Cardinal reflects on 10 years as archbishop
View a timeline of his first ten years as archbishop
Cardinal George at the first Festival of Faith in 2003 - Catholic New World/Karen Callaway
A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.
As he prepared to celebrate his 10th anniversary as Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal George sat down at his residence to reflect on his time here. Earlier that day, the Tuesday of Holy Week, he had celebrated the Chrism Mass, the annual liturgy at which sacred oils were consecrated for the coming year. He was heading into a full schedule of liturgies and celebrations during the Triduum and Easter-a schedule unexpectedly cut short when he injured his hip in a fall during the blessing of Easter baskets at St. Ferdinand Parish Holy Saturday.
The cardinal, now 70, was announced as the archbishop on April 8, 1997, and installed at Holy Name Cathedral May 8, 1997.
He talked with staff writer Michelle Martin.
- The Catholic New World:
Go back 10 years to that April day when you came here. What did you see as the archdiocese's strengths? What did you see as its challenges?
I don't think I could say that I had any preconceived ideas at all. You come into a place and you wait. That's what I fully intended to do.
Chicago has a wonderful history as a diocese and has had remarkable priests, religious and laypeople and parishes and movements, so I knew all that. I really wasn't too aware of what the situation was just before I came because I didn't expect to come as archbishop. I had talked to Cardinal Bernardin a few times, and the whole world watched his own agony and dying. What the situation of the archdiocese was behind all that, I didn't know but expected to learn as fast as I could.
Was it any faster having grown up here?
In one way it was easier, because you know what the streets are, where a lot of the parishes are. There's a familiarity with places. In one way, it wasn't because everything is very different when you come back after having been gone for 39 years, except for visits. Also because, you know, not everybody is immediately interested in telling you everything that's going on, so it takes some time. I think it would have been the same for anybody.
Shortly after you got here, six months later, you wrote a pastoral letter on evangelization. Why has evangelization been so important from the beginning, and how do you think we've done?
The archdiocese had already set evangelization as the number one priority, in the Decisions document that had been put together with much, much consultation just a year before I came. Beyond that, behind the work in Chicago, to come and say evangelization is our first priority there was the Second Vatican Council, which said that for the whole church. I was used to talking about evangelization before and delighted to see that it was a priority here, so I added a few ideas about it. I wanted to show that I was going to be guided by the Decisions document in setting my priorities.
Fast forward nine years. We've had Mission Chicago, Father Robert Barron's efforts, the Festivals of Faith-do you think they are enough or do we need more?
You're always looking for more. I think we've done a lot of good things. You mentioned some of them. There are a lot more. A lot of things go on in the parishes. Evangelizing means introducing people to Christ. A lot of Catholics do that one by one, without a big program or publicity. That goes on. We have several thousand people coming into the church every year with the RCIA and at other times for different reasons.
But because it's such a big topic, it's hard to focus it. You didn't mention Spreading the Holy Fire, which was a very important document to help the parishes get on board. It is such a broad topic, it's easy for parishes to say, 'We'll get to that,' when they have so many more immediate issues to deal with, to keep the ship afloat sometimes. To ask how can we reach out beyond the parish with the Gospel sometimes seems like a luxury for many people.
We are doing many good things. Should we be doing more? I think so, since this is the reason for the church's existence. And I have a feeling that as we continue to move along, we'll be able to find ways to galvanize the church to continue to evangelize and that God's grace will do the rest and bring people to conversion.
What makes it hard to bring people to Christ?
The mood and the atmosphere changes many times not because of anything the church does, but just because the society changes. Sometimes the church is well thought of and oftentimes it isn't in the history of the United States, so that certainly influences people's ideas. There is a fear of Christ very often-you see that around Easter time and Christmas time. They are always running shows saying he was just like everybody else, he was married, he had children, he certainly didn't rise from the dead. All that is a way to whittle him down to size so that you can't call him Lord and he can't call you to anything.
