On March 13, Cardinal George was among those who elected Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio the 266th successor to St. Peter. It was Cardinal George’s second conclave. He recently sat down with editor Joyce Duriga to share his thoughts on the election and Pope Francis.
Catholic New World: How do you think Pope Francis is doing so far?
Cardinal George: He’s obviously fit into the position quickly and well. Now he has to make decisions that are very important for the future.
CNW: What are some of those decisions?
Cardinal George: He has to make major appointments to the Curia.
CNW: It was mentioned often in the news leading up to the conclave that the new pope would have to reform the Curia. Why does it need reforming?
Cardinal George: There are two concerns. One is administrative, that is getting the Curia to work more effectively without so many delays. Making it easier for the curial cardinals, who are very critical of their own work, to have regular meetings with the Holy Father and more cooperation among the various offices. That administrative reform is always something to be worked on.
What is more current is the breakdown of the internal discipline necessary to govern. Papers were stolen from the pope’s desk. That had never happened before. How did it happen? Because it did happen, Pope Benedict set up a committee of three cardinals to investigate the context and write a report, which only the pope has seen — the former pope and this pope. The report addresses an issue more profound than administrative efficiency.
CNW: Did you know him before the election?
Cardinal George: I knew him in the sense that I know who he is, and we had talked a bit. I didn’t have a deep friendship with him.
CNW: Cardinal Bergoglio wasn’t mentioned in the media as being a frontrunner going into the election.
Was that what the cardinals thought or did something happen during the time leading up to the conclave to change things?
Cardinal George: He was very well respected among the cardinals, but a lot of people thought, as did the media, that we would elect someone a little younger, given Pope Benedict’s reason for stepping down. But then, as the conversation developed, people remembered the quality of the man and he became a serious candidate.
What we were looking for was somebody who has proven he can govern well, and he started to be discussed before we went into conclave. Once the conclave begins, you also begin to see more clearly who really has support. A number of cardinals are talked about, but the results of the first ballot tell you who really has support.
CNW: Why was the result of the election different than what was predicted in the media during the run up to the conclave?
Cardinal George: The media talked about people who were really very capable. The media often go wrong, however, because they think in terms of blocs, as if the conclave were a political convention where people vote their interests or the interests of their country. There isn’t much of that. Instead, everyone is asking, “Who will be the best universal pastor?” They aren’t asking, “How can we get a South American elected? Or somebody from the United States or Poland?”
The media imagined that the Curia itself was of one mind. The curial cardinals were of many different minds, as was every other group. All of the groupings that the press came up with are natural enough in a conventionally political situation, but the papal election was an exercise in spiritual discernment. In that perspective, the cardinals approach the election with a unique set of questions.
CNW: Was there anything that stood out this time around that was different from your first conclave?
Cardinal George: Eight years ago, Pope John Paul II died after a long illness. There was deep grief and, with it, the desire to continue, in some fashion, what was a truly great pontificate. The cardinals were looking for someone who would assure some continuity. The obvious candidate was the one who had been with Pope John Paul II for 23 years. The question became, “If not Cardinal Ratzinger, then who?”
This time, we were looking for someone who would attend to the governance issues mentioned above, along with ensuring magisterial teaching and the church’s mission to the poor. There were a half dozen or more really capable cardinals who could have been pope. It was therefore more of a contest than it was eight years ago.
CNW: Naturally people compare Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, but they are two completely different men.
Cardinal George: Yes and no. If I were to compare them, I would say that they are both good bishops, pastoral men, saintly and smart. Pope Benedict is a very shy person, as he has described himself. Consequently, the public burdens of the papal office were hard for him to adjust to. Pope Francis has been used to being in public as a pastor for a long time, so he is more at ease with that dimension of the papal office.
Pope Benedict sacrificed himself just to go through the events of the day as pope. He made that sacrifice willingly, because he loves the church and he is a truly good person. That same love of the church prompted him to say, “It’s time. I can’t do this anymore.”
CNW: You’ve called the conclave “an exercise in freedom.” Would you explain that?
Cardinal George: I’ve said that a number of times, because people don’t always think of the conclave in that manner. The electors spend a lot of time becoming informed about the situation of the church around the world and about possible candidates. Then they spend a lot more time purifying their own motives, freeing themselves, through God’s grace, of self-interest and the interests that are part of the national and cultural background that they come from so that they are free to vote for the one who will become the universal pastor.
CNW: How do you free yourself from that? It’s difficult to leave your agenda at the door.
Cardinal George: You keep praying about it. You ask yourself in the presence of God: “Why am I in favor of this person?” You work to purify your motives. Anything less than “because I believe this is the one best suited to be the universal pastor” is not a good motive for your choice. Then you also have to be concerned about the freedom of the office itself. You have to elect somebody who will be able to exercise papal ministry freely and not burden the office with a lot of limitations that would make him less effective as pope.
CNW: Pope Benedict had fighting the dictatorship of relativism as one of the major themes of his pontificate. Do you see a theme emerging yet from Pope Francis?
Cardinal George: One of the themes he’s spoken about clearly is the need to overcome a tendency to narcissism. He spoke about the church not being self-referential but rather risking her life for the sake of the mission. That is an issue that he is very concerned about.
CNW: What do you mean by narcissism in the church?
Cardinal George: Narcissism is self-centeredness. Even the church can imagine that she is the center of the world rather than Christ, her Lord. Then the church would become just a professional organization rather than the Body of Christ, as he wants her to be.
I would ask everyone to please pray for the pope, that he do what the Lord wants him to do. Pray also that we will cooperate with the pope and obey him for the sake of the church’s mission in the world redeemed by Christ.