Before Christmas, Cardinal George sat down with various news outlets to discuss the state of his health, his future as archbishop of Chicago and other timely issues. The following is a transcript of his Dec. 20 interview with Catholic New World editor Joyce Duriga:
Catholic New World: News reports are saying you are cancer free. Are you?
Cardinal George: I have said only that it appears that I am “cancer free.” It appears as if the sites that were cancerous now show negative on the scans, which is very good news. But the doctors immediately say the scans don’t pick up everything. They still have to go forward and there will be more exams and more decisions. Still, I do hope that the prayers will heal the cancer, as God wills.
CNW: How have you been feeling?
Cardinal George: Generally I’ve sustained the treatment pretty well. As it goes on, it becomes harder. I’m coming to the end of it now. The most evident side effect for me has just been tiredness. I have avoided so far many of the other difficulties that people receiving chemo complain about, and I’m very grateful for that.
CNW: A lot of our readers and others around the archdiocese have been praying for you.
Cardinal George: Oh yes. It’s very humbling that so many people write with their support and prayers. And many people write about their own experience with chemotherapy. A lot of people have had chemo or know people who have had chemotherapy. That has also been very encouraging.
Also what has been encouraging are the people who write to say not just that they are praying for me but that I’ve helped them at a certain point in their life that I’m often not even aware of. That shows the Holy Spirit, I think, working among us to make us instruments of his providence, even when we don’t realize it.
CNW: Has your prayer life changed at all during this journey? Are there particular mediations or spiritual practices you go to more now?
Cardinal George: No new practices, you just continue the practices that made up your prayer life for years, except now I pray the prayer for the miraculous intercession of Father Tolton every night after the church’s night prayer. I also say some prayers for cancer patients that people have sent me. But beyond that, my prayer life is pretty much what it was.
Sometimes it’s more difficult. When you are well you have more energy and you think “I’ll pray when I’m sick.” When you are sick you don’t have any energy at all, even to pray. The lesson there is you should pray while you are well.
If every day you have a habit of prayer then every day you meet the Lord. So, as you come closer to death, the idea of meeting the Lord is not a foreign idea; in fact, it is something, I hope, I can welcome when the time comes. People who pray every day prepare themselves for death, the final meeting with the Lord.
CNW: What happens now with your treatment and going forward?
Cardinal George: I am on the final round of chemotherapy. I have one more treatment for chemo on Dec. 26. Then they will have to do more testing. Then I have to give the body time to recover. It takes four to six weeks just to get the bone marrow functioning as it should.
Then we have to make some decisions about future treatment. For example, how do you contain this? Is there an operation called for? Those are all decisions that have to be made somewhere down the line.
The doctors could say “Everything looks good. Come back and see us in a few months.” I suspect they won’t be happy with that. They will want to nail it down as best they can. But once you start with metastasized cancer it’s something you are probably going to have to live with.
I don’t know since I’m not a doctor, but it is a hard thing to say “a cure.” Generally it is counted as a cure if, for five years, it doesn’t show up again. But it was six years, in my case, so from their perspective I was cured. But then it came back again in a different place. We’ll see. That’s all I can say at this point.
I’m very grateful for what has brought me this far. It’s a good place to be right now. It could have been far worse. I could have started with chemo and then more cancer breaks out in the middle of the chemo session. That’s not a good sign. It’s been very contained and seems to have disappeared, from what they can tell. But they always say they can’t tell everything just from the scans.
CNW: You said around the time of the ad limina visit this past February that you thought you had two to three years left as archbishop of Chicago. What are you hoping to accomplish in the remainder of that time?
Cardinal George: There are a number of structural things that we are putting into place in the archdiocese. We have to solidify the financial structure of the archdiocese, like every other major institution today. We are doing it in cooperation with the parishes, because they manage their own financial houses.
The rest of it is ongoing, the work of the ministries, the constant attention to the seminaries. I’m concerned about the schools, of course, and how we maintain the school system while strengthening the catechetical programs inside and outside the schools.
CNW: We all see that the fiscal climate in the country hasn’t improved and locally we’ve seen some schools close. Is there something you would like us as Catholics to focus on or help with?