Then you don't have to change. People don't like to change very often. There is a kind of fear of Jesus on the part of many people and a lot of resentment of those who speak in his name. There is a fear of the church's teaching about many things because the church starts by telling people you're related before you're autonomous, and personal autonomy is the greatest value for our country. Even though life would be, I think, a lot saner if there was no exploitation of women, there was no human trafficking, there was no abandonment of children and marriages were stable and the poor were properly cared for and there was no violence in the streets-all of that is Catholic social teaching and Catholic moral teaching. It would be a very different world if it were guiding people more than it is. But because it also means you couldn't live just for yourself, you'd have to live for God and for others, there's a certain resentment about the church's moral teaching too. It seems to invade our freedom and invade our privacy.
There are many reasons why people don't listen to our message. Some of them are our own fault, our own sinfulness our own ability to find words to say it right, to be present to people. There are many things, internal and external, that hamper the mission of the church, but that's been true for 2,000 years.
So we've got to get it right here in the future. Then we could sell all kinds of New Worlds.
I was at the Chrism Mass today, when the priests rededicated themselves. One of the first things you did when you came to Chicago was to host a reception here in the house for all of the priests. How have you tried to support the priests in the face of the resentment they face?
There is also the sexual abuse scandal. That has caused a lot of resentment. How do I support them? I am their bishop. I am present to them. I rely upon them, I count on them. I encourage anything they try to do that supports them. We meet informally here quite often; we meet at meetings on many occasions. We try to make sure the auxiliary bishops are very aware of the needs of the priests. But basically, it's not a club. Priests are priests for the sake of the church, not for themselves. So what I try to do is teach and help them to teach and to govern and help them to govern and to sanctify people through the sacraments and help them to do the same. That's the reason why we exist. If the church is doing well, then the priests are doing well, so you first of all have to be concerned about the church and about the laypeople's holiness. If they're doing what they are supposed to be doing and I am too, well then, we'll be all right, no matter what else happens.
So are we doing well?
Yes and no. The unity of the presbyterate is on a more solid footing in many ways. The external pressures on the priests are greater than ever. As far as the archdiocese is concerned, I think it's better managed than it has been. And I think it's financially stable. We have not fully recovered from the scandals. The October count is down. There has been a push since Sept. 11 to secularize the society because religion is suspected as a cause of violence. We share the situation of churches in this country and other secularized Western countries.
Where we are very lucky is we have so many immigrants coming in who are Catholics, from Central and South America, from the Philippines, from Vietnam, from Poland, especially in this archdiocese. That's a great advantage that strengthens us, but it has its own challenges. I think we've met the challenges very well. Certainly with the Polish and to some extent with Hispanics. It's hard to know if we're doing well. We look at the statistics and some of them are good and some are not so good. In the end, it's God who makes that judgment-history is what God remembers.
What are the positive signs?
It's very surprising at times. Things are happening that you never expected to happen. There's this huge outbreak of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament that's very widespread. That's a surprise. Movements spring up. The Holy Spirit keeps working. Sometimes you see the effects and a lot of times you don't. Some of the letters I get from people who are suffering and finding consolation in their faith, that indicates that there a lot of holy people out there, people who do understand who Christ is and who have surrendered their lives to him. So we're doing well. The church has always done well. Externally, there are a lot of challenges. Institutions come and go. ... I think we're doing responsibly what we're doing. Whether we're doing well is not for me to judge. It's up to Christ to tell us-and he will, at some point.
What are you proudest of in the 10 years you've been here?
I think there are some good initiatives- you mentioned some of them. I think we do well with liturgy. Chicago always did, but I think we've tried to deepen the sense of participation. We have the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein that people around the country look to. I think also the strengthening of contemplative life is very important. The new one since I've been here is the Poor Clares on the South Side [in Lemont]. It was very important-we have everything in the center and in the north, and we wanted to have a contemplative community on the South Side so people could know where they have to go to have people pray for them whose life is spent in prayer. I think the reform of the programs to train deacons and lay people as ministers is very important. The bringing in of priests who meet the needs of the first generation of immigrants so that they wouldn't be lost and confused-they could find a home in the church here, even if the general society did not receive them all that well, has been an important initiative. We've brought in priests who shared the culture of those people, not just their languages-a number from Africa, a number from Vietnam as well.
Some days survival is victory.
I should go over the list of things-I should take out the calendar and see what's been on there.
