As much as I enjoy writing, I have grown weary and wary of blogging. Today must be different. Today, a man with whom I have prayed, worked, and socialized for some twenty years has officially been named the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Since I am a Deacon of the Archdiocese, my friend has now become my bishop. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Chicago, and longstanding Archbishop of Atlanta, now assumes his greatest challenge yet.
I am certain there will be those who question this appointment; I am not one of them. I am certain there will be those who will point out any flaws and failings of the new archbishop; I am not one of them. For any naysayers out there: give the man a chance.
I write because I believe I know the man. As he has said on several occasions, “we have history.” I first met him while he was serving as Bishop of Belleville, Illinois and I was working on the drafting committee of a USCCB document on deacons in the United States. As a young teenager, I had attended my first year of high school seminary in Belleville, and we chatted about that. A couple of years later, I served on his diocesan staff in the Diocese of Belleville as he assumed the presidency of the USCCB. Immediately after, I applied for a senior staff position at the USCCB and it was then-Bishop Gregory who called to tell me I had the job. Over those years at the USCCB we worked closely on any number of projects and every encounter was special. After he was sent to Atlanta, he invited me on several occasions to come to the archdiocese to speak at convocations, to conduct a formal study of the diaconate in the archdiocese, and to give the annual retreat to the diaconate community.
After I had assumed a teaching position at Saint Leo University in Florida, he invited a faculty colleague and me to bring a group of undergraduates to Atlanta for an “alternative Spring Break” serving the poor of inner city Atlanta. Even though he had just suffered an injury which caused him to cancel a number of appointments, he insisted on welcoming our group to his own home, and he personally served us refreshments and visited with us all afternoon.
I believe the appointment of Archbishop Wilton Gregory is about as perfect a pastoral assignment as could be made. The Archdiocese is a beautiful, diverse, complex and dynamic place. It demands an archbishop who is a good navigator of its swirling currents. It demands a pastor who will, as he said this morning in his press conference, focus on spiritual healing as well as the concrete realities necessary to proclaim the love of God to all and to restore hope to those who have no reason for hope. If there is one trait the marks Wilton Gregory, it is his ability to listen. I don’t think he’d mind me sharing this story.
I had recently joined his diocesan staff in Belleville as the Director of Pastoral Services and Ministry Formation. Two days after starting, I was informed by the Vicar General that I would, of course, be facilitating the overnight Diocesan Pastoral Council meeting the next weekend! The bishop, of course, was going to be there to participate, but it was my job to run the meetings. That was the first I had heard about it! Since I had only a couple of days to prepare, I called the bishop’s office to speak with him. Naturally and significantly, he wasn’t in the office; he was traveling someplace in the diocese visiting parishes. I called his cell phone and left a panicky message. Not long after, the outer door of our building opened and immediately I heard, as he came walking down the hall, “Hi, Wilton!’ “How’s it going, bishop?”, “Wilton, thanks so much for the card!” Finally, he got to my office. He was dressed casually, and he dropped into a chair. He remarked that he would be dressed just as casually for the weekend meeting of the DPC because he wanted to be as informal as possible so people would be comfortable and open with him. He said, “Bill, my job this weekend is to listen intensely to what folks have to say; your job is to run things so that they can speak and I can listen. It’s that simple.” The man who everyone called “Wilton” wanted and needed to be himself and to be a pastor.
And it was that simple. The love and mutual respect that I experienced that weekend, even while discussing some very touchy subjects, is something I will never forget. His generosity of spirit, so beautifully on display with our students, continues to influence their own development in ministry to this day. His deep love of God, his integrity and honesty, and his profound willingness to make himself vulnerable for the sake of others, are all gifts that he brings to Washington at a time when we need it the most.
Archbishop Wilton, welcome to Washington. Those of us who know and love you are praying for you and ready to assist you in your new ministry in any ways we can.