WASHINGTON — Few of his parishioners were surprised when Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory took on President Donald Trump.
Gregory isn't known to speak out often about issues specifically facing Black Americans. But when he does, it is unambiguous and forceful — in words unusually strong for a man of the cloth.
In June, racial justice demonstrators outside the White House had just been tear-gassed so Trump could stand for a photo-op in front of the iconic St. John's Episcopal Church, awkwardly waving a Bible. In a statement the next day, Gregory condemned the president's actions as an attempt "to silence, scatter or intimidate" crowds "for a photo opportunity in front of a church."
Then he took aim at the largest lay Catholic organization in the U.S., the Knights of Columbus, which hosted Trump the following day at the St. John Paul II Shrine in northern Washington.
"I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles," he said.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will elevate Gregory to cardinal, the first Black American to reach that position, the highest rank in the Roman Catholic Church and part of an elite that chooses popes and is the final word on doctrine.
In selecting Gregory, 72, Francis is rewarding a man who over the decades took courageous stands to end sexual abuse by clergy. They were positions that at times seemed to sideline his career, but that put him, his supporters say, on the right side of history and on a firm moral footing.
Like most Black people in the United States, Gregory was not born into the Catholic faith, growing up in a Protestant denomination. It was largely with the great migration of Black Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th century that many turned to Catholicism, drawn partly by its educational opportunities and social work in urban areas.
As a child on the South Side of Chicago, the young Gregory so admired the nuns who taught him at his Catholic school that he decided he wanted to become a priest. He informed the school's head father of this ambition, according to a story Gregory often relates. He was told: Well, maybe you should become a Catholic first.
And so he did, taking his first communion while in elementary school.