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'We are a gift to this country': Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrates annual Black History Month Mass for Brooklyn Diocese

The nation's Black cardinal crossed state lines this week to fete the faithful of Queens and Brooklyn, where he celebrated the annual Mass of Thanksgiving for Black History Month.

(James Murphy)

The Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre showed Cardinal Wilton Gregory a jubilant welcome during a Mass in Queens celebrating Black History Month on Sunday afternoon.

Roughly 400 Catholics gathered to celebrate with the country’s history-making prelate from Washington DC—the nation’s first Black cardinal.

Following a short delay, Gregory walked into the nave at 4:40pm. During the extra time of preparation, the Knights of Columbus, as well as the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary took their places.

(James Murphy)

The piano played as altar servers and clergy assembled behind them. A small boy amused himself playing games on an iPad.

“Put that away!” the woman in the pew in front of him commanded.

“What is happening is unique. It’s history.”

As the cardinal entered, the choir burst into song. Following their hymn, Brooklyn’s newly-installed Bishop Robert J. Brennan welcomed Gregory warmly

“What a blessing it is to be together today,” said the prelate, now head of the US diocese with more Black Catholics than any other.

The church responded with clapping and cheers, and the 74-year-old cardinal joined in the exuberance—swaying, clapping, and praying with the people throughout the evening.

(James Murphy)

During the Gospel reading, centered around the command to love one’s enemy, Gregory leaned his head on his episcopal staff and listened. The winter sunset shining through the stained glass windows cast a jewel-tone glow on his quiet absorption of the Word.

Gregory, who once served as the first Black president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened his homily by addressing the abuses borne from a misreading of that very Gospel passage.

“Oh the old cheek-slapping verse,” Gregory said, pausing for chuckles.

“If there’s a more misunderstood passage in the Gospel, I’m not aware of it,” he said.

Gregory protested the history of condoning the passive acceptance of violence or diminishment of human dignity. Rather, he said, the experience of oppression should make followers of Jesus more sensitive to the mistreatment of others.

“It’s not a verse about fairness, but about God’s mercy,” he said.

As fitting for the day, he acknowledged in a particular way the many abuses African Americans have suffered in the United States.

“God’s people in these blessed two dioceses must also admit that there have been too many times and occasions when God’s example of compassion and mercy have not been the path chosen by some of God’s people,” he said.

A painting of Servant of God Thea Bowman was set up on the side of the altar. Fittingly, the liturgy was an exuberant expression of Black culture, tradition, and diversity.

(James Murphy)

The prayers of the faithful also reflected a multicultural focus, being offered in a variety of languages—including French, Haitian Creole, and a number of African languages. Gregory added his own intention for the people of Ukraine, who are currently on the verge of war.

Ultimately, the event was one of unfettered Black celebration and heritage—which was altogether so timely.

“We are a gift to this country,” Gregory said.

The congregation broke into cheers.

Renée Darline Roden is a writer and playwright in New York City. She holds a degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University.

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