On Saturday evening, the Lincoln Academy of Illinois will award Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington the Order of Lincoln, the highest civilian award given by the State of Illinois.
The 75-year-old Black Catholic prelate is one of six Lincoln Laureates this year, described by the academy as those “who have brought honor to the state because of their achievements and their identity with Illinois, whether by birth or residence.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who serves as president of the academy, will bestow the medals at the 59th annual convocation and investiture ceremony in the House chambers of the Illinois State Capitol—where the namesake, Abraham Lincoln, served as a state representative from 1834 to 1842.
“These talented individuals embody the very best of Illinois, and I am honored to recognize them for their service and dedication to our great state,” Pritzker said of the Laureates earlier this year.
“These six Laureates, like the man after whom The Lincoln Academy is named, stand tall in their fields and remind us of what can be achieved with determination and vision," added retired circuit judge Ron Spears, who serves as chancellor of the academy.
Gregory, who has served as Archbishop of Washington since 2019, was born in 1947 to a Black Protestant family in Chicago, where he converted to Catholicism as a child. He later attended local diocesan seminaries and was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 25.
As a priest, Gregory obtained a Doctor of Sacred Liturgy in Rome in Rome and, after just a decade of priesthood, was named Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago by Pope John Paul II in 1983. At 35 years of age, he was the youngest Catholic prelate in the United States and one of the youngest in American history.
Throughout his episcopal career, Gregory has been known for his commitment to Catholic social teaching and to the Black Catholic community, and has also made headlines for his efforts to respond to the Catholic sex abuse crisis. As president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, Gregory spearheaded the Dallas Charter, which established a zero-tolerance policy for clerics credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Gregory was named the Archbishop of Atlanta in 2004, succeeding John F. Donoghue in an archdiocese previously headed by two African-American archbishops in a row—including the first ever. Gregory would serve there for 15 years before being tapped to head the Washington Archdiocese.
In October 2020, Pope Francis named Gregory to the College of Cardinals, another first for an African American, and created him a cardinal-priest in Rome that November. The next month, he was named to the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life. Gregory is considered a close advisor to the pope on matters in the U.S. church.
Among his various honors, Gregory has received honorary doctorates from Spring Hill College, Xavier University, Catholic Theological Union, and Boston College. A gifted homilist, he received the Great Preacher Award from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in 2002, and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers four years later. In August 2022, the Catholic Mobilizing Network honored Gregory at the Justice Reimagined Awards for his advocacy against the death penalty.
His award on Saturday will make him one of 350 Illinoisians named to the Order of Lincoln, which was established in 1964. The academy began naming student laureates in 1975, and monies raised at the ceremony assist in funding their cash prize and an accompanying medallion.