Cardinal Gregory receives Order of Lincoln honor from Illinois

By Mark Zimmerman | Contributor
Thursday, May 4, 2023

Cardinal Wilton Gregory offers remarks after receiving the Order of Lincoln, the state’s highest honor for professional achievement and public service. The ceremony took place on April 29 in the House chambers of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (David Blanchette/The Lincoln Academy of Illinois)

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., made a special homecoming to Illinois on April 29, where the Chicago native was among six 2023 recipients of the Order of Lincoln, the state’s highest honor for professional achievement and public service.

“I have always been proud to be a native Chicagoan and proud to have been born and raised in the state that is responsible for so many remarkable American leaders,” Cardinal Gregory said after receiving the honor during a ceremony in the House of Representatives Chamber of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

Springfield was Abraham Lincoln’s home for nearly a quarter century where he served as a state legislator and lawyer and began raising his family before leaving for Washington after he was elected president in 1860.

During the ceremony, Cardinal Gregory received the Lincoln Medallion from Ronald Spears, the chancellor of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois, and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker presented him with a certificate recognizing Washington’s archbishop as a Lincoln Laureate.

Cardinal Gregory was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago 50 years ago in May 1973, and he later served as an auxiliary bishop there and then as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, when he also served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the nation’s bishops implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Then-Archbishop Gregory served as the archbishop of Atlanta from 2005 until Pope Francis appointed him as the archbishop of Washington in 2019. The next year, Cardinal Gregory was named to the College of Cardinals.

In his remarks, Gov. Pritzker noted, “His Eminence Wilton Cardinal Gregory has devoted his life to serving others. He was the first African American Catholic cardinal, and he’s beloved by those that he has served. Cardinal Gregory’s pastoral work has taken him to places near and far, (including) Belleville, Atlanta, Rome and now Washington, but he has never forgotten his roots as a Chicagoan.”

In a statement that day, Cardinal Cupich noted that Cardinal Gregory’s “exceptional faith journey” began more than six decades ago when he was a student at St. Carthage School on the South Side, where he was inspired to become Catholic and first felt a call to the priesthood.

Cardinal Cupich praised Cardinal Gregory’s “lifetime of service to the Lord, God’s people and society,” and said Chicagoans have taken pride in his accomplishments. “We are particularly pleased that this son of Chicago has been named a laureate of the Order of Lincoln,” Cardinal Cupich said.

At the ceremony, Cardinal Gregory was presented by Monsignor Kenneth Velo, his friend who was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago with him in 1973. Velo noted the cardinal’s collaborative leadership in the church and his work for social and racial justice.

“As a native son of Illinois, the cardinal represents well the values and principles of our state learned during his formative years and through his service as a priest and bishop here. Now he serves well those entrusted to his care in our nation’s capital and far beyond as a leader of faith,” said Velo, the senior executive of Catholic collaboration for DePaul University  and co-chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund.

In his remarks after receiving the Order of Lincoln honor, Cardinal Gregory praised his home state for its sports, enterprises, arts, culture, farmlands and food.

“We have a rich history in this land of Abraham Lincoln, which includes being the first state to ratify the 13th amendment which abolished slavery, as well as to preserve and respectfully honor many ancient Native American sites,” he said.

Cardinal Gregory said the Adrian Dominican sisters who taught him at St. Carthage School nurtured his future priestly vocation, and the families in his Englewood neighborhood “taught me that we are always to look out for each other.”

“As a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, my formative years as an Illinois youngster — both in my personal family and my Catholic family of faith — have been at the core of the abundant and numerous blessings that have anchored and enriched my life, for which I am forever grateful,” he said.

Washington’s archbishop also expressed gratitude to the people of Southern Illinois whom he served when he was the bishop of Belleville, saying it was a blessing and a privilege “to serve and to live in their midst.”

He noted that even though his life as a bishop took him away from Illinois in late 2004, and he hasn’t lived in the state since then, “Illinois has never stopped being ‘home.’”

Cardinal Gregory said that now when he flies into O’Hare or Midway airports for meetings or to visit friends, he looks out the window at the city’s landmarks “that remind me that I am indeed returning to a place that I love.”

Concluding his remarks, Cardinal Gregory said, “My heart will always be full of gratitude for you, Illinois. It is with abundant appreciation and fondness for my home state that I accept this award. Thank you for recognizing me — way over here in Washington, D.C. — as a son of Illinois.”

Among Cardinal Gregory’s guests at the ceremony and the dinner and reception that followed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield was Jacqueline Collins, who attended St. Carthage School when the future cardinal was a student there. Collins, who served for 20 years as a state senator for the 16th legislative district of Illinois in Chicago, praised Cardinal Gregory as “a man of intellect, integrity and heart.”

She said that as a student at St. Carthage, Wilton Gregory seemed destined for a spiritual calling and had “an aura of greatness.”

Collins, a member of St. Sabina Parish who now serves as a commissioner with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, noted that the prophet Micah “calls us to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly before the Lord, and I think he (Cardinal Gregory) epitomizes that. He truly is a man of God.”

At the reception, Cardinal Gregory was asked about qualities of President Lincoln that are needed today, and he said, “He (Lincoln) treated his political opponents with respect. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, they debated issues, not personalities.”

The Order of Lincoln honors were established in 1965, and Lincoln laureates include Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who received that honor posthumously in 1997, one year after he died of cancer; and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, an Illinois native known for his popular series “Life is Worth Living” in the early years of television who received the honor in 1977.

Cardinal Gregory had served as a liturgical master of ceremonies for Cardinal Bernardin and then as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago under that cardinal’s leadership. When asked what it meant for him to receive the honor that Cardinal Bernardin had earlier received, Cardinal Gregory smiled and said, “It really humbles me, because in some respects, I’m the son he never had. Yes, he was a teacher, he was a mentor, but he was my father, and we grew so close.”

Other Order of Lincoln laureates include President Ronald Reagan (1981) and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (2014), author Saul Bellow (1974), actor Charlton Heston (1977),  comedian Jack Benny (1972), gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1967), longtime NBC News anchor John Chancellor (1988), Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (2014) and DePaul basketball coach Ray Meyer (1988), Chicago Bears stars Dick Butkus (2018) and Walter Payton (1987), Chicago Cubs stars Ryne Sandberg (2017) and Ernie Banks (1970), Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee (2005), columnists George Will (2019), Mike Royko (1983) and Ann Landers (1978) and movie critic Roger Ebert (2001).


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