By Jessica Easthope and Paula Katinas
America’s first black Cardinal came last weekend to the Diocese of Brooklyn — which boasts the largest African American Catholic population in the country — to deliver a Black History Month message of hope and empowerment.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the main celebrant of a Black History Month Mass at Immaculate Conception Monastery in Jamaica, Queens on Feb. 20, urged black Catholics to take pride in the gifts and talents they have given to the nation.
“We are a gift to this country!” he said.
Cardinal Gregory is the leader of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. and was elevated to his rank by Pope Francis in 2020.
Cardinal Gregory, who has often spoken out about the evils of racism, did not shy away from the topic at this Mass.
“In this month of February, our nation is involved to celebrate the accomplishments and gifts of American people of color — an invitation that is long overdue and not always properly understood,” he said. “There have been many times and occasions when God’s example of compassion and mercy have not been kept by some of God’s people.”
Earlier this month, at an online forum sponsored by the St. Thomas More Catholic Community at Yale University, Cardinal Gregory said racism “has denied or limited many African Americans from living out their calling to become full members of the Catholic Church as priests or religious and certainly, to fully attend or teach in higher education.”
Jelami Morris, who attends Mass at St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Jamaica, said he came to Sunday’s Mass hoping Cardinal Gregory would deliver “a message of hope and healing” and address the topic of racism.
“I feel the only way for these things to be addressed is to have the conversation. We can’t continue to act like it doesn’t exist. But we absolutely have to address it if we’re gonna be able to progress in any type of way,” Morris added.
The Mass, a joint celebration of the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was organized by Vicariate for Black Catholic Concerns for the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Office of Multicultural Diversity of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn and Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre concelebrated the Mass. Dozens of bishops and priests from both dioceses were among the hundreds of people who packed the church.
The atmosphere inside the church was one of excitement and anticipation, with everyone wanting to get a closer look at the historic figure of America’s first black Cardinal.
His visit was perhaps fitting, considering the Diocese of Brooklyn’s strong African American presence. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the diocese heads the list of the dioceses in the country with significant numbers of black Catholics. A 2014 report on cultural diversity in the Catholic Church issued by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate put the number at 214,890.
Cardinal Gregory has many milestones in his career. He was the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a post he held from 2001 to 2004. In addition to his role as head of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., he is also chancellor of The Catholic University of America and serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees for The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Joyce Barber liked what she heard from Cardinal Gregory at the Mass.
“I thought his homily was very inspirational and it really touched on everything in society we’re going through,” Barber said. “This was a Mass of great unity and it shows the work we have to do.”