Wilton Gregory was appointed the sixth archbishop of Atlanta by Pope John Paul II on December 9, 2004. Since his arrival, the archdiocese has grown to approximately 1.2 million Catholics. Gregory was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the height of the clergy sex-abuse crisis in 2001; during his leadership, the USCCB established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In an email interview, Commonweal contributing writer John Gehring spoke to Gregory about race and racism; immigration; the shifting geographic center of the U.S. church to the south and southwest; and what he might have ended up doing had he not become a bishop.
John Gehring: You said at a recent event with the civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and other leaders at Georgetown University that racism at its core is a spiritual issue that calls for conversion. How does that conversion happen?
Archbishop Wilton Gregory: Like any other spiritual transformation or renewal, conversion must begin with an honest and a sincere admission that we need God’s transformative power in our lives to achieve any real change, no matter the perspective from which we might begin. As in a twelve-step program, we must acknowledge that we are powerless without God’s intervention. Conversion calls us to honesty of heart. Each one of us must ask how we contribute to the racist climate that seems only to grow stronger in spite of our best efforts at legislative and social remedies. Whether we are victims of racism or its perpetrators, we must begin on our knees. The extraordinary folks of Mother Emanuel never abandoned their hurt, their anger, their sorrow, or their call for justice, but they rose above all of these by their deep and genuine gospel-formed willingness to forgive; their example should be transformative for our nation. Even before Pope Francis recently urged the people of Myanmar not to give in to anger and revenge as a response to the brutality they had faced, the holy families of Mother Emanuel modeled that exhortation for us all.
J. G.: Georgetown and other colleges are grappling with the ugly reality that slavery and racism were integral to their development as institutions. What is the relationship between that painful past and what needs to be done today to address racial injustice?
W. G.: I applaud Georgetown University for openly and transparently acknowledging the history of selling black people to finance the university. What the university’s leaders did two centuries ago absolutely violated the principles of our Catholic faith. That type of honesty is an important component for reconciling—not erasing, reversing, or disregarding, but reconciling—the university’s history, but also the lives of the descendants of those who were sold. In one sense, no act of reparation will be satisfactory for those whose lives were so under-valued both as human beings held in slavery and then as human chattel to satisfy the financial indebtedness of a Catholic institution. Nonetheless, the university must also put into place—as it is attempting to do—a program that both admits the horror and error of its past actions and directs its students, faculty, and administrations to an awareness of the dignity of all people, especially those who even today are often considered less than worthy of respect and dignity.
J. G.: The geographic center of gravity for the Catholic Church in the United States used to be in the Northeast and parts of the industrial Midwest, where Irish, Polish, and other Catholic immigrants from Europe fueled the vitality of the church. Today the church’s growth is in the Southwest and in the South because of an influx of Latino immigrants. How are you seeing this play out in Atlanta?
W. G.: The Archdiocese of Atlanta is benefitting greatly in many different ways from the influx of our Latino brothers and sisters. And though not as many in number, we are similarly blessed by the arrival of Asian, European, and African families building up and amplifying our local Catholic community. Of course we are also growing due to demographics shifting from the very places that were once the seedbed of Catholicism in the United States. Our booming economy, favorable climate, and regional cordiality are all attractive reasons for our continued growth and development, contributing to a vibrancy of faith that makes this fortunate local archbishop very, very proud. All that said, we are far from perfect and there is much that we must continue to do more successfully to become the “beloved community” Dr. King often summoned us to be.