ROME — Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, became the first Black American to earn the rank of cardinal Saturday in a pandemic-altered Vatican ceremony that was strange and historic like none before it.
Because of coronavirus travel concerns, two of the 13 new cardinals did not come to Rome. The others wore masks and sat in socially distanced rows inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
After testing negative for the third time at his Rome quarters, Gregory’s quarantine lifted Saturday morning.
Hours later, he’d received a title that heightens his clout and profile inside the Catholic Church — and makes him one of the papal electors — at a time of fierce American racial inequities and division.
Gregory said in a videoconference interview that he hopes to be a “voice for the African American community in the pope’s ear.”
“Among the people that have congratulated me and wished me well, friends and colleagues, I’ve heard this: It’s about time,” Gregory said, referring to a Black American becoming a cardinal. “But it is also an important recognition that the African American, the Black Catholic community, is an important component within the larger, universal church.”
This was the seventh time that Pope Francis had convened a consistory, as the ceremony is known. The events generally are colorful and full of ritual, and they have played an underappreciated role in Francis’s efforts to remodel the church, as he gradually builds a church leadership that reflects his priorities and styles.
The Catholic Church now has 229 cardinals, 128 of whom are under 80 years old and eligible to vote for the next pope. Of those 128, 73 have been named by Francis. That means Francis-picked cardinals will make up the majority in the next conclave.
The event Saturday was attended by old cardinals as well as the new ones — with the new ones sitting in individual seats flanking the pope. Francis recited a homily as well as the names of the incoming cardinal class. Most chose to remove their masks when kneeling before the pope to receive their red hats; Gregory kept his on. The pope, as has been his habit throughout the pandemic, did not wear a mask.
After the ceremony, Francis took the new cardinals to pay a visit to retired Pope Benedict XVI, 93, who lives in a monastery inside the Vatican. According to a Vatican spokesman, Benedict “expressed his joy” for the visit and gave the cardinals his blessing.
In recent years, Francis has selected new cardinals interested in migration and critical of nationalism. He has also gone further than his predecessors in appointing non-European cardinals, an acknowledgment of how Catholicism’s power base has tilted toward Africa and South America.
Gregory, who turns 73 in December, is the fourth American named a cardinal by Francis.
Gregory said he received the news of his elevation only after Francis had announced it publicly, in an October Angelus service in St. Peter’s Square. Gregory was told of the decision in a 6:30 a.m. phone call by Cardinal Kevin Farrell.
“I want to be the first to congratulate you,” Gregory remembers Farrell saying.
“I was humbled and grateful and a little tearful all rolled up in one,” he said.
When Francis first announced the new cardinals, it was unclear whether the Vatican would even try to hold an in-person consistory. But Gregory and most of the other new cardinals decided to come. Gregory tested negative for the coronavirus before leaving Washington, was tested again upon arrival in Italy and then went into quarantine in the same residence where Francis lives.
“I thought I could do it safely,” Gregory said. “And finally, I think the Holy Father wants a face-to-face consistory.”