WASHINGTON — On Tuesday afternoon at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington marked 50 years as a priest in the Catholic Church, alongside eight members of his ordination class from his seminary training in Illinois.
The livestreamed Mass was somewhat subdued, despite the full choir and miniature brass section reproducing hymns from the day the nine men were ordained at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Mundelein, Illinois, on May 9, 1973.
Identical, too, were the readings at the Mass, speaking of the anointing of God, the call of ministry, the supremacy of Christ, and the humility required of Church leaders.
“The word of God announced 50 years ago in our lives and just re-proclaimed still offers goals to be attained rather than achievements to be celebrated,” Gregory said during his homily.
“It's good for us to listen once again to God's wisdom. It's also a joy for us to hear those words again together and with a few of the people who have helped us to grow in the priesthood.”
The crowd gathered in person for the liturgy included friends and family of the priestly classmates, most of them from the Archdiocese of Chicago, for which Gregory was ordained at the age of 25. He served there for just ten years before being named its auxiliary bishop, becoming one of the youngest Catholic prelates in U.S. history.
Gregory emphasized that the most important of the three Mass readings was the Gospel—ironically enough, from Matthew—focusing on humility, including Jesus’ famous saying that he did not come to be served but to serve. Accordingly, the golden jubilee Mass made relatively little of Gregory’s episcopal ministry, focusing on the common call of the priests assembled with him to concelebrate the Mass.
Even so, having served as Bishop of Belleville, Archbishop of Atlanta, and Archbishop of Washington over the past three decades, and as an emblem of Black Catholics nationally, Gregory was feted by supporters from around the country throughout the day.
“God bless you, Cardinal Gregory!” wrote Bishop Michael G. McGovern of Belleville on social media Tuesday morning.
St Anthony Catholic School, a Black Catholic institution in Northeast D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, also sent congratulations.
“May the Lord continue to bless him and his vocation,” the school wrote on Twitter.
“#MattiesGuild continues to surround our Metropolitan Archbishop, Wilton Cardinal Gregory, with our prayers,” added the guild for Mattie Stepanek, the late child poet who was a native of the archdiocese.
Gregory, who turned 75 in December, is one of six African-American Catholic bishops active in the United States, and one of two in the Archdiocese of Washington.
He has served as Archbishop of Washington since 2019 and became the first African-American cardinal in Church history when he was elevated by Pope Francis in November 2020. He has since been named to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.
Among his various honors, Gregory was presented with the Order of Lincoln last month in Illinois, the state’s highest civilian honor. He was one of six Lincoln Laureates honored in the ceremony at the state capitol.
As prescribed in canon law, Gregory submitted his age-mandated resignation request on his 75th birthday, though it is not expected to be accepted for several years (given that he is a cardinal archbishop). Gregory will mark 40 years as a bishop in December of this year.
“We ask your prayers for us and for all priests that we might renew the promises that we made however long ago to be priests for you in the image of Christ Jesus,” Gregory said during his homily on Tuesday.
“We are ready and willing to do so into the future that only God knows and has in store for us and for you. We are ready and willing”
The media outlet for the Archdiocese of Washington, The Catholic Standard, has announced that a special edition of the paper on June 22 will honor Gregory’s golden jubilee, alongside a Spanish version in El Pregonero on June 15.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.