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Resuming his public ministry after COVID-19 quarantine, Cardinal Gregory says, ‘I’m doing fine’

Cardinal Gregory gives a homily at a Jan. 23, 2022 Mass at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Waldorf, Maryland, where he dedicated a new altar. (CS photo/Leslie Kossoff)

Resuming his public ministry following a period of quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 31, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory in an interview said he was doing well and happy to be back at work.

“I’m doing fine,” he said following a Jan. 23 Mass that he celebrated at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Waldorf, Maryland where he dedicated a new altar designed and built by parishioners.

Two days earlier, Cardinal Gregory celebrated The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s annual Mass for Life at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle that was preceded by a youth rally and was held just before the March for Life. In his closing remarks at the Mass for Life, he said, ““These are wonderful days to witness to life and to take hope in tomorrow.”

Three weeks before that, the cardinal had issued a statement saying that as part of his regular pandemic routine, he had taken a rapid antigen test given by a lab technician, and he had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I am fully vaccinated and boosted. I am experiencing no symptoms at this time and overall I feel quite well,” he said in that Dec. 31 statement, adding, “Following my doctor’s guidance, I will now quarantine at home.”

His quarantine meant the cardinal had to cancel his participation in Masses at the beginning of the year at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, miss a Mass he was going to celebrate for local Haitian Catholics and not attend a regional retreat with his brother bishops. 

In the Jan. 23 interview after the Mass at Waldorf, Cardinal Gregory said, “I was very fortunate. I was completely asymptomatic. I had no cough, no fever, oxygen level was fine. I had no aches and pains. And because I had that time I was supposed to be on retreat, and then I was supposed to go out to Southern California for the 50th jubilee of a dear priest friend, I had free days. And so I quarantined for 12 days, I didn’t go anyplace… I stayed (at home), and the doctor told me that I was fine and I’m not infectious. That’s what I was worried about, that if I left too soon, I’d still have the possibility of infecting someone, so he said, ‘No, after 12 days, you’re good to go.’”

Cardinal Gregory had reflected on his quarantine experience in his January column for the archdiocese’s Catholic Standard and Spanish-language El Pregonero newspapers and websites, which he concluded by noting, “As I pray and offer Mass each day in my chapel, my heart is filled with images of the folks of our archdiocese – our kids, seniors, clergy, and religious.  Those images have managed to make these days something of a retreat for me. I am also aware of the experience of being sidelined along with many others because of this virus.  If nothing else, I have rediscovered how to run a washing machine and a dryer – a skill that most of our priests probably have had to learn as well!”

In his interview, the cardinal expressed gratitude for how the people of the archdiocese had prayed for him after he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I got so many nice notes and emails and text messages. It was very touching to know that the folks in the archdiocese were asking the good Lord to restore me to full health and to help me get back to go to work,” he said.

Being apart from his family of faith during the quarantine was difficult for him, Cardinal Gregory said.

“Of all the things that I experienced during the quarantine, I felt separated,” he said, adding, “I was praying for people, I knew people were praying for me, but I couldn’t get out and say hello to them and pray with them, and, you know, encounter them. That’s a favorite word that Pope Francis likes to use, the word ‘encounter,’ and it means more than just being in the presence (of people). It means having a chance to interact with people, and it’s more than just saying hello, it’s listening to their stories, hearing how they’re doing and how their kids are doing. A lot of times people in these moments will share something of importance to them, (asking me to) pray for a special intention, pray for a parent that’s sick or a child that’s getting ready to go off to college. And those things, those encounters are very important to me, because it means I’m being a priest, I’m identifying with the people entrusted to me, and I love that.”

When Cardinal Gregory was named by Pope Francis as the new archbishop of Washington in April 2019, he said that leaving his office and being with the people at parishes, Catholic schools and outreach programs was a vital part of his ministry. After celebrating the Jan. 23 Mass in Waldorf, he echoed that sentiment, saying, “So like today, this is the wonderfully diverse community of Our Lady Help of Christians, and so there are many, many people coming from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They’re just wonderful folks, and I enjoy them. It gives me an image of the Church in its great universality.”

Just as he had begun his quarantine after his positive COVID-19 test, Cardinal Gregory in his Dec. 31 statement had repeated a message that he had been offering since the coronavirus vaccines had been developed and made available to people earlier that year, encouraging people to get vaccinated and follow safety precautions to protect themselves and others.

In that statement, he said, “As the omicron variant of Covid sweeps through our area, I ask that you please continue to be extremely cautious: using appropriate facemasks, getting vaccinated and boosted, and following the guidance of our public health officials.

“We have learned in these past 21 months that we do better in this pandemic when we work together to care for one another.  

“Despite the challenges we are facing, including our need for relief and healing from this pandemic, we must not lose hope or our commitment to continued safety precautions and kindness for our loved ones and neighbors.”

Cardinal Gregory’s interview on Jan. 23 came two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued reports saying that coronavirus vaccine boosters provided significant protection against the omicron variant, and people receiving the vaccinations and boosters were far less likely to experience significant health impacts or to need hospitalizations from COVID-19.

Reacting to that news, and reflecting on his own experience, Cardinal Gregory said emphatically, “The vaccines do work! That’s the message.”

The cardinal’s upcoming schedule includes several Masses at local Catholic schools in conjunction with the Jan. 30 to Feb. 5 Catholic Schools Week, participating in a webinar about the death penalty, a Mass for students at the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, and a Zoom dialogue with the Catholic community at Yale University about racism and other issues.

Concluding the interview, the cardinal said, “Back at work!”