(October 26, 2020)

Black Catholics in the US pre-dated the nation’s founding, arriving in the 1500s. However, the Catholic Church awaited five centuries before the naming of its first Black American Cardinal.

Pope Francis named Wilton Gregory, presently the Archbishop of Washington, a new American cardinal, and the timing of this appointment is significant.

2020 has marked multiple tragedies: firstly the COVID-19 outbreak and then the continued police brutality towards Black persons, resulting in the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the paralysis of Jacob Blake.

Following the murder of George Floyd, Archbishop Wilton Gregory issued the following statement:

“In astonishment, we are seeing the reactions of people across the United States as they express feelings of frustration, hurt, and anger in their cry for justice for George Floyd, whom we painfully watched being suffocated in front of our eyes on video in Minneapolis, Minnesota this past week.

“Many of us remember similar incidents in our history that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement, where we repeatedly saw Black Americans viciously brutalized by police on television and in newspaper photos.

“Those historic moments helped to rouse our national conscience to the African American experience in the United States and now, in 2020, we tragically still see repeated incidents of police brutality against African Americans.

“We find ourselves in this national moment again with the awakening of our conscience by heartbreaking photos and video that clearly confirm that racism still endures in our country. On television and in social media, we are observing an overflow of pain felt acutely in the African American community and shared by too many other communities.

“Moments like this cause people of good will, who believe in the value, respect and dignity of every human life, to wonder if and how we can move on from here. The horror of George Floyd’s death, like all acts of racism, hurts all of us in the Body of Christ since we are each made in the image and likeness of God, and deserve the dignity that comes with that existence.”

Likewise, Pope Francis issued his own message denouncing the murder of George Floyd:

“Dear brothers and sisters in the United States, I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr George Floyd. My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

However, amid a peaceful protest in Washington DC, President Donald Trump staged a visit to the ‘church of the Presidents’ in the capital, which resulted in police attacking crowds of people with tear gas simply for being in the vicinity.

Trump went on to visit the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, and Archbishop Wilton Gregory, not known to make political statements, publicly denounced that unholy photo op:

“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.

“Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”

I believe Pope Francis, a man of prayer and intentionality, is sending a message to the Catholic Church and to the world by naming Wilton Gregory as a new cardinal amid the racial tumult rocking the United States: Black Lives Matter to the Catholic Church and to God.

Pope Francis is stating what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have failed to state and unequivocally denounce.

Pope Francis, formed in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, knows that love ought to be expressed in deeds more than in words (SpEx 230).

Francis does not merely state that Black Lives Matter, but he shows it by this long-overdue naming of a Black American to the College of Cardinals.

Bishop Edward Braxton, retired Bishop of Belleville, Illinois and one of the few Black American bishops, stated that the Church doesn’t need to say more about racism, it needs to do more.

Herein is the Church responding to Bishop Braxton’s call through Pope Francis’ historic appointment of Wilton Gregory.

While the pope’s announcement is a call for rejoicing, one might also lament that this appointment is centuries overdue.

Some may point to there being only 3 million Black Catholics in America, so there wasn’t a need for a more timely cardinal from the Black community.

But focusing on statistics and not on the injustice from society and the Church towards the Black community is the wrong way to recognize this issue. 

The Eurocentric Church represents the long delay in this cardinal appointment.

Pope Francis is returning the Church to being truly Catholic and not Eurocentric. 

While this is just one step for Pope Francis and one step for the Catholic Church, and warrants more that the Church ought to do for the Black community, the Pope is shepherding the Church closer to inclusion that mirrors the boundless inclusivity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

But the pope is not the only member of the Church – we as baptized members of the Catholic Church are called to imitate the Holy Father’s example and hold the Black members of our society and Church with the love and dignity that God has for them, and to stand with and fight with the Black community against racial injustice.

More by Novena US contributor Matt Kappadakunnel:

Jesus wouldn’t make fun of a person’s name… and neither should we

These Orthodox leaders have no problems standing up to the sin of racism. Why can’t the US Catholic Bishops follow their example?

The US has a long history of favouring “blue lives” over Black lives. That needs to end, and police must atone for their sins

If the US Bishops can’t denounce Trump and white supremacy then they don’t stand with Christ


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Matt Kappadakunnel has a background in investment management and investment banking. Additionally, Matt spent multiple years studying to be a Catholic priest. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder. Matt lives in Los Angeles with his wife and toddler, and they are expecting a newborn in November.