Bishops expected to elect Illinoisan first black president

Monday, November 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is likely to elect its first black president during a four-day meeting that begins today.

Diversity also will be the focus, and the group will renew the church's fight against abortion, while proposing a day of prayer for peace as the war in Afghanistan continues.

Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Texas is finishing his three-year term as head of the group, which serves as the church's national voice on social, political and religious issues.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville in Southern Illinois is expected to succeed him. Gregory is now the organization's vice president and conference vice presidents are traditionally elected president.

The vote is Tuesday.

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is 78 percent white, said the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, and black Catholics have long sought recognition from church leaders.

Estimates of the number of black Catholics range from 2 million to 3.5 million, out of 63.7 million nationwide. They welcome the upcoming election of Gregory as a sign their voices will be heard.

The bishops also are concerned about serving the growing number of Asian Catholic immigrants. Fiorenza, from Galveston-Houston, estimates 2.6 percent of U.S. Catholics are Asian or Pacific Islanders. The conference leaders are expected to issue a statement urging Catholics to welcome their Asian brethren and be attentive to their spiritual needs.

Ordained in 1973

A Chicago native, Gregory, 53, was ordained a priest in 1973 and later earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. He became a bishop in 1983, serving 10 years as auxiliary bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago.

Gregory was installed as the Belleville bishop seven years ago, becoming the spiritual leader for 105,000 Catholics in a diocese that covers the southern third of Illinois.

The bishops also will propose designating Jan. 1 as a National Day of Prayer for Peace as the war on terrorism continues. The bishops have urged U.S. leaders to avoid punishing innocent civilians in Afghanistan.

"Our military response must be guided by the traditional moral limits on the use of force," Fiorenza said in a statement after the U.S. airstrikes began Oct. 7. "Military action is always regrettable but it may be necessary to protect the innocent or to defend the common good."

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