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Calm Amid the Storm:
An Interview With Bishop Wilton Gregory

By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

During his first year as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Gregory has forcefully responded to the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

Q U I C K S C A N

Facing the Crisis
A Major Issue in Society
Wanting to Become a Priest
Specializing in Liturgy
Dallas Changed Many Things
Presidential Adjustments
Keeping Things in Perspective

Web Exclusive Audio Feature

Bishop Wilton Gregory

Photo by Liz Quirin


Last November, the Catholic bishops in the United States elected Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, bishop of Belleville, Illinois, as president of their conference. Although the good example of two priests motivated Gregory to become a Catholic in 1959, the bad example of other priests involved in sexual abuse has dominated his first year as conference president.

Under his leadership at their meeting in Dallas (June 13-15), the bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, as well as canonical norms needed to implement the Charter. (See the news feature elsewhere on this site for up-to-date information.)

On July 1 at his office in Belleville, Bishop Gregory spoke with St. Anthony Messenger about his background and how it has prepared him to lead the U.S. bishops regarding this crisis and other issues.

“After six weeks as a sixth-grader at St. Carthage Grammar School on Chicago’s South Side,” he explains, “I decided that I wanted to be a priest. John Hayes and Gerard Weber, the priests in that parish, were very impressive.

“Here I was, a very impressionable 11-year-old kid, newly enrolled in a Catholic school, not from a Catholic background. These two fellows would come in to religion class, be out on the playground, friendly, warm and loving. I wish every kid had a priest like John Hayes or Gerry Weber in his or her life.”

After Wilton Gregory was ordained a priest in 1973, he served three years as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, Illinois. Then he was invited to do graduate studies in liturgy in preparation for joining the faculty at his alma mater, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary. In 1980, he was assigned there after completing his doctorate in liturgy (S.L.D.).

Father Gregory’s career as a professor was cut short by his 1983 appointment as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago. In 1990, he was elected to chair the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. Four years later he was installed as the sixth bishop of Belleville, Illinois. In 1998, he was elected vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (whose name changed in July 2001 to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). In November 2001, he was elected its president.

Bishop Gregory participated in the pope’s April 2002 meeting in Rome with the U.S. cardinals regarding the clergy sex-abuse crisis. After the Dallas meeting, he returned to Rome to deliver its two documents to the Holy See. He has been interviewed on major TV and radio stations.

Facing the Crisis

For over an hour, a relaxed and candid Bishop Gregory answered questions about the current situation of the Church in the United States.

How do you stay so calm in the current crisis?

I’m not too sure that I do stay that calm. I really sense that it’s important that I keep a certain equilibrium about this whole situation. The Church is not helped by panicky leadership, and fortunately I’m usually able to put things into perspective. That’s in the public arena. Sometimes I want to go into the closet and scream, but most often I’ve been able to maintain a necessary balance.

How do you feel U.S. Catholics have responded to the decisions the bishops made in Dallas?

Largely, they are very supportive, but they are still deeply scandalized by this whole matter, both at the actions of some priests and at the mishandling of the situation by a number of bishops, who may have acted on the best advice that they had available at the time. Admittedly, a number of bishops may simply have made an error in judgment, a very serious error in judgment.

But nonetheless, I think our people are still scandalized at this moment, and it’s going to take some time for healing and for restoration of trust and confidence.

In your presidential address at the beginning of the meeting in Dallas, you invited the bishops to use their anger constructively. Did that happen?

Yes, and it is continuing to happen. I think that bishops have been energized. It’s very difficult for bishops to do some of the hard things that we must now do. It is not easy confronting the issue, but confront it we must—in all areas. I think bishops are doing that right now.

Article One of the Charter refers to protecting minors from sexual abuse by anyone acting in the name of the Church. In time, will this Charter be applied to all diocesan, parish and school employees?

The Charter’s intent is to make sure that the Catholic Church is a safe environment in all circumstances for children. The greatest attention recently has been on the abuse of children by priests. But we know that sexual abuse of children is something that touches every segment of society, and the Charter simply says that the bishops are committed to making sure that, in a Church environment, no child is ever put in harm’s way by anyone acting in its name.

Once the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People is established, it will not focus exclusively on child abuse by clerics; the office’s focus is on protecting children in all circumstances.

Can you describe the clergy sex-abuse situation in this diocese when you became bishop here in 1994?

