Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Story lines, ours and God’s

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Every year, on Thanksgiving Day, we stir up again our reasons for living in gratitude: the gift of life and of new life in Christ, the gift of family and friends, the gift of meaningful work, of housing, food and the preservation of dignity. This year, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, we have reason to be grateful for a new archbishop, Blase Cupich, shortly after his installation at Holy Name Cathedral on Nov. 18.

I have a particular reason to be grateful to many people, as I’ve written already, and, most of all, to God who calls and shapes us throughout the years. Often when I am being interviewed these days, I will be asked about my “legacy.” The interviewer is trying to make sense of my years here by fitting them into a narrative, a story line. I am not sure what that should mean for a bishop of the church, whose life is defined by Christ on one side and the people on the other. Life is not a self-directed project but a consistent response to what is asked by those you love. In the end, as we all know, history is what God remembers.

What I suppose is sometimes meant by asking about my legacy is how I personally look at what I have done in historical context. We celebrate the feast of Christ the King at the end of the liturgical year, just before beginning to live the Advent season, in expectation of our participation in the joy of Christ’s birth at Christmastime. Since our relationship to Christ defines not just our personal lives but our sense of the history of the world, it can be spiritually worthwhile to step back and look at what has influenced the times in which we live and how we situate ourselves in history, seen as the story of the salvation of the human race.

The feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 to correct the false sense of history that was persuading many people that fascism and Nazism were the wave of the future. These totalitarian systems seemed to give hope to those living in the decrepit democracies of Europe, but it was a hope gained by sacrificing personal freedom, especially freedom of religion. From the viewpoint of our faith, the loss of the freedom to practice our religion is a frightening prospect; and it is a fear that many Christians still live with today. In fact, Christians are by far the most persecuted minority in the world, with more Christians dying for the faith today than at any time since the first three centuries of the church’s existence. Religious freedom is becoming more restricted in about half the countries of the world. Pope Francis has tried with great insistence to draw the attention of the world to the loss of religious liberty. He has asked us to pray and fast for our persecuted brothers and sisters, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been acting as a clearinghouse to receive news from persecuted Christians and to publicize their witness.

Decades ago, when I was regularly visiting missionaries around the world, I began to study the relationship between faith and culture, because the situation of the church differed so greatly from place to place and the missionaries often came from a culture different from that of their people. Where culture and faith were in great tension for any number of reasons, it was clear to me that the liberty of the church was in great danger. Since coming back to this country in 1987, I have continued to study the relationship between faith and culture and now find that, as tensions with society increase, the liberty of the church is in some danger here as well as in developing countries or communist states. I hope to be able to continue with these studies.

As I listen now to some conversations at this moment of transition, I hear people, including myself, given “roles” in someone else’s sense of the history of the church and the world; their personal story is taken up into a narrative that deforms as well as explains. Much of this is inevitable, but people have a right to define themselves, both individually and collectively, and not be reduced to players in other people’s story of our times. I find myself more and more impatient before someone who insists on telling me who I am because they’ve picked bits and pieces of my life and reassembled them to meet their purposes. Then I realize that I play the same game of labeling, and I begin to understand better when I’m told that poor people should be actors in creating the world’s story line and not just receivers of aid on someone else’s terms.

Personally, of course, I live and hope to die in the story line provided by the Catholic faith. A moment of transition gives me the chance to make that clear, for myself and others. In that story, I am a bishop; all the rest is someone else’s fantasy. I am grateful, and I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving as you thank God for all that you have received and for the help he has given you to play your part in the history that will be fully understood at the Last Judgment. In the meantime, in our time, may God continue to bless you and your families, our church and Archbishop Cupich.


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