A lot of time is spent just being present to people, especially in this job. A lot of time is spent on administration and a lot is spent on ceremony, public and ecclesiastical celebrations. But those are always impressive to people. Even though the presence isn't profound and long-lasting, it still is important that you're visibly present. Over time, the regular rhythm of the church's liturgical celebrations, where I'm present to people-the Chrism Mass we had today-I think is done very well in many ways.
You stood out there after the Mass and greeted people until you met every single person who wanted to meet you.
That's all part of being present. Those are good moments. . I spent a lot of time on the sexual abuse crisis the last five years or so-more than I thought would have been necessary, but it has been necessary. Talking to victims, trying to keep that in order.
Whether that's something to be proud of-it is. Trying to take care of victims as they come forward.
It's a sorry business. But that too is humbling. Humiliating, really. And that's not bad. Christ promised us that, so we live through it. We live through the consequences of sin, and that's how Christ makes us holy.
What else has happened?
Going back, we have our pact with Mexico City, which has had some good effects- less intense recently, but there was a time when we had a lot of things going on with that. There were things we could learn from them and things they could learn from us.
There was a good situation ecumenically here in Chicago before I came. What I've tried to do is keep that up, particularly with the African-American Protestant pastors. I've also tried to develop a relationship with the Muslims-that was just starting when I got here. With the Jews, we've had a longstanding relationship, and I've tried to maintain that. But there wasn't anything in place much with Muslims, so we're moving along, I think realistically.
That's part of the mission of the church- reaching out to other Christians and also people of other faiths. It's all part of the church being a catalyst to keep people in relationship with God.
The same thing is true with social ministries of the church. I've been very active in housing because that's part of protecting human dignity. I'm very interested in trying to address racism, because we've had a rough history in Chicago of racial relations that are very tense. Chicago's a very contentious place in some ways, and race has been contributing to that. I have been trying to speak to the immigration issue, although I have been sick as that has gathered steam. I've been encouraging people to try to stay with that. The antiviolence campaign that I got into right after I got here, Cease Fire, that I've stayed with. Those are all dimensions of the church's social mission that I've been interested in.
I've seen a number of interviews you gave where you pointed out that a cardinal archbishop of Chicago has never lived to retire at 75.
No one ever has.
How has your formation as an Oblate affected your ministry as archbishop here?
Oblates are shaped in the personal and communitarian spirituality by a school of spirituality that comes from 17th century France. That is very strong in emphasizing the identification of the priest with Christ and the selfsacrifice of the priest to Christ for the sake of his people. St. Vincent de Paul is an example of that- concern for the poor, concern for the sanctification of the clergy and their proper formation, concern for telling people who Christ is. Beside that spirituality, there is also a profound sense of mission, and the sense that the mission is primarily for the poor.
That was something that was burned into me not only as a novice, but in my work as vicar general of the Oblates, when I went around the world and saw the world and the church, but always from the viewpoint of the poor, because the Oblates always stay with the poor. It's very anomalous that you'd have an Oblate as archbishop of Chicago. It's not that we don't have poor here-we do. But that's not what we have the bishop for. There are a lot of bishops who are Oblates-50 in the congregation- but they are in poor areas of the world.
As an Oblate, my own spirituality, my own formation comes from that. But you have to use it the best you can where you are. It's a little bit odd to be in this situation as an Oblate, so that's just another challenge.
What do you like most about the job? What's hardest for you personally?
I enjoy being who I am, and I enjoy being here. The challenge for me and for a lot of priests is time, to find time to meet all the demands and still have time for prayer, which is essential, or else everything collapses. You become a functionary without that. The big thing is to find time to pray, but also to evaluate and study the various situations- you change hats a lot in this kind of job.
Where would you like to see the archdiocese in 10 years?
I haven't got it figured out yet. Again, you go back: Why does the archdiocese exist? It exists to make people holy. I would like to see the sacramental life of the church participated in by a lot more people than is the case now; I would like to see the church have a more effective presence so that people would live as sisters and brothers. That's what counts. It's the real effect on people's lives that matters; institutions come and go, they always do. I'd like people to know Jesus Christ a lot better than they do now. People have a lot of weird ideas about Jesus. They treat faith as a hobby. It's not a hobby. It organizes our lives and enables us to live forever.