Cardinal George: Catholics are very generous here, and I hope that will continue even though it is more difficult in these times. Beyond that, I think people are also generous with their time and in sharing what they can. Particularly now, in this Year of Faith, it is important that Catholics share their faith. That is the most important thing we do. Even if we didn’t own anything or have any money, we would still have to share the faith.
We have to have, in a country like ours, an institutional presence too, so we have to maintain the institutions as long as they are instruments for sharing the faith. But it is sharing the faith that is the reason for the church’s existence, introducing the world to Christ in each generation. That’s the most important thing that Catholics do.
I hope that we can intensify that, first of all in our worship in the Year of Sunday Mass. If you are not worshipping God, you’re not going to lead anybody to the faith and the rest of your relationships won’t be right because you don’t have the fundamental relationship right.
Regular worship and knowing enough of the faith to share it with others — those are the two things I would really like to see in place as much as possible as we move forward and I happily meet my successor.
CNW: We hear you were considering writing a pastoral letter?
Cardinal George: I have been considering it for some years. I just haven’t had the chance to get down to it. It’s more or less on Catholic customs.
It won’t be a long or profound letter. It would just be a way to remind people that there are customs that identify a Catholic way of life and that, if we’ve lost them, the church becomes a debating society instead of a church.
The church is a way of life; faith creates a way of life protected by the church. It is that way of life and the habitual customs that mark it that have been much weakened. We’re not as cohesive a group as we should be.
CNW: What is an example of a custom that you mean?
Cardinal George: One of them was abstaining from meat on Friday. It was part of the Catholic way of life, a marker, and kept people together sometimes even when they disagreed on other things. Going to Mass every Sunday was very much part of a Catholic way of life, and devotion to the saints and a lot of devotional practices that kept you involved with the family of God. Those things have been much weakened or disappeared.
CNW: At the last meeting of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the USCCB president, raised the idea of bringing back the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays.
Cardinal George: Cardinal Dolan made the suggestion that we should look at that again because the bishops in Great Britain have reinstituted the practice. Right now, it’s not on our agenda.
You would have to look at how one might bring it back. If you make it a matter of obligation, which is what it was before, it was a matter of obedience, although you abstained to remind yourself of Christ’s suffering. Obedience is a more difficult virtue these days. To bring something back you would have to figure out how you would express it as obligation.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. bishops — long before I was a bishop — suggested that we go back to Friday abstinence in order to work for peace. That was in their peace pastoral letter.
CNW: You continue to write and speak often about the religious freedom issue in our country. Do you think we Catholics have made any headway in that area?
Cardinal George: We’ve had a hard time making headway in popular opinion because the danger simply won’t be reported. Opposition to the HHS mandate is reduced to being anti-contraceptive instead of being concerned about the identity of our ministries being defined by the state instead of by the church.
For people who have listened to our argument, I think we’ve made headway. For people whose commitment is to a political party rather than the church we haven’t made headway at all.
Where we have made some headway is in the courts, which is where it will be settled since it is a First Amendment issue. And then there’s an ongoing conversation with the present administration. So far the results have been nil. There is still a conversation going on. Both sides want to continue to talk, so we’ll see.
CNW: A seeming increase in violence in our world today — on the streets of Chicago and with the recent tragedy in Connecticut — is on the minds of many people. How do we try and understand the violence as Catholics and how should we respond?
Cardinal George: The archdiocese here has a lot of anti-violence measures. Standing with people who have been affected by violence is something we will continue to develop. If somebody’s killed, you go and stand with the family.
The response is basically presence. You respond externally with better gun control laws, but you respond personally too. That’s very important when people are in trouble. I see that in my own case with the cancer.
So we could try and develop more programs. The long-range response is what the church is supposed to be doing to give people the internal discipline necessary so they don’t act out violently. If you are peaceful in your heart and in your mind, then you are not going to be violent on the streets. If there is no internal discipline, especially the type that is formed in families, it is very hard to make up for that lack as an adult.
We’ve always been involved in fostering the life of virtue, telling people to live virtuously, which means love God, love your neighbor. Do what is right and avoid what is wrong.
These are habits that are within someone. If the habits are there when people are children then chances are they won’t be violent as adults. If children are not trained in virtue, then you can multiply laws and it won’t make much difference.