As a Catholic school student in Chicago, Archbishop Wilton Gregory found his faith and his calling to the priesthood. And friends who witnessed his seminary formation and his ministry there as a priest and bishop say his Chicago roots also helped him face the challenges and blessings he has encountered over the years as a leader in the Church.

Enduring friendship

The bond of friendship between Father Dennis O’Neill, a Chicago-area pastor, and Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the future archbishop of Washington, has spanned nearly six decades.

“We started high school together. We were together 12 years” studying as seminarians for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said Father O’Neill, now the pastor of St. Martha of Bethany Parish and the rector of the Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, Illinois.

Father O’Neill, whose family hosted parties for his seminary classmates in the basement of his home in the South Side of Chicago, remembered young Wilton Gregory from those years. “We were great friends,” he said. “He was very bright… very balanced, a nice man with a great sense of humor. He took his life and faith seriously.”

In 1973, they were among 38 men ordained to the priesthood in Chicago.

Father Wilton Gregory's photo for his priesthood ordination in 1973. (Photo/The Paul Studio, Chicago)

That ordination class of priests has remained close over the years, attending many reunions together, including their 40th anniversary reunion in 2013 hosted by Archbishop Gregory in Atlanta, where the archbishop and his priest classmates concelebrated a Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King.

“If he was near town, he would stop in to see us (in Chicago),” the priest said.

When Archbishop Gregory was an auxiliary bishop of Chicago from 1983-94, he served as the vicar for that part of that archdiocese where Father O’Neill was serving as a pastor.

“We worked well together. He was smart, a good listener, and he was a peacemaker,” the priest said, adding that his friend reflects some of the same qualities of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who ordained then-Bishop Gregory as an auxiliary bishop there and was a mentor to him.

“Cardinal Bernardin was a great bridge builder… and Archbishop Gregory can do the same thing,” he said.

Over the years, Father O’Neill has seen his ordination classmate serve as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago; as bishop of Belleville, Illinois; as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and as archbishop of Atlanta. And after Pope Francis named his friend as the new archbishop of Washington, the priest said he was “delighted and not at all surprised” at the leadership roles undertaken by Archbishop Gregory.

As they’ve taken on different responsibilities over the years, their friendship has endured, Father O’Neill said.

“We’ve been through a lot together. We’ve known each other since the first year of high school. We enjoyed seeing each other’s lives unfold,” he said.

‘True to himself, true to the Church’

In his retirement, Father Dominic Grassi has written a mystery novel, Death in Chicago: Winter.

But his deep respect for one of his priesthood ordination classmates from Chicago in 1973 – Archbishop Wilton Gregory – is no mystery. When asked his reaction of Archbishop Gregory being named as Washington’s new archbishop, Father Grassi said, “I don’t know of anybody who could be better… He will be pastoral… They need someone to heal them, and that’s Wilton.”

They became friends as fellow seminarians. Father Grassi remembers how their rector then taught them to be self starters and “how to be pastoral – the people come first, the people of God. We were called to serve them and not be served.”

In this photo from the early 1960s, future Archbishop Wilton Gregory is pictured among seminarians at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is on the far right in the second row. (Georgia Bulletin file photo)

They were among four seminarians who started a teen drop-in center in a blue collar neighborhood in a community outside of Chicago. They had different personalities and abilities, and he said, “Wilton was the guy who could synthesize it,” putting their ideas together in a proposal that was approved, and those seminarians ran the St. Joseph Community Center which offered positive activities for that area’s teens.

After being ordained priests, the seminarian classmates remained friends. Over the years, Archbishop Gregory returned to celebrate Confirmations at Father Grassi’s parishes, even when he was serving as a bishop in other dioceses.

Father Grassi – who has also written books about the Mass and finding God’s grace in everyday life -- expressed admiration for Archbishop Gregory’s episcopal ministry beginning as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago.

“Chicago then and still now was a city with some big racial divides. Wilton being true to himself was able to deal with all of that,” the priest said. “By being true to himself, he was also true to the Church. He loved the Church. He was a convert. It was his choice.”

That quality of being true to himself and true to the Church has made Archbishop Gregory effective in his ministry, Father Grassi said.

“What he said in Washington, ‘I will always tell the truth,’ – that’s Wilton,” the priest said, adding, “that comes from a deep faith that is constantly nourished by his prayer life and his relationship with God.”

