WASHINGTON (RNS) — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington installed Wilton Gregory as its archbishop on Tuesday (May 21), ushering in a new era for a community marred by recent scandals involving sex abuse.
Gregory, who most recently served as the archbishop of Atlanta, embarked on his new ministry during a Mass held Tuesday afternoon at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, next to the Catholic University of America. The largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, the basilica was chosen over the city’s cathedral, St. Matthew’s, to accommodate the thousands who packed the pews for the event.
After a group of charismatic Catholics beat drums and formed a dance circle outside the church shortly before the service began, Gregory processed into the sanctuary to cheers, lifting his voice with the rest of congregation as they sang the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
“I come to this almost indescribably humbling moment in my life and in my ministry filled with deep gratitude, immeasurable joy and an unwavering confidence that the risen Lord, who has guided me in my every voyage, will remain beside me as I begin my service to the people of the Archdiocese of Washington, as a fellow believer, a friend and a pastor,” Gregory said in his homily.
Gregory’s appointment was announced in early April, triggering a wave of excitement among Washington Catholics who view him in high esteem. During his installation, he declared that he wished to follow the example of Pope Francis “to welcome the poor, the marginalized and the neglected.”
Also in attendance were a number of prominent American Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J., and Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston. Political figures, such as Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, were also spotted in the crowd.
Amid the pomp and jubilation, Gregory appeared to acknowledge that he is filling a position previously held by two men caught up in the church’s sexual abuse scandals: Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal forced to resign his rank after being accused of sexual misconduct with adult seminarians in recent decades and sexually abusing a teenager 45 years ago, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was accused of mishandling cases of sexual abuse by priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Gregory seemed to make several references to the situation in his address, referring to his installation as “a defining moment for this local faith community,” adding: “Our recent sorrow and shame do not define us. Rather, they serve to chasten and strengthen us to face tomorrow with spirits undeterred.”
He went on to compare the current church climate to a churning sea endured by Jesus’ disciples, calling it “an unusually turbulent moment in our own faith journeys.”
“For far too long,” he said, “waves of unsettling revelations have caused even the heartiest among us to grow fearful.”
Gregory encouraged the church to “admit our own failures. We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest. The entire church must recall that we all belong to Christ first and foremost.”
The line triggered applause from the congregation, and he added, “I want to be a welcoming shepherd who laughs with you whenever we can, who cries with you whenever we must and who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed.”
Gregory served as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, during the early stages of the Catholic Church’s response to sex abuse uncovered in the 2002 “Spotlight” report in The Boston Globe. He oversaw the implementation of new policies to address sexual abuse — namely, the “Dallas Charter” and the USCCB’s “Essential Norms” — and was part of a working group tasked with developing systems to hold high-level bishops and others accountable for misconduct.
Wuerl, whom Gregory called a “cherished friend” and a “true Christian gentleman,” was in attendance at the installation. The former archbishop of Washington welcomed the crowd “as we joyfully gather for the installation of Archbishop Wilton Gregory as the seventh archbishop of Washington,” pausing to allow for several seconds of cheers.
He described Gregory as a “faith-filled pastor,” saying, “It is clear that Pope Francis sends us a bishop attuned to the signs of the times and endowed with great pastoral ability.”
Wuerl pointed out Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, saying, “The presence of the personal representative of our Holy Father highlights the strong spiritual ties of this archdiocese with the Vicar of Christ.”
Pierre then spoke, saying that Francis has already “expressed gratitude” to Wuerl, and encouraged Gregory to “build a culture of encounter and reinvigorate the faith, being a shepherd close to his flock.”
When Pierre presented Gregory with the official papal decree cementing his new appointment, the new archbishop of Washington held it aloft, sparking several rounds of cheers as he walked around the church.
Gregory was the first black bishop of Belleville, Ill., and is expected to be made the first African American cardinal in his current post. There were also several references throughout the service to the Washington Archdiocese’s racial and ethnic diversity, and one passage — Acts 9:26-31 — was read entirely in Spanish during the Mass.