U.S. Bishops Elect First Black President

Wilton Gregory, 53, of Belleville Was a Convert

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WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 13, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. episcopal conference elected its first black president today, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, who converted to the faith as a child.

Bishop Gregory received 186 of the 249 votes cast, with the other 63 scattered among nine candidates. He spent the past three years as vice president of the bishops´ conference — a post that usually leads to the top office.

He succeeds Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas, who is ending a three-year term.

Bishop Gregory, 53, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his aim over the next three years is «to do the will of the bishops» and to increase participation by blacks in the Church.

Black Catholics comprise 2 million to 3.5 million of the 63.7 million Church members nationwide.

«I hope that African-Americans might see in me the fact that the Catholic Church takes seriously its commitment to multicultural celebration and life,» the Washington Times quoted Bishop Gregory as saying.

Wilton Gregory was born in Chicago and sent to a Catholic school by his Protestant parents, where he converted to Catholicism as a sixth-grader.

He was ordained in 1973 and later earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. He became a bishop in 1983, serving for 10 years as auxiliary bishop under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago.

He was installed as Belleville´s bishop seven years ago. The diocese of about 105,000 Catholics is in southern Illinois and includes farming communities and the poor, predominantly black city of East St. Louis.

Bishop Gregory is known as a compelling speaker who frankly discusses racism as a sin he feels the Church should do more to address. He has also written extensively on the Church´s opposition to the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide.

Bishop William Skylstad, 67, of Spokane, Washington, was elected vice president. He defeated Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis in a runoff, 141-110.

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