Fr. Martin King
Fr. Martin King

New York Archbishop John McCloskey was named the first U.S. cardinal in 1875, around the same time Augustus Tolton, a former slave currently on the path to sainthood, traveled to Rome for his priesthood formation because no U.S. seminary would admit a Black man.

Nearly a century and a half later, the first African American will be elevated to cardinal, a rank the pope bestows on men who will serve as his principal collaborators and — prior to age 80 — vote for his replacement following the pontiff’s death or resignation.

Pope Francis in late October announced Archbishop Wilton Gregory, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and an African American, would be among 13 new cardinals.

“I’m excited that I lived to see this day,” said Father Martin King, the first African American ordained in the Portland Archdiocese. The pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Southwest Portland was among the Black Catholics in western Oregon who joined with others around the country to celebrate the appointment as a step toward greater racial justice and cultural understanding, a source of pride, and a potential boost for African American vocations. Most pointed out it was long overdue.

“When I read the news I was elated,” said Mary Elizabeth Harper, a member of Resurrection Parish in Tualatin. “I also thought: It’s about time.”

Harper, an attorney who serves on the board of Catholic Charities of Oregon, has encountered some racism in the church but never felt she was in the wrong spiritual home.

“Even with some disappointments, this is the right place for me,” she said. “And this appointment is part of a transformation of becoming a more diverse church, and I think that’s going to help us eliminate some of the racism in the world.”

While Archbishop Gregory’s elevation to cardinal may not have been a direct response to the racial reckoning now occurring in the United States, the timing feels meaningful to many Black Catholics, including Harper. “I think Pope Francis is astute and prayerful, and I’m certain this decision came from a place of prayer,” she said.

Edna Hicks (right) is pictured with Mary Harvey at Immaculate Heart Parish in North Portland in 2013. (Sentinel archives)

The initial reaction of 85-year-old Edna Hicks was: “Why did it take so long?” The member of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland said many Black clergy in the past 150 years have had tremendous spiritual attributes but were overlooked.

Yet to see an African American named a cardinal and to hear Archbishop Gregory address racism forcefully “is a reminder to all — the minority, the majority, everyone — that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord and we must act accordingly,” said Hicks.

Father King, a cradle Catholic born and raised in Ohio, hadn’t seen a Black priest or nun prior to adulthood. Though he’d felt drawn to the priesthood since the second grade, “I thought it wasn’t allowed or permitted, or it just didn’t happen,” he said.

Currently Blacks make up roughly 4% of all U.S. Catholics; 0.7% of priests in the country are African American.

Eventually ordained in 1996, Father King has crossed paths with Archbishop Gregory a number of times. He said having an African American cardinal is a “source of pride and joy” for the African American Catholic community. It also contributes to a richer world view in the hierarchy.

A Black cardinal can offer new ways to evangelize through “an Afrocentric lived experience, even though African Americans are fully Catholic; they are not an oddity,” said Father King.

Tony Jones is chairman of the African American Catholic Community of Oregon. He hopes the Catholic Church continues to increase the number of Blacks in the hierarchy. “The current institutional leadership climate is poor,” said Jones, who knows many Black Catholics who’ve encountered church leaders who marginalize the oppression faced by Blacks.

As president of the USCCB, Archbishop Gregory led the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and more recently has pushed for better race relations, efforts Father King commends. The cardinal-designate has compared the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to racism, saying both spread through a society undetected, threatening lives and infecting communities.

Father King said strained race relations in the church are not simply part of the past but the present.

At times he’s found it difficult to speak with Anglos about what it’s like to be an African American Catholic, because when he’s shared hurtful experiences, “they often try to downplay or dismiss the hurt that is being shared,” he said.

However that hasn’t left him “mad at the world,” said Father King. “That’s not who I am. My goal is to shed the light of Christ in the world as best I can.”

Matiana Hébert, identifying as Black and Mexican, is a student at the University of Portland. “I think the appointment of the new cardinal is a good stride forward,” said the senior, who hopes to work as a physician assistant and address racial disparities in health care.

Matiana Hébert is a senior majoring in biology and sociology at the University of Portland. (Courtesy Matiana Hébert) 

Hébert grew up attending a Los Angeles parish where she remembers no Black priests serving and only one Latino.

She believes it’s important to have leaders of color in the church “because they can support people of color with personal, culturally relevant experiences, music and celebrations,” she said. Hébert also believes they can inspire more vocations in people of color.

The first African American cardinal “gives us hope that people of color can hold positions of power because they aren’t just reserved for white men,” said Hébert. “It’s awesome, even though it is overdue.”