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Leader: Church Welcomes Diversity

November 14, 2001

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The first black president of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops said Wednesday he hopes his historic election will be seen as evidence the church embraces its diverse membership.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, addressing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops the day after he won the post, said he recognizes and welcomes the pride that black Catholics feel in his new leadership role.

``I need nonetheless confess that I feel no great amazement that our conference would have chosen an African-American president,″ Gregory said. ``While racism remains a sin that must be overcome, our church herself, remains a proud community of every nation and race, of every language and social class.″

The Belleville, Ill., prelate also noted the need for clergy to provide moral guidance in the war against international terror. The bishops will vote on a proclamation on the war Thursday, the final day of their meeting.

``We must respond pastorally to never before experienced challenges,″ Gregory said. ``The church’s age-old wisdom must be applied to new and developing circumstances. Not only is our nation affected, but so too is the whole human community.″

Black Catholics see Gregory’s election as evidence of recognition they have long sought from the predominantly white church. Estimates of the number of black Catholics range from 2 million to 3.5 million, out of 63.7 million Catholics nationwide.

The American Catholic community is also becoming more diverse through a growing number of Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

Gregory, 53, is an expert on liturgy and has written extensively on Catholic opposition to physician-assisted suicide and the death penalty. Friends say he is a powerful orator who can reach Catholics of all races.

``He can have a crowd absolutely waiting on every word,″ said the Rev. Charles Rubey, director of Catholic Charities of Chicago.

Monsignor Richard Duncanson, of Solana Beach, Calif., recalled a Thanksgiving years ago when the two were in graduate school together. A prayer was offered that noted how early Americans came full of hope, to which Gregory said: ``Some didn’t come. Some were brought over as slaves.″

``It was a memorable moment,″ Duncanson said. ``He makes us aware without a sense of resentment.″

Gregory was in sixth grade when he first considered becoming a priest. His parents, Christians without a denomination, had sent him to St. Carthage Catholic School on Chicago’s South Side, where his family lived. He was drawn by the warmth and intelligence of the two parish priests and wanted to follow their example.

He was ordained in 1973 and earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome.

Gregory became a bishop in 1983 and served 10 years as auxiliary bishop to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, whom Gregory admired for remaining approachable despite his high rank in the church.

Gregory’s parishioners describe him as similarly humble.

Belleville, a sprawling diocese of about 105,000 Catholics, encompasses communities ranging from small farming towns to the poor, predominantly black city of East St. Louis, Ill. Parishioners recall unease, even flagrant racist reactions, when Gregory was installed seven years ago.

``It did bother some people,″ said Margaret Stahl, 76, a Catholic from Carmi, Ill., who is active in the diocese. ``One man made the statement that he wasn’t welcome in his home.″

In addition, Gregory had to handle cases, lingering for years, of several priests accused of sexual misconduct. The bishop was lauded for his openness in disciplining offenders.

Gregory served for three years as vice president of the bishops’ conference. On Tuesday, he got 186 of the 249 votes cast for president, with the other 63 scattered among nine candidates.

He succeeds Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas.

Vice presidents traditionally ascend to the organization’s top post. The new vice president is Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., who defeated Archbishop Justin Rigali, of St. Louis, in a runoff, 141-110.


On the Net:

U.S. Conference: http://www.usccb.org/

Diocese of Belleville: http://www.diobelle.org

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