By Ed Condon and JD Flynn/CAN
WASHINGTON, DC — Pope Francis is expected to appoint Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta to serve as the next archbishop of Washington, multiple sources have independently reported to CNA. Archbishop Gregory would become the seventh archbishop of Washington, succeeding Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
A formal announcement could come as early as next week, sources say, though it has not yet been confirmed that the archbishop has accepted the appointment. Sources in Rome and the United States told CNA that Archbishop Gregory was informed of the appointment earlier this week.
The Archdiocese of Washington has technically been vacant since Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation was accepted in October 2018, though Cardinal Wuerl has served as interim leader of the archdiocese since that time.
The identity of Cardinal Wuerl’s successor has been the subject of intense speculation over the last five months, and several prominent members of the American hierarchy were reportedly considered for the role.
One source told CNA that because Washington has been an epicenter of the Church’s sex-abuse crisis, the background of potential candidates has been subject to more exacting scrutiny than is typical for episcopal appointments.
For that reason, the source emphasized, the likely appointment of Archbishop Gregory could still be subject to change, even close to the announcement, if the Holy See or Archbishop Gregory himself had reason to be concerned about his ability to address the problems relating to sexual abuse and misconduct that have plagued the Washington Archdiocese.
“They absolutely want to get this one right,” the source told CNA.
While Archbishop Gregory, 71, is generally well-regarded among U.S. bishops as an administrator, one bishop told CNA that some expected his age might discourage him from accepting the appointment.
In Washington, Archbishop Gregory would likely be expected to provide a period of steady leadership in Washington for the near term, while leaving open the possibility he could carry on past the normal retirement age for bishops of 75.
The archbishop of Washington is generally viewed as one of the most influential Churchmen in the United States; the five most recent archbishops were all created cardinals, including the now-laicized Theodore McCarrick. The archbishop of Washington is generally expected to walk a narrow line: articulating the Church’s teaching in the middle of the national political conversation, without appearing to be partisan.
Archbishop Gregory’s appointment to the archdiocese would follow months of scandal in the Church in the United States, and his selection would likely have been made, at least in part, in recognition of his experience in dealing with the fallout of the last major abuse crisis in the Church.
Serving a term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, Archbishop Gregory was responsible for helping to lead the American hierarchy through the fallout of the Church’s 2002 sex-abuse scandals. He oversaw the formation and implementation of the “Dallas Charter” and USCCB’s “Essential Norms” in 2002.
As a past USCCB president, Archbishop Gregory is part of a working group — together with Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz — charged by the U.S. bishops with examining and developing proposed reforms for enhancing episcopal accountability.
As the first African-American archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Gregory’s appointment would also be viewed as a historic milestone for the Church in the United States, especially since the archbishop is likely to be created the first African-American cardinal.
Within the Archdiocese of Washington itself, Archbishop Gregory’s appointment would likely bring a welcome end to months of speculation.
While Washington’s nearly 700,000 Catholics are a considerably smaller flock than the 1.2 million faithful Gregory has led in Atlanta, the capital archdiocese is home to a broad diversity of communities, which include the deeply enculturated African-American parishes in the southeast of the city, the affluent parishes of northern parts of the city, large communities of Latin American immigrants, thousands of university students, and the rural communities of southern Maryland.
A Chicago native, Archbishop Gregory converted to Catholicism as a student in a Chicago Catholic grade school. In 1971, he was ordained a priest in Chicago by Cardinal John Cody. Consecrated bishop at age 36, Archbishop Gregory served as an auxiliary bishop in his home diocese under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin from 1983 until 1994.
The archbishop is known to have preserved close ties with his home city and with archdiocesan leadership in Chicago.