my future. So, he started the conversation saying, ‘You’ve worked very well, and this will be a new beginning.’ So, he was obviously alerting me to something he knew that I didn’t know at the time. And then he looked at me and he realized, and he said, ‘Oh, we all need new beginnings!’

When I was named the archbishop of Atlanta by Pope John Paul II toward the end of his service, I received the pallium the following June and it was Pope Benedict who imposed the pallium on me. As I came up and knelt down, he looked at me and he said, ‘thank you for everything you did for the church,’ and then he put the pallium on me. I always felt he said a lot by saying a little, which was a grace.

What stood out most in your interactions with him? Who was he for you?

One of the things that always impressed me, he was always prepared. The (USCCB) leadership would come over in October and then right after Easter every year, and we would always prepare a list of the things we wanted to discuss with the various congregations, either issues that were pending, or issues that we thought we would need their advice or welcome their advice on.

With Cardinal Ratzinger, he was always prepared. He always had the list there. He always had his notes. Then he was always welcoming for questions, he would go into his very professorial role, but he was engaging, and he was never threatened. I never sensed any hesitancy on his part to raise a delicate issue. He’d heard lots of delicate issues, far more delicate than the ones that I would bring, and I never sensed that he was in any way offended or put off. It was an open, honest dialogue and engagement with someone who loved the church and who wanted to encourage me to be effective in my service to the church.

Do you have any personal memories or stories that stand out?

One of my dear friends, whom I met here in Rome, we were both the same age, we came to Rome to start our doctoral studies at the same time at the Casa (Santa Maria), he was from Philadelphia, I was from Chicago, we got to be very, very close friends, Monsignor (Tom) Herron, eventually, after he completed his studies, began working with Cardinal Ratzinger.

I stayed in touch with Tom. Tom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer toward the end of my term, so sometimes when I traveled back and forth, I would try to fly through Philadelphia rather than through New York just to have a quick visit with Tom, especially toward the end, because he was so weak. On this occasion, I told Cardinal Ratzinger that Monsignor Herron is very critically ill, and I described the situation, that he had pancreatic cancer and that in effect he had limited time. Well, the next day, I received here at the North American College, a letter handwritten by Cardinal Ratzinger for me to take to Tom.

I was very touched by that, and of course, when I gave Tom the note from Cardinal Ratzinger, well, he had such great love for him. Cardinal Ratzinger…he was a priest. This was someone who had worked with him and had been engaged with his ministry, and he wanted Tom to know that he was remembering him very much in prayer. I never forgot that.

I wanted to follow up on something you mentioned. You said Cardinal Ratzinger was always very astute, very prepared, and understood well the issues that you presented. How do you think that tracks with criticisms of his governance and administration once he became pope? Do you think he was overwhelmed by his office after his election?

I think we live in a world, unfortunately, but it’s the human condition, where there are people who choose to see the glass half empty, or the glass half full, and if they didn’t enjoy a level of experience like I did, they came away with a different impression, and it’s hard to get over our impressions. The truth sometimes is hard to accept, especially if we’ve already made up our minds. It doesn’t mean that some of the interaction wasn’t difficult, conflictual, but from the way I experienced Cardinal Ratzinger, and then Benedict XVI, I don’t believe that he, even when there were difficulties, I don’t believe that he took away harsh feelings.

In my engagements with him, he always struck me as a man who was very professorial. You get tough questions, you respond, and the next day you get more tough questions. I would find it hard to believe that he was a man who would harbor grudges or who would cling to issues.

In my experience as being a bishop, I know that there are things that I have done that have annoyed people, disappointed people, confused people, but I hope I can get over those moments in my own heart, and I pray that those with whom I might have had a disagreement, can get over them in their hearts.

The human heart doesn’t have enough room for love, it needs to brush away the anger, the disappointment, the frustration, as valid as they may be, to make room for more love.

Benedict has been criticized for his handling of the abuse crisis. What is your impression of how he handled it, as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope Benedict?

I’ll use an athletic metaphor: he moved the ball down court as far as he could. Did he score a goal on every attempt? Probably not, but he advanced the work to the best of his ability at the time that the Lord gave him.

We are still facing the question of credibility. It was once said it was an American situation, but now of course it’s all over, and with every disclosure of some awful event, with every disclosure of failure to respond appropriately, it reopens. We think we’ve made progress. On Monday, we think we’ve done the right thing over the weekend, then Wednesday happens, and everything we did over the weekend seems inadequate.

I think, if you look back at the man’s whole life, I think you can say he did the best he could. Could he have done more? Well, all of us will have to face that, but I think, and I sense in my time with him, he analyzed the situation the best he could with the information that was available. I think he tried to act responsibly, but he did act, and I think that’s also out there, that he did act for those whose lives have been so damaged by this or whose family life has been so disrupted or damaged. Did he heal the whole thing? No. Could any one man or one person? I don’t know, other than the Lord himself. The Lord himself could heal, and that’s what we pray for.

So, you saw him as understanding the severity of the issue and engaged and acting even in those couple of years?

Yes. There is so much that has come to light since 2002, and there were things that came to light even before. I say fortunate enough, and fortunate is the right term, to have been mentored by Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin as his auxiliary, and I can remember back in the early 90s he began to try to aggressively respond. But if you look at what we know now and what he tried to do in the 90s, you would say, well he didn’t do enough. Well, the Wright brothers did not craft and manufacture Boeing. They did the best they could at the time.

You’ve had to face many issues in your career, but one issue you’ve been repeatedly called on to face is race. There’s not much in Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s writings that is explicitly on race, but the consistent theme of his life and thought was Cristocentrism, the centrality of Christ, and seeing Christ in the other. I wonder if that’s really at the core of a Gospel response to racism…

Exactly. Even today, if we see the Lord Jesus living in one another, especially those whose backgrounds are different and language and culture are different, if we can see Christ in them, we’ve taken a gigantic step toward responding appropriately to racism. It then plays out in many different fashions.

One of the things I was just delighted by is that recently, within the past month, six weeks, the Holy Father has approved the beatification of Matteo Ricci. I said to myself, and I’ve said this publicly, had the church followed Ricci’s lead more aggressively, what would evangelization be in the Orient today? Because evidently, wasn’t he chiding the church to say that within these people, within the Oriental community, we can find elements of Christ’s face, and if we can accept that and accept them, would they not be willing and anxious to accept Christ?

So essentially, Benedict put his finger on the response to the race question even if he didn’t explicitly name it as such?

Sure, because he identified the solution, he identified the antidote.

One final question. This is a historic moment in the church. Benedict’s resignation was historic and Pope Francis presiding over his funeral today was historic. Do you have any thoughts about being able to witness this and participate in the Mass today?

As I sat in front of St. Peter’s, I remember the first time I saw St. Peter’s and came to the church. I had just arrived, it was the end of August of ‘76, I had never been to Rome before, I was starting here as a young priest, and as I sat there I said, all of these many years that have transpired, I feel like the Lord has guided me from being a spectator to being an active participant, to understanding more about what this structure, what this building, what this history, what this office means not just for me, but for the whole world.

As I looked at Pope Francis, I thought, here, this man has come from another part of the world, but he’s given his life over to this church, and he’s invited all of us to be so engaged. So, it was a retrospective moment for me, it was wonderful, it was part of my prayer both for Benedict and for Francis.

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