Cardinal George, Chicago’s archbishop since 1997 and a member of the College of Cardinals since 1998, will have the distinction of participating in his second papal conclave when he steps into the Sistine Chapel to elect the next successor of St. Peter.
The cardinal, who was diagnosed last summer with cancer in his kidney and liver and recently finished chemotherapy, reflected on his health and on the conclave with Catholic New World staff writer Michelle Martin on Feb. 23.
Catholic New World: We understand you’ve had some news about your health. How is it?
Cardinal George: They did the tests to follow up on the chemo, and they were very good in some unexpected ways. They’re always reluctant to use the words “cancer free” because all of us have cancerous cells, but they can’t find any evidence of cancerous cells where they had found them before. So evidently the chemo was very successful.
I am convinced it is with the aid of the prayers of so many people and the intercession of Father Tolton. I’m in good health, although still recovering a little bit from the effects of chemo. That will work itself out in time. I’m just very grateful.
CNW: Is there a prognosis going forward?
Cardinal George: I’ll be scanned every three months, I think for the rest of my life. Cancer has a way of coming back. But right now it’s not there, so rather than a regime that says we’re going to try to control this as long as we can, it’s now a regime of checking for it on a regular basis.
CNW: This is your second conclave. How is it different, and how are you thinking about it differently?
Cardinal George: It’s different in the candidates, first of all. Last time, the candidates that were talked about in the press, some of them were possible candidates but a good number of them were not, and I think the cardinals knew that. This time, as I read the names in the press, I think they’re all possible candidates. That means we’ve a rather good field of people to choose among.
Secondly, what’s different is I’ve had the experience of going through a conclave. I remember it as a very intense experience, religiously especially. The system is the same, and the system is very public — it’s explained on the Vatican website. The content is of course confidential.
I know how it works, and that gives me a certain freedom to concentrate on the essential business, which is the choice, and to plan: Whom should I talk to? Whose opinion do I most want to hear? I’ll do that in a more planned way as we converse in the week or so before the conclave.
Before, I was just listening to everybody but didn’t have a clear sense of what’s important and what’s not. I think I now have a clearer sense of how to ask the right questions.
CNW: What kinds of questions will the cardinals be asking each other?
Cardinal George: In the morning meetings, where all the cardinals are present, including those who won’t vote, you can talk about anything you want the next pope to hear because he’s seated in that room, whoever he might be. Usually, they talk about issues facing the church, particularly in light of where they live around the world, and then the issues of church governance that have to be resolved. Occasionally there are questions about church teaching they think should be attended to, they’re the general issues that are close to the heart of the person speaking. They also tell you something about the speaker. You listen carefully to what they bring up.
Then in the afternoons and evenings, there is nothing scheduled, and you are free therefore to speak to individual cardinals or small groups gathered — two, three — and there you talk not just about issues but about people. Who are the candidates you think might be there? Or is somebody being talked about who I really don’t know? So you search out somebody who does know him and ask “What kind of man is he?”
You ask what are his qualities? Because it is the qualities of the person that count more than where he is from or any other consideration. The most important thing is: Is he attached to the Lord? Is he a man of prayer? Is he rooted in the apostolic faith and can he teach it, can he explain it? Can he govern well? Does he have a heart for the poor, who are the heart of the kingdom of God? Does he have a universal vision? Is he not so captured by his own culture or his own place that he can’t think universally?
Those would be questions that would be important to me. Others as well, but I think you start there.
CNW: How will this conclave be different because it is not following on the heels of a funeral?
Cardinal George: There was a great moment of grief and sorrow with the death of Pope John Paul II, and then a certain astonishment at the funeral. The whole world was there, every government, every head of other religions. It was a tremendous manifestation of the way in which that pope was universal pastor. So with that in mind, that did affect our sense of how we discerned to continue this mission.
This will be different. You don’t have the mourning. You do have the regret, but also the gratitude for a very courageous pope who saw that the church needed something he couldn’t give, and had the courage therefore to step down. It is different as a background. We’ll get into the whole thing much more quickly.
CNW: Do you see a possibility the conclave won’t be delayed until March 15?
Cardinal George: I rather suspect that might happen. I think that’s a good thing. The final decision of when to go into conclave will be made by the cardinals and nobody else, collectively, and we’ll make it when we feel we’ve had the conversation necessary to make a good choice so the conclave isn’t too long. If it goes more than three days, people might begin to wonder what’s going on. It shouldn’t be (too long) if we do our work well. If we go into conclave too early, then it could be a very long conclave.
In the conclave, you are just praying and voting, and both of those take a very long time, so you don’t have time to converse. You’d better do all that first.
CNW: You’ve said recently that you wouldn’t necessarily rule out an American pope.
Cardinal George: I think you have to be open to whatever the Holy Spirit brings. It’s highly improbable still, but not perhaps as improbable as it might have been a decade or more ago. There are good candidates among the American cardinals, so we’ll see.
CNW: Do you think it will be a younger man this time?
Cardinal George: Probably. Cardinal Ratzinger was 78 when he was elected. Just looking at the candidates, they are all younger than that, so it probably will be a younger man. Again, we’re not talking about a young group, so I would imagine they will select someone maybe in his early 70s, more likely someone in his 60s — someone whose health is strong. If they are a lot younger than that, and they might be, then you are looking at a very long pontificate, and the cardinals may or may not think that’s good.
