Pope Francis announced on Sunday that he has promoted Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who has expressed support for LGBTQ Catholics, to the rank of cardinal.
The pope disclosed his decision to appoint Gregory and 12 other church leaders as cardinals in a surprise announcement from his studio window in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican to a crowd of spectators, according to the Associated Press.
The AP reports Gregory and the other church leaders will be formally elevated to the rank of cardinal in a ceremony in Rome on Nov. 28.
“With a very grateful and humble heart, I thank Pope Francis for this appointment, which will allow me to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s church,” Gregory said in a statement released by the Archdiocese of Washington.
Gregory, 73, became Washington’s archbishop in May 2019 after having served as the archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years. He became the first African American to head D.C.’s Catholic archdiocese and will become the first African American to become a Roman Catholic cardinal.
LGBTQ Catholics familiar with Gregory said he spoke out on a number of occasions in support of the LGBTQ community during his tenure as archbishop of Atlanta. In a development reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, Gregory defended a decision by the pastor of an LGBTQ-supportive Catholic church to invite Jesuit priest and noted author, Father James Martin, to speak at the church about one of Martin’s books.
The book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” has been hailed by LGBTQ Catholic activists but condemned by conservative Catholic leaders who consider it a breach of church teachings on homosexuality.
In a public statement, Gregory rejected calls for the priest who invited Martin to speak to be removed from his role as a church pastor and praised him as one of the “most compassionate and understanding priests” in Atlanta who was following Pope Francis’s call to “accompany people on the periphery of society.”
Francis drew attention in D.C. in August 2019 when he told a transgender man during a gathering of young Catholics that the man was welcome in the Catholic Church.
His comment came in response to a question by the trans man who identified himself as a member of the LGBTQ Catholic group Dignity Washington and who asked Gregory, “What place do I have as a confirmed transgender Catholic and what place do my queer friends have here in this archdiocese?”
“You belong to the heart of this church,” Gregory replied. “There is nothing that you may do, may say, that will ever rip you from the heart of this church,” he said. “There is a lot that has been said to you, about you, behind your back that is painful and is sinful. We have to find a way to talk to one another and to talk to one another not just from one perspective, but to talk and listen to one another.”
New Ways Ministry, a Mt. Rainier, Maryland-based national Catholic ministry that advocates for LGBTQ Catholics, issued a statement praising Francis for naming Gregory and two other LGBTQ-supportive church leaders to become cardinals.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, identified in the statement the two others as Bishop Mario Grech of the island nation of Malta, who currently serves as the Vatican’s secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; and Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Italy, who was recently appointed to lead the Vatican’s Congregation for Causes of Saints.
“Coming just days after Pope Francis made headlines for statements supporting same-gender civil unions, the inclusion of these three leaders to the College of Cardinals, the church body which will elect the next pope, continues the pontiff’s long record of LGBTQ-positive statements and actions,” DeBernardo said.
“These prelates have been willing to discuss LGBTQ issues in supportive ways, something that, unfortunately, is a rarity among the church’s leaders,” DeBernardo said in the New Ways Ministry statement.
“Even with the immense amount of criticism that Pope Francis has received from conservative hierarchs, the pontiff shows no indication of shying away from making decisions that can have positive ramifications for LGBTQ people,” he said. “Since naming cardinals also affects who the next pontiff will be, the pope also shows that he is planning for the future of the church to continue in this affirming posture on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.