|| First African-American chosen to head
By PATRICIA LEFEVERE
How did a black man, raised by unchurched parents in one of Chicagos poorest areas come to lead the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., laughed at the question, noting, It was a done deal.
After all, hed already been elected the conferences vice president in 1998, a spot that nearly guarantees a bishop will eventually get the top spot.
Gregory, 53, the third youngest of his 11 predecessors in the job, said he hoped his election might express the love of the Catholic church for people of color and might encourage the lukewarm Catholics of his race to return to the practice of our faith.
The South Side Chicagoan has never been lukewarm about his religion. He chose to become a Catholic at age 11 after his parents moved him and his two sisters into a Catholic school, fearing they would not be properly educated in their inner city public school. The year was 1958 and John XXIII had just been elected pope.
The next year Archbishop Albert Meyer of Milwaukee was appointed archbishop of Chicago. The following year plans were underway for the Second Vatican Council. It was a very exciting time; every year something great was happening in the Catholic church, said Gregory, smiling like the poster boy for Catholic Schools Week.
He continued his Catholic schools journey another two decades earning degrees at Loyola University in Chicago, St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundein, Ill., and a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute (SantAnselmo) in Rome. At 35 he became the youngest bishop in America, serving a decade as an auxiliary in Chicago.
The son of a computer technician, Gregory made an intervention on cyber communications during the recent synod of bishops in Rome.
Gregory took over an unusually difficult assignment when he was appointed to his southern Illinois diocese of 110,000 Catholics in 1994. At the time 11 Belleville priests had been investigated for sexual misconduct in two years. It is generally recognized that he has brought stability to a diocese that had been rocked by ugly scandal. Candidates for the priesthood in his see today must submit to criminal background checks.
He chaired the bishops Committee on Liturgy (1991-93) and is known to favor a special rite for Americas two million black Catholics, one that would better reflect their culture. Last year he helped to author the Illinois bishops pastoral, Moving Beyond Racism: Learning to See with the Eyes of Christ.
In his new job, Gregory sees himself as an executor rather than the kind of president who has to name a cabinet and a set of programs and activities. The jobs significance is in its consistency, he said, in following policies the bishops have established. So much will be determined not by my decision but by the events we face.
Gregory indicated in both a news conference and in an address to his brother bishops that he would lean heavily on the bishops conference staff, who, he said, have chosen to share their expertise with the bishops while at the same time suppressing their own points of view in order to advance the bishops agenda.
Gregory garnered 75 percent of the votes from 249 prelates on the first ballot.
Bishop William Skylstad, 67, of Spokane, Wash., defeated Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis on the third ballot -- in a field of 10 candidates -- to become conference vice president. The vote: 141 to 110. Gregory and Skylstad will hold office until Nov. 2004.
Skylstad told NCR he felt humbled and privileged to serve. Asked to explain his win, he said, My sense is we are who we are in service to the church and the votes were there. Currently he is the episcopal liaison for Catholic Charities USA and for Worldwide Marriage Encounter. He also serves on the Social Development and World Peace Domestic Division Committee, the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and has just finished chairing the Ad Hoc Committee on Bishops Life and Ministry.
Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York and Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., each got 125 votes for the important International Policy Committee. In such cases, the older man wins. But as both were born in 1940, Ricard, a Leap Day arrival, leaped to victory over Murphy, whose birthday is in May.
National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001