Pope Francis on Sunday named Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington a cardinal, making him the first African-American to be a part of the Catholic church’s highest governing body, Reuters reported. The pope named a total of 13 cardinals from eight countries on Sunday, including nine who are eligible to enter a conclave to elect his successor after his death or resignation.

The nine new electors come from Italy, Malta, Rwanda, the United States, the Philippines, Chile, Brunei and Mexico.

“With a very grateful and humble heart, I thank Pope Francis for this appointment which will allow me to work more closely with him in caring for Christ’s Church,” Gregory said in a statement after he was picked to wear the revered red cap.

According to Reuters, the selection of more cardinal electors increases the possibility that the next pope will be someone who will continue Francis’ policies.

The 13 new cardinals will be elevated to the high rank at a ceremony known as a consistory at the Vatican on November 28.

Who is Wilton Gregory?

Gregory, 72, had come to the limelight earlier this year after he called for dialogue to ease racial tensions in the United States following the death of African-American man George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police in May. Floyd had died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Gregory had said that the incident revealed “the virus of racism among us once again.”

“Many of us remember similar incidents in our history that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement, where we repeatedly saw Black Americans viciously brutalised by police on television and in newspaper photos. Those historic moments helped to rouse our national conscience to the African American experience in the United States and now, in 2020, we tragically still see repeated incidents of police brutality against African Americans.”  

— Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington

In June, Gregory was critical of United States President Donald Trump, a day after civil rights demonstrators were forcibly cleared from a square to facilitate his visit to a church near the White House. Gregory had said that he found Trump’s willingness to use religion for political purposes “baffling and reprehensible”.

Gregory has also called on the Congress to reform the US immigration system to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants. He commissioned a climate action plan for Catholics at home and at church he has been a “relatively strong supporter” of the LGBTQ community, The New York Times reported.

He was also the first African-American archbishop of Washington, after having served as the archbishop of Atlanta until last year.

Pope Francis’ progressive papacy

The Pope’s decision is being seen in a positive light in the backdrop of Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement.

“Pope Francis is sending a powerful message of hope and inclusion to the church in the United States,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Guardian on Sunday.

Pope Francis was now sending a clear message “in the midst of our nation’s reckoning in systemic racism, as millions assert that Black Lives Matter”, said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice organisation based in Washington.

The pope’s decision comes within a week of him expressing support for “civil union laws” for same-sex couples in a documentary.