Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pope to Wilt: Come to Rome

A week before leading the first episcopal ordination his booming Southern church has ever seen, the nation's highest-ranking African-American prelate has received an added sign of papal favor.

Earlier today, B16 named Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta as one of his personal appointees to next month's Second Synod of Bishops for Africa, which'll meet at the Vatican through most of October.

The lone US cleric tapped to attend the gathering, the 61 year-old archbishop was listed among a group of 15 senior prelates invited by the pontiff from outside the continent, among them the cardinals of Paris and Budapest and the heads of the regional bishops' councils of Europe, Asia, Oceania and Latin America. With some 200 members, the majority of a Synod's delegates are elected by the relevant episcopal conferences -- in this case, the African ones alone -- with the remainder of the body comprised of the heads of the Roman Curia (each with an ex officio seat), and papal appointees.

Ordained an auxiliary of his native Chicago at age 36, Gregory rose to national prominence in early 2002 when the clergy sex-abuse crisis erupted weeks after his election as president of the US bishops. Though unforeseen on his ascent to the post, the first minority prelate ever to lead the body came especially well-equipped to handle the moment -- on his arrival as bishop of Belleville in 1993, Gregory stepped into a diocese shaken by revelations of clerical misconduct after a tenth of its presbyterate had been suspended on credible allegations.

As the national spotlight bore down, the then-chief became the leading voice of the church's response, earning high marks for a performance that drew heavily upon his experience with the issue, innate conciliatory talents and considerable media savvy.

Days after wrapping his three-year term at the bench's helm, Gregory became the third Black prelate sent to lead the 69-county Atlanta church, albeit under vastly different circumstances than greeted his predecessors. Amid a mass migration driven by the region's booming economy and rising profile, the Catholic community in the "Capital of the South" now stands at the door of a million members (triple its 1990 size), with an all-around vibrance that's made it one of the Stateside church's bright lights at the close of a difficult decade... with even more eminent Roman recognition possibly to come.

On next Tuesday's feast of the Archangels, Gregory will ordain his new auxiliary, Bishop-elect Luis Zarama, at an afternoon Mass in the 404's Cathedral of Christ the King. Named in July, the Colombian-born prelate is the first added episcopal presence given to Atlanta in four decades, and the first to be named for reasons other than the illness of the city's archbishop.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper last November, Gregory looked to the day when "a Pope of color" would govern the church, drawing a parallel to the presidential election which had just occurred.

"[I]f Obama in the White House is akin to the first man on the Moon," the archbishop said, "surely the same could happen for the chair of Peter."

PHOTO: Michael Alexander/Georgia Bulletin