Roman Catholic bishops elect 1st African-American president

Chicago native to preside three years

Baltimorean chosen to head committee

November 14, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a vote that church leaders called a sign of their growing diversity, the body representing the nation's Roman Catholic bishops elected its first African-American president yesterday.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, 53, a native of Chicago who leads the Diocese of Belleville in southern Illinois, will preside over the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the next three years. The bishops, on the second day of their annual fall meeting, followed tradition in elevating Gregory, who had served as vice president of the conference, to its presidency.

"The Catholic Church, because we are a `catholic' church, is no stranger to cultural, linguistic and cultural diversity," Gregory said at a news conference after his election.

The bishops also elected Baltimore Bishop Gordon D. Bennett, an auxiliary to Cardinal William H. Keeler, as chairman of its Committee for African-American Catholics. The post will provide Bennett with a platform for leadership on issues affecting the nation's 2 million black Catholics.

Bennett, 55, who since his 1998 ordination as bishop has been the urban vicar, supervising the city's Catholic churches and schools, has been involved locally in forging ties between inner city and suburban parishes through an initiative called Beyond the Boundaries. He will retain his duties in Baltimore as he heads the bishops' committee.

"I'm delighted to be asked to serve," Bennett said. "It has national and international responsibilities. I'm hopefully going to have a lot of opportunities to learn from Catholics with black skin all over the world."

Gregory and Bennett are two of 13 African-American bishops in the American Catholic Church, which has about 300 African-American priests.

Although Gregory's election was expected, there was a sense that history was being made as the bishops cast their ballots in the meeting room of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. For the first time, the voting was conducted electronically.

After the results were announced, his brother bishops rose and applauded.

"Obviously it's historic, and he's exactly the man to make that history," Bennett said. "Difference need not be a disqualifying factor in exercising either leadership or influence."

Gregory is viewed as a moderate in the church and is considered an affable pastor who is a competitive racquetball player and who personally answers his e-mail.

Gregory, whose father was a computer programmer, was born on Chicago's South Side. His parents had no religious affiliation, but saw the value of a Catholic education for their son and two daughters.

"We lived in the inner city, a working class, poor community, and they grew increasingly concerned about the quality of education in the public schools," he said.

Gregory was baptized as a Catholic in the sixth grade, and shortly thereafter he decided he would become a priest. He entered the high school seminary, continued through college and was ordained a priest in 1973. He later earned a doctorate in liturgy from a pontifical university in Rome and returned to Chicago to begin teaching future priests.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late Archbishop of Chicago whom Gregory describes as a mentor, tapped the young seminary professor in 1983 as an auxiliary bishop.

Gregory said he hoped his election would serve for the world "as an expression of the love of the Catholic Church for people of color."

For African-American Catholics "who may have grown lukewarm in the practice of their faith ... I hope it is an invitation to them to return to an active practice of our faith."

And for African-Americans with no religious affiliation, he said, "I hope it's a positive statement about what we as Catholics believe and how we should try to live."

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