It was hard to miss our own Cardinal George among those traveling with Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to the United States. As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal George was the official bishops’ representative to the pontiff during his six days here. The cardinal was among the few to receive him upon his arrival, to sit with him during meals and join him at the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist.
He shared with the Catholic New World some of the highlights of the visit.
Catholic New World: What do you think Pope Benedict learned about the church in the United States?
Cardinal Francis George: The Holy Father was well informed about the Church in the United States. But facts take on new life when seen in context. The enthusiasm shown during his visit and the love for him personally made a deep impression on him.
CNW: Were you surprised by his decision to meet with clerical sexual abuse victims? Did he speak about why he decided to do that?
Cardinal George: I learned that the visit was going to take place the day before the meeting. I was somewhat surprised, because the meeting with victims of sexual abuse had been discussed for six months and each time it was decided that it couldn’t be done in a manner that would be respectful of victims themselves. Finally, the Pope trusted his own pastoral instincts and the meeting took place. He was able to meet personally with a few of those he had only previously read about as their stories were sent to the Holy See for review of the process.
CNW: After listening to Pope Benedict throughout his visit, what do you think were the main messages he wanted to convey? Were they different for different audiences, eg., the bishops, the clergy and religious, young people? How were those messages received?
Cardinal George: His main message is that true freedom is found in surrender to the truth, and the truth is a Person: Jesus Christ. The message was developed differently before different audiences. I believe his message was well received, as he was personally. Many probably came for the first time to realize not only how smart he is but how trustworthy.
CNW: Is there any particular message that you would like to bring back and convey to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago? If so, what is that message?
Cardinal George: I am grateful to those who came to Washington and New York from Chicago and grateful as well for all the prayers that were offered for the success of this apostolic journey and pastoral visit.
CNW: Were you surprised at the level of enthusiasm among Catholics to see Pope Benedict? Why or why not?
Cardinal George: I was more surprised by his reaction to the enthusiasm than by the enthusiasm itself. There is a sense of God’s grace made present when a believing Catholic is in the presence of the pope.
CNW: What effect do you think this visit will have on the church in the United States? In the short term? In the long term?
Cardinal George: In the short term, the church in the United States is encouraged by the pope’s words and actions here. In the long term, I hope the visit helps us to be less reserved about our Catholic faith and more aware that the teachings of the church come from Christ and are true. We should be able to be publicly ourselves without fear, especially as anti-Catholicism becomes once again publicly acceptable and even a mark of “enlightenment.” His visit also might help clarify the obligations of public officials who are Catholic. Their lives should be guided by the truths that are the foundation of the common good.
CNW: You had a ringside seat to the entire visit. What are the moments that stand out for you most from the pope’s visit?
Cardinal George: There were many moments that were spectacular. The reception at the White House was great civic “liturgy.” The Masses in the stadiums were moments of felt unity with the Lord and with one another. The meeting with young men and women at the seminary in Yonkers was filled with happiness.
I appreciated the quieter moments with the disabled children, most of whom could not speak, and with those who gathered at ground zero to remember in prayer the terrible attacks there and the death of so many in the midst of their ordinary preoccupations. Even the elaborate security measures that surrounded us were reminders of the consequences of terrorism.
The pope’s quiet observations during a few of the luncheons were good moments for us at table with him. All of these moments, of course, perdure in the celebration of the Eucharist each day, for the Lord unites us even when we are physically distant from one another.