Thursday, November 06, 2008

Wilt: Next Stop, Black Pope

In an interview with a leading Italian daily, the nation's highest-ranking African-American prelate called the election of the first Black President "a great step for humanity," saying that it further opened the door for the church to elevate "a Pope of color."

Speaking with La Stampa, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta -- the first African-American to serve as president of the US bishops -- said that "if Obama in the White House is akin to the first man on the Moon, surely the same could happen for the chair of Peter."

Citing the internationalization of the church's top ranks begun in earnest by John XXIII and Paul VI, the 60 year-old prelate observed that the subsequent "spectrum of races and nations assisting the Pope... gives proof of [the church's] true global identity" and "offers a vision of the church in its international duties and functions and, in this, one sees reflected the important differences and diversity" of its cultures.

Along the way, the paper noted that no less than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger mused over the possibility of an African pontiff before the 2005 conclave that elected him. At the time, the now-Pope said such a choice "would be a beautiful signal."

Recalling his own election as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001, Gregory said that his confreres "chose the one they trusted and respected regardless of his race." The choice proved providential; then bishop of Belleville -- where he inherited a clergy sex-abuse scandal on his appointment in 1993 -- Gregory scored stellar marks for his leadership during the first waves of the national crisis that, unbeknownst to his electors, would explode onto the scene barely six weeks later.

Days after the end of his three-year term, he became the third African-American archbishop in the national hierarchy's 220-year history with his appointment to Atlanta, whose Catholic population of 800,000 has tripled in size since 2000.

On the part of Tuesday's electorate, the choice of Obama, Gregory said, "shows the degree of maturity reached by Americans and, I hope, is a definitive sign of reconciliation."

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As of this writing, the papacy's electoral college in the event of a conclave -- 116 cardinals in all -- includes nine Africans, 11 Asians and 20 Latin Americans.

Closer to home, while the Stateside church's leadership has seen an African-American reach its elected pinnacle, its pre-eminent appointed posts have still to follow suit.

The nation's 3 million Black Catholics have never seen one of their own don the red hat of a cardinal or lead a metropolitan see beyond Atlanta, whose first African-American archbishop was named in 1988. What's more, at their first annual conference with Archbishop Pietro Sambi in late 2006, the community's 16 bishops reportedly asked the papal nuncio to avoid the historic trend that saw African-American prelates only named as diocesan bishops south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Just a matter of weeks later, the Holy See replied by transferring George Murry SJ, then the chief shepherd of the Virgin Islands, back to the Mainland as bishop of Youngstown (Ohio). Not since the nation's first African-American prelate -- James Augustine Healy, ordained the second bishop of Portland in Maine in 1875 -- had another been tapped to lead a northern diocese.

Himself indicated as a leading prospect for the nation's top vacancy -- the archbishopric of New York, where Cardinal Edward Egan reached the retirement age of 75 in April 2007 -- Gregory (ordained an auxiliary of his native Chicago just six days after his 36th birthday) marks his silver jubilee in the episcopacy next month.