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St. John’s College High School students offer praise and suggestions for cardinal in his new role

St. John’s College High School students participate in a September 2020 Mass celebrated by then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory at their school, one month before Pope Francis named him as a new cardinal. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In September 2020, then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated Mass to commemorate the opening of the school year at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. During his homily, he urged students to use their God-given talents bravely while pursuing goals. “Faith challenges us to risk doing the right thing,” then-Archbishop Gregory said in his homily. “Fear of the Lord assures us that we need not worry that God will ever withdraw His love, which the Psalmist tells us is everlasting.” 

Washington’s archbishop explained that the fear of the Lord, “is the virtue that gives us the courage to act boldly in pursuing our mission in life,” adding, “the Lord gives each of us talents that He wants us to use with bravery and may I dare say, even with daring itself.”

Two months later, some St. John’s students who participated in the liturgy reflected on Pope Francis’s Nov. 28 elevation of Cardinal Gregory to the College of Cardinals, making him the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The students also shared their hopes for the cardinal in his new role and noted a few of the challenges facing young people today. All agreed leaders of the Church need to address pressing issues of social justice in the future. 

“I want him to address the problems of the inequality of African Americans, and other people of color, in this country,” senior Aronke Fashina said. “The discrimination of African Americans is more prominent than it has been in years, due to what happened to people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in the summer.”

Fashina said she believes the Church can lead the way for healing in the country. “A message from the Church is a great way to unite all races under one common being – God -- to prove that God created everyone equal, and to show that people can see eye-to-eye. That is the Christian way,” she added.

The member of the class of 2021 recalled hearing the news about Cardinal Gregory’s elevation in her religion class. “Being an African-American Catholic myself, I was very excited and surprised to see an African-American appointed to such a prominent position,” Fashina added. “He made history.”

Junior Alanna Finn also expressed joy with Cardinal Gregory’s historic appointment. “As a young, Black person involved in my faith, I was ecstatic to hear the news,” Finn said, noting the need for more representation of Black Catholic leaders, “especially given that this faith is diverse, and the leaders do not always reflect that.” She added that “it is even better given that Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gregory is from Washington D.C.”

Fashina agreed. “The Catholic Church is such an inclusive space, and I want it to be an example to this country.”

Finn’s classmate, Fiona O’Connell, said she also felt happy to hear the news of Cardinal Gregory’s elevation. “I understand that such a position is one of great honor,” O’Connell said. “I was especially happy, seeing that Archbishop Gregory is a person of color, and that his honor was also a great step forward for men of color in the Church.”

“I hope that as cardinal, Archbishop Gregory will be a voice of guidance and support during the pandemic,” O’Connell added.

Another member of the Class of 2021, Dominic DiCocco, felt lucky “to actually meet a future cardinal. To meet the man himself, really puts into perspective how each of us are the same” in terms of faith, he said.

For Fashina, Cardinal Gregory represents a new opportunity for positive impact. “I want him to show that other black women and men can do bigger and better things in the Church. I also hope that he unifies all people of all races and ages.”

Additionally both Fashina and O’Connell said they hoped Cardinal Gregory can improve the spirituality for the faithful. “My biggest hope is that he keeps everyone true in their faith at this time of uncertainty,” Fashina said. O’Connell noted the need for “a strong leader in the Church” so that “he will be able to guide people back to God who may have lost their faith during this time.”

O’Connell said bishops ought to follow Pope Francis’s example on respecting the rights of homosexuals and echo his words in their communities. “For too long they have been rejected and persecuted. It is preached that everyone is welcome in the church,” O’Connell said. 

Finn stressed the need for the Church to address health concerns. “I believe the Church needs to engage in more pressing social justice issues with young Catholics and open the discussion about mental health,” the junior said. 

All of the teens agreed the coronavirus pandemic, injustice and violence prevalent in the United States pose difficult challenges but urged Cardinal Gregory to remember the young people of the archdiocese. 

“It is hard in this time to reach out to young people,” Fashina noted. “A lot of us are sad and restless due to being quarantined. So, we turn to social media. Social media is the best way to reach out to young people now. It’s a constant in most of our lives and seeing a bit of love and hearing about God every day may brighten our days.”

In these “very trying times” noted O’Connell “the Church should be reaching out to young people to support them and find ways to gently continue to guide them in their faith.”

(Lynnea Mumola, a religion teacher at St. John’s College High School who teaches classes in Scripture, morality and social justice, is a former reporter for the Catholic Standard and continues to write freelance articles for the paper and website.)