- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Another color barrier will crumble today when an Illinois bishop becomes the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, 53, the prelate who heads the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., pop. 110,000, is expected to easily win today's election for the presidency of the administrative organization of the nation's 285 active Catholic bishops. He has been vice president of the group since 1998 and his presidential term would last until 2004.
Although the bishop is running against nine other candidates, the vice president traditionally gets the presidential spot, with the runner-up named as vice president.
Bishop Gregory told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his aim over the next three years is "to do the will of the bishops" and to increase participation by blacks in the 62-million-member denomination.
"I hope that African-Americans might see in me the fact that the Catholic Church takes seriously its commitment to multicultural celebration and life," said Bishop Gregory, who as president will speak for the nation's Catholic bishops on everything from war and peace issues to abortion activism. In the past, he has spoken out against racial profiling and white flight.
About 260 bishops are meeting at the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington this week for the annual fall USCCB business meeting. In addition to the election, its docket includes creating a statement on the growing numbers of Asian-American Catholics, a resolution designating Jan. 1 as a National Prayer Day for Peace, and a pro-life initiative.
The USCCB estimates 2 million Catholics are black, with heavy concentrations in southern Louisiana, the Baltimore-Washington area and New York. Although there are 1,300 parishes of mainly black members, only 75 of them are headed by black pastors, it says. There are 250 black Catholic priests in this country, 300 nuns and 380 deacons, as well as four black professors in Catholic seminaries.
"In A Word," a monthly for black Catholic, reaches 30,000 readers.
U.S. Catholic officials have had to import priests from Africa, particularly Nigeria, to meet the needs of black Catholics, says the Rev. Peter Hogan of the Josephite Fathers, a religious community in Baltimore specializing in the needs of black Catholics.
"We're starting a seminary in Nigeria to get recruits for the United States," said Father Hogan.
Black Catholic saints include St. Benedict the Moor, a son of African slaves born in 1526 who was taken in by Franciscan hermits; St. Moses the Black, an Ethiopian desert monk born around 330 A.D.; and Josephine Bakhita, who was born in the Sudan in 1869 and kidnapped by slave merchants before ending up in Italy.
The most famous may be Charles Lwanga and his friends. From 1885 to 1887, these young men, who served in the Ugandan king's court but who refused to gratify the monarch with homosexual favors, were killed.
Bishop Gregory, who was born in Chicago, was sent to a Catholic school by his Protestant parents, where he converted to Catholicism as a sixth grader.
He attended seminary at St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., before getting his doctorate in sacred liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. He has been known to favor a separate rite for black Catholics to better reflect their culture.
He became a priest in 1973 and was put on the fast track for a bishop's seat. After 10 years as an associate priest and professor at St. Mary of the Lake, at 35 years old he was made an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Chicago in 1983.
In Chicago, he worked under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In 1994, when he was sent to head up the Belleville Diocese in southern Illinois, he was the only black clergyman.
He inherited a diocese rife with sexual-abuse scandals among priests, 11 of whom were dismissed in the early 1990s. Starting this year, priest candidates in his diocese had to undergo criminal-background checks.
In April 2000, on the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Illinois bishops released a pastoral letter against racism, which Bishop Gregory helped write. The seven-page missive was called "Moving Beyond Racism: Learning to See with the Eyes of Christ."
Bishop Gregory is a prelate in a church that is focusing more of its energies on blacks worldwide, particularly in Africa, where some of its bishops have been named as possible successors to Pope John Paul II.
There are 116 million Catholics in Africa, about one-third of the continent's 350 million Christians. It is the fastest-growing portion of the Catholic Church. Several months ago, Bishop Gregory visited the region, meeting with the bishops of war-torn Sudan.
"They wanted the opportunity to share with us the pastoral struggle they've had as bishops in a country that's been at war for 35 years," he said. The struggle is not so much the Catholic Church vs. the country's Islamic rulers, he added. "It's a problem of a government having to guarantee religious freedom for all its people."
There have been three black popes to date: Pope Victor I, an African who served from 189-199 A.D.; Miltiades, an African priest elected to the papacy in 311; and Pope Gelasius I, who was in office from 492-496 A.D.


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