Archbishopof Washington D.C. will make history on Saturday when Pope Francis formally adds him to the College of Cardinals — the first Black American to hold that rank. As he self-quarantined in Rome following his arrival, Gregory told CBS News' Chris Livesay he was "very much surprised" by his ascension.
"I got a phone call at 6:30 in the morning… that's how I found out," Gregory said.
Known for being outspoken on some of the most pressing issues facing both the Catholic Church and the country, Gregory is used to being a trailblazer. He converted to Catholicism in 1958 as his parochial school in Chicago underwent racial integration, and white flight.
"There were White kids transferring out and Black kids transferring in," he recalled. "So at the end of sixth grade, there were then only about six or seven White kids left and the rest were African American students."
Since entering the priesthood, a keystone of Gregory's ministry has been welcoming diversity, including the LGBTQ+ community.
One of his most forceful stands has been against the leadership at the White House.
Gregory called it "baffling" and "reprehensible" when President Trump visited the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington a day after protesters were forced away so the president — bible in hand — could pose in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.
While they don't share all the same views — most notably on abortion — Gregory hopes to build a very different relationship with President-elect Joe Biden, who will become the secondin U.S. history when he's sworn in on January 20.
"I want to begin whatever conversations ensue in a positive vein, rather than in an adversarial mode," he said.
Gregory really stepped up as a leader amid the Catholic Church's biggest disgrace, priest sex abuse. While leading the U.S. Bishops Conference, he championed a zero-tolerance policy to remove offending clerics from ministry.
He was named Archbishop of Washington, D.C. the same year that one of his predecessors, Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked for sex abuse, a scandal that culminated just this month with a ground-breaking.
At the time, the new archbishop vowed to offer hope and rebuild trust in the system.
"Let's be honest… it revealed some awful events and huge mistakes on the part of Church leadership," Gregory said.