The U.S. bishops' group that sets religious policy for Roman Catholics in this country and serves as the church's national voice on social and political issues is poised to elect its first black president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Belleville diocese in southern Illinois.

Gregory also serves as the vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and is expected to ascend to the group's top post when the bishops hold their fall meeting next month in Washington.

Since 1966, every conference vice president but one has been elected president. In that one exception, the vice president refused to be a candidate, said conference spokesman William Ryan, declining further comment on the election. "For African-American Catholics it will be almost equivalent to having an African-American president of the United States, simply because it will mean recognition of the authenticity of their presence," said Diana Hayes, a black Catholic and theologian at Georgetown University. Many other Catholics also believe Gregory will take the top U.S. job.

At a Sept. 10 meeting of Catholic Charities USA in Newark, N.J., for instance, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., introduced Gregory by saying, "I expect you are looking at our next president." The crowd cheered.

Gregory declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate before the election. He is in Rome this month for an international gathering of bishops, known as a synod, with Pope John Paul II.

A 53-year-old Chicago native, Gregory was ordained a priest in 1973 and later earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. He became a bishop in 1983, serving for 10 years as auxiliary bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago.

Gregory was installed as the Belleville bishop seven years ago, making him the spiritual leader for 105,000 Catholics in a diocese that covers roughly the southern third of Illinois. He has also written extensively on the church's opposition to the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide. "He's already proven himself to be a real leader in the Catholic church," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine. "He's worked his way up through the bishops' conference by serving as chair of important committees, like the committee on liturgy."

Gregory also is known as a powerful speaker, who urges Catholics to recognize prejudice as a sin. He has named racial profiling and white flight from urban schools as two serious social problems. "All baptized Catholics have an obligation to move toward the elimination of racism," he said in his Newark speech.

There is no precise statistic on the number of black U.S. Catholics. Estimates range from 2 million to 3.5 million, out of 62.4 million Catholics nationwide. Even the top figure would be less than 6 percent of all American Catholics. The current conference president, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas, is finishing his three-year term. The election of his successor is scheduled for the week of Nov. 12.

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