Archbishop Is Revered ‘Role Model’ In Black Community
Published: December 4, 2008
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, blesses Atlanta Deacon Ricardo Bailey before the deacon reads the Gospel at the opening Mass of the ninth National Black Catholic Congress in Chicago Aug. 29, 2002. More than 3,000 delegates attended the congress. (CNS photo by Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic)
ATLANTA—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory started his episcopal service in Chicago as only the eighth African-American Catholic bishop in the United States, and later he became the first to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Twenty-five years later, he is the public face of the Catholic Church in a community where African-America leadership is prominent in the worlds of business, pop culture and politics.
With a reputation for listening, the archbishop has served the black community by example.
“If you want to use the word role model, that would be apt in the best sense of the word,” said Father Ed Branch, chaplain at the Lyke House Catholic Center at the Atlanta University Center, a campus of historically black colleges.
Beyond Atlanta, he is a high profile figure as he connects with the black community, Catholic or not.
He was the keynote speaker at the black-tie Monsignor John Mitchell Memorial Scholarship Fund banquet in early November. The $120-a-plate dinner celebrated the academic achievements of Catholic African-American high school students in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
Archbishop Gregory appeared in Ebony magazine’s “Power 150” for his national influence. Morehouse College inducted him into its famed Martin Luther King Board of Preachers.
Bishop Curtis Guillory of Beaumont, Texas, said the archbishop is highly respected around the country. His election and service as president of the conference of bishops highlight how highly he is considered, said Bishop Guillory, one of the nation’s 11 active black bishops.
During the recent bishops’ conference meeting, the small group of black bishops gathered to socialize and talk business. Archbishop Gregory, the only black archbishop in the country, attended to offer guidance and insights, said Bishop Guillory, a member of the Society of the Divine Word who leads a Catholic community of nearly 85,000 people.
The bishop said a scriptural image of Archbishop Gregory would be one of “the Good Shepherd.”
“He is always reaching out,” he said.
“If you don’t know him, you’ll get to know him quickly. He has a warm and open hospitality,” he said.
Bishop George Murry succeeded the archbishop as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1995.
“While I was in Chicago, I saw firsthand the respect in which he was held by the people of the archdiocese and how he had handled a number of very complex problems,” said Bishop Murry, a Jesuit and now bishop of Youngstown, Ohio.
Three years earlier, the bishop watched him guide African-American lay leaders to focus on the broader needs of the Chicago community and move beyond narrow concerns.
“He was masterful in listening and then bringing them together,” he said.
That ability is rooted deeply in his faith, said Bishop Murry.
“His ability to lead comes from his personal experience of the Lord in prayer and his conviction that the Lord is with him each day,” he said.
The bishop listed among his other strengths “integrity, intelligence, an outgoing personality and a large capacity for hard work.”
Adrian Dominican Sister Jamie Phelps, a theologian and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, said the archbishop’s skill “enables him to be an exemplary ‘shepherd’ of his people.”
Archbishop Gregory is a very prayerful, intelligent, skilled, personable person, she said in written comments. “He is a man of the Gospel who seeks the truth in every situation,” she said.
Sister Jamie said the archbishop possesses a skill of listening and responding sensitively to those who turn to him.
At the same time, he challenges people to be faithful followers of Christ, she said.
Father Edward Branch, left, campus minister for the Atlanta University Center, and Father Ricardo Bailey, right, then the parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, join Archbishop Gregory during a reception at the Pontifical North American College, Rome, following the Pallium Mass on June 29, 2005. (Photo by Michael Alexander)
Father Ricardo Bailey and Father Branch know the archbishop best by serving on the various archdiocesan councils that advise him.
Father Bailey recalled spending time with the archbishop in 2002 as a deacon when both attended the National Black Catholic Congress.
He talked to then Bishop Gregory, as he was one of the top leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the leader of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill. Father Bailey said he was impressed how this high-profile person ignored everyone else trying to get his attention in order to focus on him, a deacon from another diocese.
“I remember how special that made me feel. Archbishop Gregory is the master of the moment,” said Father Bailey, the chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell.
They crossed paths again in 2004. It was toward the end of the archbishop’s tenure as president of the U.S. bishops. Father Bailey said he was filled with a “great sense of pride” at seeing him again.
“It makes me proud as a black man, more important as a Roman Catholic, to see him achieve so much,” he said.
“He has taken the genius of what it means to be an African-American man and incarnated it,” Father Bailey said.
Father Bailey’s weekly radio personality as “Father Crunk” got off the ground with the archbishop’s permission. The archbishop, like Pope John Paul II, believes the church must seek out people and look to find them in unconventional places, Father Bailey said. And during his time on the staff at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta the trust paid off: Strangers told Father Bailey how hearing his radio message encouraged them to give church another chance.
Of Atlanta’s last four archbishops, three have been African-American. Father Branch, the university chaplain, worked with all three of them.
Father Branch said each brought different talents necessary for the church. He saw Archbishop Marino as a people person, Archbishop Lyke, a visionary and Archbishop Gregory, a diplomat.
“They are people sent by God for the moment,” he said.
On a personal note, Father Branch remembered how he first met the archbishop. Father Branch said he had heard of a guy by the name of Wilton Gregory from the small circles of black Catholic priests in the 1970s. And he knew the stranger studied in Rome.
Then Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, left, blesses a statue of Father Augustine Tolton at St. Patrick Church in East St. Louis, Ill., Nov. 3, 2002. The story of the slave who became a priest captivated artist Gene Jantzen, standing next to the statue, who sculpted the 1,200-pound figure. Father Tolton was ordained in 1886. (CNS photo by Liz Quirin, The Messenger)
During a visit to the Eternal City in the mid-1970s, standing in St. Peter’s Square with a friend, Father Branch asked about this guy he had never met.
“There he is, right there,” said the friend, pointing to a moped-riding priest crossing through the piazza. They exchanged greetings and then went their separate ways.
Years later, Father Branch attended the archbishop’s ordination as a bishop. It drew crowds of people and generated a lot of interest in the African-American community, he said.
Currently, Father Branch is an elected member of the Council of Priests and observes the archbishop’s decision-making.
“He is a collaborative manager and a collaborative leader,” he said. The style isn’t to micromanage projects, so he expects accountability.
“His style of leadership makes everyone grow up. People have to do their homework,” he said.
One of the archbishop’s traits is to rely on advice from other priests and take their views into consideration. “That’s a big plus,” he said.
Catholics at the historically black colleges are impressed when the archbishop visits, Father Branch said.
“They are wowed by him as a person. He is very engaging,” Father Branch said.
Carmen Jenkins was joyful when she learned Archbishop Gregory would come to Atlanta from Belleville, Ill.
“So when he was installed that January … my chest swelled with pride all day at work, and I had a 1000-watt smile on all that day and had absolutely no problem in explaining why,” she said in written comments.
Jenkins worships at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, and is a member of the editorial board of the Black Catholic Ministry’s “Parish Connections” newsletter.
One time, she spoke with him following the Martin Luther King celebration Mass.
“I just love you, and we are so proud of you,” she recalled telling him. He simply asked her to keep him in her prayers, she said.
“I believe he has made monumental strides in bridging the gap in the way the African-American community views the archdiocese and participates in its endeavors,” she said.
And the way the archbishop lives the Catholic faith helped renew her own spiritual life.
“When our leader is one who epitomizes what we believe in, it makes it almost easy. We have been taught to love God and our brothers. Archbishop Gregory shows that in all he does,” said Jenkins.