Before he became archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, Bishop James Keleher suspended five priests and a deacon for this reason. Vicar General and Diocesan Administrator Msgr. Jim Margason suspended another three and I suspended five more after I arrived. None of these 14 men are now engaged in ministry in the Catholic Church.

When you became bishop of Belleville, how did you develop your procedure for handling your new responsibility in this area?

I came with two great advantages in the midst of a terrible moment in the life of this local Church. One advantage was that I was in Chicago while Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was introducing a review board, a hotline, a victims’ assistance ministry, plus the review of all clergy records. I saw these things being developed under Cardinal Bernardin’s guidance, what they meant, how important they were and what was at stake.

Msgr. Jim Margason, the vicar general of the Diocese of Belleville and its administrator before I arrived, was, in some ways, already implementing the Chicago plan here. He and I work together like hand and glove; I rely on his wisdom, his canon law skills and his local experience.

We addressed this scandal the best we could. Did we make mistakes? Of course we made mistakes. But from day one, we have agreed that the protection of children was the driving principle, the right thing—what had to be done.

A Major Issue in Society

How would you describe the news coverage of the meeting in Dallas?

News stories about the bishops’ work in Dallas have underreported some implications of the Charter we adopted. The media follows its own principles, which say that the more egregious, the most outrageous, the more unconventional situations get the lion’s share of the attention. We know, however, that schools, scouting programs and athletic programs are occasions where children have been and are abused.

I hope that in the future the abuse of children receives its rightful amount of media attention lest it appear that this is only a Church-related, cleric-related event. If the Church addresses abuse by clerics and if the media loses attention on the larger issue, children will still be injured.

Child abuse is a very devastating part of society, and so it’s unpleasant to face this crisis. But it is such an important issue and so many people have been harmed as children and then carry those scars with them that, as a Church, we must shine light on these situations.

Not long after our meeting in Dallas, I was on a flight where a flight attendant recognized me. This very gracious person wrote me a letter during the flight, recalling abuse suffered as a child. This person was not a Catholic; the abuse was not by a cleric. But the flight attendant was very grateful that the Catholic Church was addressing this issue—sad to say, with our own particular credibility.

That individual felt a particular sense of relief that the public was being informed that these events do take place, that they do harm people, that the scars are deep and lasting, that this is not simply a matter within the Catholic Church.

During and after the Dallas meeting, you participated in several press conferences and gave many interviews. You seem much more at ease with reporters than many of your brother bishops. How did you develop that ease?

When I talk to reporters, I get as nervous as anyone does because I am not sure what they will ask or edit out, or how they will use what I say. But I believe that the media is a powerful instrument for good and that, if we don’t use it effectively, we actually squander a great advantage. That’s the world in which we live.

When I was a deacon, Cardinal John Cody sent me to Loyola of New Orleans, which had a three-week media training program on how to give an interview, how to run a program, the camera, the radio scene. Working with the media is personally satisfying. I try to be honest and straightforward. And I take risks. I can’t control what they will publish or broadcast, but I can say what I believe is the truth. I can speak honestly, acknowledging what I know and what I don’t know. And then it’s in the Good Lord’s hands.

Wanting to Become a Priest

What drew you to become a Catholic and a priest?

I entered the Catholic school system in Chicago at St. Carthage in September 1958. Six weeks later I told my folks that I was going to be a priest. I was baptized at the Easter Vigil in 1959 and was confirmed on Ascension Thursday. In later years I thought about doing other things in life, but never with the same intensity or enduring interest that the priesthood brought to me.

In October 1958, Pope Pius XII died and Pope John XXIII was elected. The previous month Archbishop Albert Meyer from Milwaukee was appointed the archbishop of Chicago; on December 1, Our Lady of the Angels School fire occurred. [It killed 90 Chicago students and three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.] Many events involved the Church in Chicago and internationally. It was a very memorable time.

Here I was a new kid in a Catholic school; I was learning about this new faith. When I went home at night, Bang! Everything that was going on was on television: The Holy Father had died, the conclave, a new pope, a new archbishop, the tragedy of that school fire. The Catholic Church was in the news in very, very significant ways during my impressionable sixth-grade year.

I have two sisters. Both of them and my mom later became Catholic; I’m still working on my dad.

Who were your mentors as a priest and as a bishop?

When I was in high school, Father John Sweeney, my freshman religion teacher at Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, was a great example, a very warm and loving man. George Kane, who was the spiritual director at Mundelein, was one of several seminary teachers who took me under their wing.

