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Catholic bishops pick 1st black chief

Published Sep. 10, 2005

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops chose their first black president Tuesday, electing a powerful orator who speaks bluntly about racism in the church and society at large.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said he would continue to speak about racism as a violation of Christ's teaching and an evil that Catholics must work to end.

"It is a sin," he declared.

He said he hoped his election as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops would send a "message of love" to blacks of all faiths:

"I hope it says something positive."

Black Catholics see Gregory's election as recognition they have long sought from church leaders. Estimates of the number of U.S. black Catholics range from 2-million to 3.5-million, out of 63.7-million Catholics nationwide.

Gregory succeeds Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas, who is finishing his three-year term. The 53-year-old prelate takes over as the bishops review their position on the war on terrorism; they will vote on a formal statement Thursday.

He is an expert on liturgy and has written extensively on Catholic opposition to physician-assisted suicide and the death penalty. Friends say he is able to reach Catholics of all races.

Monsignor Richard Duncanson recalled a Thanksgiving years ago when the two were in graduate school. A prayer was offered noting how the early Americans came full of hope, prompting Gregory to make a trademark straightforward observation.

"He said, "Some didn't come. Some were brought over as slaves,' " Duncanson said. "It was a memorable moment. He makes us aware without a sense of resentment."

Gregory was in sixth grade when he first considered becoming a priest. His parents, Christians without a denomination, had sent him to St. Carthage Catholic School on the South Side of Chicago, where his family lived. He was drawn by the warmth and intelligence of the two priests and wanted to follow their example.

He was ordained in 1973 and later earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. He soon was in demand as a public speaker.

"He can have a crowd absolutely waiting on every word," said the Rev. Charles Rubey, director of Catholic Charities of Chicago.

Gregory became a bishop in 1983, serving for 10 years as auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, whom Gregory admired for remaining approachable despite his high rank.

Gregory had served for three years as vice president of the bishops' group. On Tuesday, he got 186 of the 249 votes cast for president, with the other 63 scattered among nine candidates.

Vice presidents traditionally ascend to the organization's top post. The new vice president is Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., who defeated Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, 141-110.

Gregory said he continues to experience racism from Catholics and others, despite his position in the church. Still, the bishop said the prejudice has never made him consider leaving the faith.

"Even people who are racist are God's children and people can change," he said.