CNW: It seemed from the resignation that Pope Benedict was saying that the church needs somebody stronger.
Cardinal George: Well, he did say that. Somebody with the physical force necessary to bear this burden, and also, as with Pope Benedict, somebody who cannot be so drained by travel and by public experiences, public manifestations and celebrations. He’s a very shy man. People don’t realize how shy he is. Every time there is a public gathering, he is kind, very kind, and very charitable, so he wills himself to be present, but it’s a struggle, and it takes a lot out of him physically. Somebody perhaps who is a little bit more extroverted would find it easier to bear the burden.
CNW: How do you think Pope Benedict’s resignation will affect future popes? Will they be more likely to resign if they feel unequal to the task?
Cardinal George: I really don’t know. It will depend entirely upon the future popes. However, with a pope or with a bishop, you’ve always got the tension between relationships — being a father, which lasts until death — and function, the ability to do the job. Ideally, those two never get so far apart that you have to sacrifice one for the other.
Modern mindset says function is more important than relationship. The communal, family mindset, the church included, says no, relationship is more important than function. What the pope said is, well, at this point at least, I’m looking at function, and that’s a new note, and it does legitimate somebody who might be in that situation at some point in the future making the same choice. Whether or not we’ll meet that, I don’t know.
That’s a kind of a modern note, because prior popes who resigned were pretty much forced into it by circumstances, not by personal choice so much, even though it was freely done. You had popes, for example, who were sent into exile by the emperor, so they resigned so that Rome would not be without a bishop. It’s different to say, “I can’t do it because I’ve been sent into exile,” than saying, “I can’t do it because I’m not up to it,” or “I don’t have the physical strength to do it.”
CNW: Can you talk about the role of the Holy Spirit? How is that manifested?
Cardinal George: We believe the Holy Spirit keeps the church in truth, keeps her from teaching falsehood. The Holy Spirit, I hope, also helps her to govern well, but that’s a little different. We can always resist the Holy Spirit and sin. We have to pray pretty hard that the force of the Holy Spirit will make itself felt through prayer, through discernment.
What you do is — in a spirit of discernment — lay the evidence before the Lord in prayer, and you pray for freedom of spirit because the Holy Spirit can help you to see things as God wants you to see them. There’s no guarantee that you’re really taking cues from the Holy Spirit. You just have to do your best and do so with confidence that the Spirit will be active in the College of Cardinals collectively and go ahead as best you can.
As somebody once said, the Holy Spirit doesn’t leave notes that say: “Vote for so-and so.”
CNW: Are there things Catholics might not know about the conclave that they should know, or even find entertaining?
Cardinal George: Entertaining? (Laughs) Well, they might not know that it’s a liturgical action, first of all. It’s prayer and the activity of voting.
People don’t get up and speak about anything. There are no public talks. The only one who speaks publicly is the master of ceremonies, and he gives instruction about how to vote and the rest in Italian, and then the tellers count the ballots out loud and they name the people voted for out loud. There’s no talking back and forth. Those outside the process tend to put on it the political template that they’re familiar with. It’s not like that at all.
They also might not know that when the Holy Father either dies or resigns and the Holy See is vacant, all the officers in the Roman Curia are without a job because they are all there because the pope has given them authority. So there is no secretary of state, there is no head of any of the Roman congregations.
Only three people still have authority. One is the major penitentiary, because the ministry of forgiveness always has to be available. Two is the camerlengo of the Roman Catholic Church, who is Cardinal Bertone. He takes care of the physical arrangements — where we stay, what we eat, and all that stuff. And then there is the dean of the College of Cardinals, who is Cardinal Sodano. He is over 80, so he will preside at the meetings before we go into conclave, but he will not go into conclave himself. Cardinal Ratzinger had that role at the last conclave.
CNW: What are some of the main issues facing the church and the new pope?
Cardinal George: I think in the West, it’s secularism. Elsewhere, it’s a revitalized Islamic fundamentalism. In some places, like China, it’s still communism, or at least totalitarianism.
Internally, the church still has to receive the Second Vatican Council adequately. There are a lot of misinterpretations of the council that the pope has spoken about that get in the way of understanding what the church is and what her mission is. So we have to face better catechesis, better governance of the church.
In a sense, the sexual abuse scandal is bad governance. It happened because of poor governance, so we have to look at that to make sure the government of the church is done in a responsible way, with the necessary transparency.
The most important challenge is to worship the way the Lord wants us to worship and to increase the number of people who are worshipping, to reach out to people who don’t know who Christ is and to help them to discover him in his body, the church. That’s the constant missionary challenge. If you’re internally weakened and you’re externally challenged, then the mission becomes more problematic than it should be.
Those would be the general areas; we’ll fill in the details when we’re all together.
CNW: Will the election influence the way the new evangelization is implemented?
Cardinal George: It could, in the sense that what the new pope chooses to speak about, the whole church thinks about. He’ll certainly talk about the new evangelization; there’s no question about that. How he addresses it will depend on what he’s been thinking about.
Pope Benedict thought about the secularized West most of his life, and that’s what he spoke about most convincingly, and he analyzed it extraordinarily well. That’s where secularism is most clearly evident, except in something like communist China, where God is not part of public life either, for different reasons.
Each pope brings his own personality and concerns with him, and speaks to things in that light, as long as it fits into the universal mission of the church. I don’t think new topics will come up so much as new ways of approaching the constant topics.