Father Bill Clark, my deacon pastor at Mary Seat of Wisdom in Park Ridge, Illinois, was a great hero for me, as was Myles McDonnell, the pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, Illinois, my first assignment as a priest. Bill and Myles were extraordinary pastors, very loving, kind and inspiring in the way they cared for people; they had great pastoral hearts.

Cardinal Bernardin was a great hero for me. I was only 35 years old when I was appointed bishop. The 10 years that I served as an auxiliary bishop with Cardinal Bernardin, the witness of his episcopacy, his serenity—all these influenced me greatly.

During Bernardin’s first year in Chicago, I was his master of ceremonies. I once asked him, “Your Eminence, have you ever lost it? Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been gracious and kind, and there was some antagonistic person who wouldn’t let you off the hook and who was mean, aggressive or insulting? Have you ever really lost it?” His response to me was, “Not yet.”

Specializing in Liturgy

How did you become a professor of liturgy at Mundelein?

In 1975, Father Tom Murphy, then rector of Mundelein Seminary, later bishop of Great Falls-Billings [Montana] and eventually archbishop of Seattle, called to say that the seminary faculty had identified me as someone who might make a good professor there. I said, “Tom, I’m not really interested. I’m happy being a parish priest here and that’s where I want to stay.”

I was in a suburban parish, expecting one day to serve in an inner-city parish. I liked being a parish priest very much. He replied, “Well, don’t reject this invitation. Maybe in a year.”

When he called the next year, he said: “The faculty is really interested in you. You could make a big contribution to the African-American community simply by being on the faculty because you would be training the priests who will serve in inner-city parishes.” He said, “Think about it. Pray about it. I’ll call you back in a week.”

He called on a Friday and I said yes. Cardinal Cody approved my appointment immediately. After interviewing at The Catholic University of America and at the University of Notre Dame and after speaking with some people in Rome, I chose the doctoral program at Rome’s Pontifical Liturgical Institute.

How would you assess Catholic liturgy in the United States today?

The liturgical life of the Church in this country is going through a refinement, a transition period from the first generation of conciliar reform to a greater maturity. We are looking at what renewal issues need refinement; it’s entering an artistic moment where it’s less experimental and more developed.

Some people say that means we’ve lost the reform dimension. I disagree. The liturgy is entering a period of maturation so that the vernacular, the music, the gestures, the rubrics, the sense of decorum that often has been sacrificed during an experimental period is now being restored.

Liturgy is supposed to be ritual, predictable, repeatable. Liturgy is a perpetuating activity. It is now going through a period where decorum, mystery, dignity and a sense of its transcendent activity are being reviewed and restored. I think that’s very healthy, very appropriate.

How are we doing at being a Church of many cultures?

I think we are making progress in being a multicultural Church, but much work remains to be done. The Church in the United States in 2002 is both different and quite similar to the Church in the United States in 1902.

It’s similar because many, many new arrivals are seeking a better life, jobs, security, to advance their own family life and the lives of their children. That was true in 1902.

Now we also have a more long-term Catholic presence, the second, third and fourth generations of earlier immigrants. In a sense the Church is now saying, “Let’s not make the mistakes that caused our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents such harm—the loss of their culture, their language. Let’s not inflict on new immigrants some of the mistakes that were made regarding our ancestors.”

We realize that we are a Church of many languages, many races, many cultures, many ethnic backgrounds—and it’s a good thing not to pretend that we have to be exactly alike. Our catholicity includes learning to live with each other, recognizing that it’s O.K. for people of different languages and different cultures to bring those gifts to the Church. And they are welcome—not foreign but part of who we are. That’s a very good thing.

Bigotry, xenophobia and all of those sinful attitudes that arise because people don’t look like them, don’t sound like them, don’t speak like them, don’t have the same customs—those are still part of our human reality. We are never going to do away completely with the sinfulness that is still a part of our human condition.

But because we are the Church, I think we are asking the right questions and challenging people to say, “We have to be a welcoming community; that is who we are.” No one was in this community from the very beginning; we all had to make an entry point. Looking back on our earlier pain and successes will prepare us to do better for new arrivals today.

How does your African-American heritage nourish your faith life, your prayer life?

I’m very fortunate to have relatives who are not Catholic, who speak to me about the heritage that I share with them and give me a sense of hope. You know, African-Americans have been struggling folks from the day we arrived. In a sense, the struggle that the Catholic Church faces, that I as the president of the conference face, kind of fits; this is a pattern.

