Over the last nine months, as this capital church has become the local nexus of the gravest crisis modern American Catholicism has known, the stakes facing its next leader have only ever increased. And now, a process that turned longer and more unwieldy than expected has reflected that reality, producing the figure who, in the minds of many, became the only possible choice – and a historic one, to boot.

Six months since the Pope reluctantly granted Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s long-delayed retirement after the scandal’s first throes engulfed his tenure, at Roman Noon this April 4th, Francis has tapped Wilton Daniel Gregory – the 71 year-old archbishop of Atlanta best known as the face of “zero tolerance” in leading the US bishops’ response to the 2002 crisis – as the Seventh Archbishop of Washington, now home to nearly 800,000 Catholics amid three decades of marked growth.

Of course, the date is auspicious, and seemingly not coincidental. Nearly four years since the pontiff cited Dr Martin Luther King as an exemplar of the American Dream in the first-ever papal address to Congress, today marks the 51st anniversary of Dr King’s assassination in Memphis – and that it brings the emergence of the figure now virtually certain to be the first African-American to enter the College of Cardinals gives this appointment a symbolic storyline beyond the crisis: in itself, a feat few other choices could’ve accomplished at the outset.

Between the high local anger and intense wider focus on the DC church over the scandals – and even without that, the challenge of dealing with the nation’s searing political polarization in the exacerbated context of the capital – it bears repeating that this is a job nobody wanted (and anyone who might’ve tried angling for it would, in essence, be immediately disqualified). Indeed, not since the 2003 appointment to Boston in the wake of Cardinal Bernard Law’s fall amid the crisis’ first national round has an American pick been so closely watched or seen as a make-or-break move far beyond the diocese in question.

What’s more, however, as one leading op told Whispers as the process wended on, unlike any prior US opening of this magnitude, the stakes here were such that “Every man being mentioned is looking at every decision he’s ever made,” with many ruling themselves out from the glaring spotlight. That mindset was echoed by another top source, who noted that while a prelate who tried to decline a major appointment like this would normally be prodded to accept, in this case, “if somebody doesn’t, no questions would be asked.”

For his part, after 14 years of near-bliss at the helm of an Atlanta fold now boomed to 1.2 million members (six times its 1990 size) – and, having been named an auxiliary of Chicago at 35, spending more than half his life as an active bishop – the sense in Wilt-world is that the eventual choice was initially no less reluctant should the call come his way. Over the first several months of the vacancy, that expectation simply didn’t figure in his mind. However, once Wuerl’s already-tenuous standing took a further hit in January after reports that the cardinal hadn’t disclosed his full knowledge of allegations made against his predecessor, the now-laicized Theodore McCarrick – and given Gregory’s private frustration that much of the current bench “still doesn’t get it” in its attempts to respond to the crisis – as the process wore on and the conversation increasingly turned toward him, in the end, accepting the move wasn’t a choice because of how much was riding on it, both for the Stateside church and for Francis himself.

Full story at Whispers in the Loggia.