Auxiliary Bishop Wilton Gregory confirms Allison Farris at Wyler Children's Hospital in 1984. (Chicago Catholic file photo)

Father Grassi added, “Being a bishop didn’t separate him from people, it endeared him to people. Because he’s so honest, he’s had to make tough calls, and he’s made them.”

The priest said that Archbishop Gregory reflected that in confronting the abuse crisis as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and then as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, leading the nation’s bishops in adopting the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

“He wanted to do what was right,” the priest said. “…I was so proud of him (as USCCB president), because he was taking the bull by the horns. He did it out of a real love for the Church.”

A role model and a mentor

Now Bishop Ronald Hicks serves as an auxiliary bishop and as the vicar general for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In 1990 as a seminarian there, he served as a master of ceremonies for Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Wilton Gregory at Confirmations at parishes in that archdiocese.

“He earned my respect instantly. He quickly became a role model for me, a mentor (and) a spiritual father,” Bishop Hicks said of Archbishop Gregory. “He always treated everyone with respect and kindness. He had a great ability not only to tell people great stories, but also to sincerely listen.”

Bishop Hicks was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1994 and marks the 25th anniversary of his priesthood this year. Eight months ago, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop for that archdiocese.

Then-Bishop Gregory’s knowledge and love of the liturgy is something that Bishop Hicks has tried to emulate. “He always prayed the Mass well, and put his love for the sacrament and God’s people into every celebration,” the Chicago vicar general said.

Archbishop Gregory is well qualified to bring leadership and healing to the people he will serve as the archbishop of Washington, he said.

“He is a man of great faith, kind and compassionate, a builder of trust, and just a true gentleman,” Bishop Hicks said.

Then-Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Wilton Gregory speaks at Black Urban Child Conference in that city in 1984. (Chicago Catholic file photo)

Words to live by

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, well known as the founder of Word on Fire Catholic ministries and as the host of the CATHOLICISM documentary series on PBS, remembers wise advice his spiritual director gave him in the seminary.

His first spiritual director when he was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago was Father Wilton Gregory.

“He said, ‘Always focus on what the Lord has put right in front of you, and do it as well as you can, and new opportunities will present themselves,’” Bishop Barron said in an interview.

At his orientation week as a new Chicago seminarian in 1982, Robert Barron was very inspired by a talk on the Liturgy of the Hours given by Father Gregory, who was on the seminary’s faculty and taught liturgy.

“He gave a wonderful talk on the sanctification of time. Thirty-five years later, I remember that talk,” said Bishop Barron, who soon after asked then-Father Gregory to be his spiritual director. Father Gregory was his spiritual director for that year and the beginning of the next year, until being named as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983.

Bishop Barron also was in a liturgy class taught by the future Archbishop Gregory, and said he still draws upon the practical and theoretical insights he learned then about the Mass. He said Archbishop Gregory is man of deep prayer who is “a man of the people” with a common touch and a good sense of humor.

Archbishop Gregory was well loved in Chicago as a priest and bishop, said Bishop Barron, who was ordained to the priesthood for that archdiocese in 1986 by Cardinal Bernardin and later served there as rector and president of Mundelein Seminary University.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin gives Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Wilton Gregory the bishop's ring during his episcopal ordination on Dec. 13, 1983 at Holy Name Cathedral. (Photo/James L. Kilcoyne, Chicago Catholic)

The Los Angeles auxiliary bishop said Cardinal Bernardin’s qualities of “kindness, the ability to reconcile opposing parties, and a deep pastoral sensibility” have shaped the ministry of Archbishop Gregory, who worked with the cardinal as an auxiliary bishop.

“Wilton has always been a bridge builder, a reconciler,” with a thorough understanding of Catholic teaching and tradition, Bishop Barron said.

He too praised Archbishop Gregory’s leadership of the nation’s bishops as they adopted the Dallas charter for child protection, which included a “zero tolerance” policy on priests who abuse children.

“The number of abuse cases have fallen precipitously since then,” Bishop Barron said. “Those protocols set the tone for the whole country.”

Bishop Barron said that his friend Archbishop Gregory is an excellent choice to lead the Archdiocese of Washington. “I can’t think of anyone better” to bring healing to people there in the wake of the abuse crisis, he said.