We’ve faced hard times before. So I feel encouraged; people of color have lived with struggles. These have made us tough and have given us hope; we don’t give up simply because things are tough. As my wonderful grandmother (may God be merciful to her) used to say, “Hon, the Lord never puts anything on your shoulder, no cross, that he won’t give you the strength to carry.” And I believe that.

Dallas Changed Many Things

Will the decisions the bishops made in Dallas have an effect on how they and priests deal with parishioners on issues other than clergy sexual abuse?

What we did in Dallas last June will have repercussions beyond the clergy sex-abuse issue. It’s too momentous an event in the Catholic Church not to touch other areas. I hope that bishops, priests and laity will find new ways to collaborate, that there will be an enriched dialogue, a deepened, mutual respect for the office of bishop, of pastor and of the laity.

This moment has a rich possibility to make our Church a much more collaborative venture, respecting the legitimate differences of offices. We cannot destroy or compromise the responsibilities that belong to clerics or change the nature of the laity, making them members of the clergy. But we can achieve an environment where bishops, priests and laity work together to establish directions for dioceses, to confront challenges that each local Church faces, to support one another mutually.

In a sense, we bishops in the United States find ourselves in a time and in a circumstance requiring lay leadership to assist us in resolving this crisis. This is not something we can do on our own.

The bishops’ National Advisory Council, which can have up to 64 members, had a one-day meeting after the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse had drawn up two documents for the meeting in Dallas. The Council’s work significantly changed the draft to be presented in Dallas. The Council’s members were focused; they voiced clear and strong opinions, which were heard. This work strengthened the draft, which the Ad Hoc Committee revised and presented to bishops in Dallas.

The bishops always listen carefully to the National Advisory Council’s recommendations. Given the significance of the sex-abuse crisis, the opinions of the laity were more crystallized than usual. Council members usually review and make suggestions about the whole range of agenda items for the upcoming bishops’ meeting.

Presidential Adjustments

In the months since your election as USCCB president, what has been the hardest part of your job?

The first seven months were unique because the clergy sexual-abuse issue dominated the horizon. In one sense, I don’t have any experience of being president in “ordinary time.” I’m hoping that that will soon develop so that there is a sense of the conference’s ordinary working.

How have your new responsibilities as conference president affected your service as bishop of Belleville?

I have relied on the forbearance of the wonderful people in this diocese because I’m absent a lot. I rely on my administration, the vicar general, the directors, the people who are in place, that somehow during these past eight-plus years they have gotten a sense of what I will do, what I won’t do and what I like to do. They know my mind well enough that they can keep the diocesan activities going in a reasonably appropriate way.

But I also rely on the prayers and the support of the people who realize that I cannot do everything that I would like to do and used to do. Because I’ve been so public with the media this year, the people here know that my absence does not mean I’m not working.

I continue to write a column twice a month for The Messenger, our diocesan newspaper. I began “What I have seen and heard” in 1995, a year after I arrived in Belleville. [His 2001-2002 columns are available at www.bellevillemessenger.org/archive.]

As time permits, I continue to relax through travel, music, racquetball and golf.

What has been the most enjoyable part of being USCCB president?

In all candor, the most enjoyable part has been the interchange between the conference and our staff and the Holy See. Working with the staff members in Washington has been a deeply enriching experience. Msgr. Bill Fay [general secretary of the USCCB] is a prince, a wonderful, wonderful priest.

When I’ve been in dialogue with officials of the Holy See, they have been very solicitous about the Church in the United States. They don’t understand every dimension of our society, our legal customs, our sense of the media; it’s not part of their heritage. What has come through loud and clear, however, is their desire to respond with us to this crisis. Their willingness to be in dialogue has been helpful.

Keeping Things in Perspective

During the recent World Youth Day in Toronto, Bishop Gregory urged a group of young people to be the salt which the world desperately needs. When a young woman from the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, asked for advice about responding to questions in light of the Church’s recent scandals, he replied, “We respond in love and in charity.”

He went on to point out that the Catholic Church is “a worldwide community of believers with saints and sinners.” Those causing the scandal are “not all of the Church and not most of the Church.”

That response reflects his motto as a bishop: “We are the Lord’s.” Those words conclude St. Paul’s saying, “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8).

Certainly that conviction helps explain Bishop Wilton Gregory’s attentive calm during the Church’s current storm. 

 

Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

 

 


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