Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory gestures during a panel titled “Confronting Racism in Our Hearts and in Our Nation” Nov. 13 at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS photo/Rafael Suanes, Georgetown University)

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.

There was unusual unanimity on our pastoral responsibility to care for the immigrants in our midst no matter their country of origin or religious affiliation.

J. G.: You and your fellow bishops met last November for your annual national meeting in Baltimore. What stood out for you about that meeting?

W. G.: There are flashpoints that occur at each bishops’ meeting. Occasionally, the issues that garner the greatest outside attention are not the truly substantive matters that we gather to discuss, and manufactured controversy often overshadows more core topics. This fall I was edified and encouraged by the conversations that involved the plight of our immigrant faithful—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Bishops spoke eloquently and forcefully about what we should do together and individually to respond to the harsh and punitive climate that permeates so much of the national conversation regarding the subject of immigration. There was unusual unanimity on our pastoral responsibility to care for the immigrants in our midst no matter their country of origin or religious affiliation.

J. G.: Pope Francis is wildly popular but there is an organized, vocal minority of clergy and commentators who view him with deep suspicion and hostility. The former head of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee wrote a letter to the pope accusing him of spreading “chronic confusion,” “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, and appointing bishops who “scandalize” the faithful. One of the pope's key advisors, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, remarked a few years ago that much of the resistance to the pope is coming from the United States. What is your assessment of all this?

W. G.: For better or worse, the United States enjoys the lion’s share of public and media attention. We influence much of the conversation on social and public media by sheer volume. If those who voice opposition to Pope Francis and the direction in which he is leading the church come from other nations but their statements are published on American media platforms, it may appear that they originate in this country or reflect our sentiments. We have our own dissident voices to be sure, but too frequently every challenging voice that criticizes the Holy Father and is broadcast on American media is identified as American in origin.

J. G.: How has Pope Francis influenced you as a bishop?

W. G.: Pope Francis has helped me to focus once again on the joy in my pastoral ministry. He has challenged me genuinely to believe that the Gospel is and should be the source of the church’s joy. His own approachable, cheerful, and hopeful style in exercising the papacy reminds me that shepherds must exude joy or they will fail to lead anyone else to discover it. There are many serious and knotty issues that I must face each day, but the Holy Father reminds me by his example and his words that Christ has already redeemed creation and we are saved, even when that might not be so obvious because of the world’s many problems and our own grievous sinfulness.

J. G.: You were president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Catholics during the height of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and were widely praised for your leadership at that difficult time. What have U.S. bishops learned from facing the awful reality of this abuse of power and sinful behavior?

W. G.: I think (and pray) that we have learned the lesson of being vigilant, transparent, and honest in confronting serious issues, including but certainly not limited to the sexual abuse of young and vulnerable people. Nevertheless, we must also exhibit that same tenacious attitude toward other pastoral problems: financial integrity, outreach to the marginalized, and our response to the pervasive presence of racism and injustice in our society.

J. G.: I know most bishops try to stay away from weighing in too directly when it comes to politics (although a few seem to do so more than others). But my question has as much to do with influencing the culture and the church's role in helping to shape faithful citizens. More than half of white Catholics voted for a presidential candidate who demonized immigrants, boasted about assaulting women and energized a new generation of white supremacists. Should church leaders be doing any hard thinking about their role in better communicating the Gospel to those Catholic voters?

W. G.: We must refine our evangelization efforts, catechesis, and social-justice teaching to ensure that our people fully understand that religious formation and principles can never be disassociated from any aspect of our daily lives, including our political choices.

J. G.: We're living in a moment when the forces of nativism and nationalism are resurgent. What can the church do to stand up for the dignity of immigrants and the "othering" of people?

W. G.: We must remind our people that a great majority of Catholics including their own families were once themselves immigrants forced to endure the nativist bigotry of earlier generations who spoke about Catholics with the same disparaging vitriol being hurled at the new immigrants of today.

J. G.: What is the hardest thing about being a bishop?

W. G.: The most challenging dimension of my ministry is attempting to heal the divisions that seem to abound in today’s ecclesial world. I have to try to remind people on both sides of the barque of Peter that there is room for us all and that we are not the first generation of Catholics to experience serious theological and pastoral differences of opinion. In fact, from the New Testament, strong leaders within the church disagreed openly. Eventually, the truly great ones found ways to heal conflicts and keep the Lord’s flock united.

J. G.: If you were not a Catholic bishop what do you think you would be doing?

W. G.: Last May I went to Chicago to celebrate my forty-fourth anniversary as a priest with my seminary classmates. Many of them were preparing to retire in June. As I looked around at them, I recalled the enthusiasm with which we began as priests in 1973. I was renewed by our time together, our laughter, and my respect for the wonderful pastoral service that we have been able to achieve—in spite of our many mistakes. If I had not become a bishop, I suppose that I would be considering retirement, but I am still energized by the pastoral service that I have found in the episcopacy. I still have good health and enough energy to want to continue in this ministry. Like my classmates, the administrative tasks are the least attractive parts of my work. Many priests say that retirement is more identified with freedom from meetings, budgets, personnel conflicts, and “dealing with the Chancery.” Even as I struggled not to take that last point too personally, I was reminded that I have heard the same sentiment from many of my bishop friends as well!

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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