Cardinal George talks about his ministry, life and facing death

By Catholic New World
Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cardinal George gives Communion to detainees during a Mass on Christmas Day 2008 at Cook County Department of Corrections, Division 6, a medium-security facility in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

As Cardinal George prepared to officially retire as archbishop of Chicago — the first archbishop to live to retirement — he sat down with editor Joyce Duriga to discuss his ministry and the next phase of his life.

Catholic New World: What is your advice for Archbishop Cupich?

Cardinal George: Listen to a lot of people because you get a lot of different voices that tell you a lot of different things. You have to sort it out as best as you can.

CNW: Are you looking forward to retirement? Anything in particular?

Cardinal George: Yes. I’m looking forward to handing over responsibilities that I don’t feel, physically at least, I’m up to any longer. After that we’ll see. What I do or don’t do will depend upon the state of my health.

What I do in public life in the church will depend upon Archbishop Cupich’s decisions. What I’ll do privately in terms of following up on projects — study projects, writing projects — working with different groups that I’m a part of, that will continue depending upon the stamina that I have.

CNW: Your column is a popular feature in the Catholic New World, I’m not sure you’re aware of that.

Cardinal George: It’s interesting because I often get letters now from people to thank me on the occasion of my retirement, and often they mention the columns. They are grateful for the columns, which I’m glad to hear because a certain amount of effort goes into them every time we publish.

When I started writing columns, some people said nobody would read them. But I thought, well, I still should speak to things that are important. Bishops write long pastoral letters, which are good in themselves, but I think have less effect, perhaps, than shorter pieces like columns.

CNW: Around the time that you were installed you mentioned in interviews a conversation you had with Cardinal Bernardin where you asked him how he managed the Chicago archdiocese. He responded to the effect, “You don’t manage Chicago. It’s unmanageable.” How do you pastor a place like this that is very diverse and pluralistic?

Cardinal George: The bishop is the center of unity, visible unity — the Holy Spirit is the center of invisible unity in the Church — so you try to keep people together for the sake of the mission. Whatever is necessary for that purpose is what I’ve tried to do.

How you do it? Well, some of it presents itself. You have to make priest personnel changes. You have to take care of the financial situation. You have to manage the institutions in different ways. You’ve got to appear at certain events. You’ve got to be part of different meetings. All of that sets your schedule. It’s what you do. But in back of it is this purpose of how you can make all of that serve the unity of the church for the sake of the mission. That’s the spiritual development of the people.

I look around and I’m quite encouraged by the many good people whom I meet. The Gospel and the sacraments and the communities of love that are our parishes have changed people’s lives. They have transformed lives because they are vehicles for God’s grace. The agent is the Holy Spirit, but you have to set it up in such a way that people are available to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

I think I have managed to do that to a certain extent. I’m encouraged when people write and say, “You’ve helped my spiritual life. You’ve given me more confidence in the faith. You’ve given me courage to face difficulties.” I get a good number of letters like that at this time, and I’m very grateful for them. I’m grateful to God for this ministry.

CNW: Looking back, is there anything that you’d do differently? Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?

Cardinal George: There are all kinds of things that I would do differently had I known what I know now or after the fact. So, yes, there are small things and there are big things. The same thing is true about things I’m particularly proud of.

What’s important is I’ve tried to be a good bishop and I’ve fulfilled my obligations here according to the appointment of the Holy Father. I’m simply grateful for my vocation as bishop here.

Again, particular things are hard to zero in on. I think the fact that the poor have been at the center of our life again — looking at Catholic Charities in particular but also the St. Vincent de Paul societies and groups elsewhere. I think I’ve emphasized that very strongly. I think that the teachings of the church have been brought to the front in ways that sometimes people don’t like to hear but are still important if you’re going to be Catholic.

I think that the liturgical life of the archdiocese has been renewed. I think the seminaries and programs creating deacons and lay leaders and others responsible for catechesis have been constantly revised and improved. That’s something that I’m very pleased with.

Things could be different, of course, but in the end what you do to change people is far more important than anything else, because people last forever. Buildings don’t, nor does anything else. It’s that area of spirituality that isn’t easy to cover or to discover unless people disclose the state of their soul, but that area is the most important in the light of eternity.

CNW:You have focused a lot in your ministry to make sure Catholics in the archdiocese are well formed. Why is that important?

Cardinal George: It’s not a good thing to live in falsehood, especially religious falsehood, so you want to save people from that.

You also want to see to it that they have the habits of life that keep them free, particularly the young people. If young people get caught early on in habits that enslave — drugs or sexual promiscuity or gangs — they’re never free. Christ died to make us free. The faith, what it means, and then the habits of life that protect a life of faith, are part of personal formation in the truth, and the church should attend to those dimensions as much as she possibly can. I think that we’ve tried to do that.

CNW: In your homily at your installation Mass in 1997 you spoke about religious liberty as it related to countries like China. Seventeen years later, religious liberty continues to be a topic you speak and write about. Did you have any idea that you would still need to be addressing this topic today, only in a different context as it relates to this country?

Cardinal George: I didn’t think about the situation today when I was preaching 17 years ago. You respond to what is in front of you. Dangers to religious liberty were in front of us then and are certainly very clearly in front of us now.

The fact is, it’s a subject I’ve been studying for a long time because, as I went around the world when I was vicar general of the Oblates, I often found places where people aren’t free to practice their faith.

It is a little frightening when you’re confronted with that possibility in your own country, which I never thought would be the case, but it is.

CNW: What do you think will happen on that front in the next 10 years?

Cardinal George: I have no clear idea. I’m a poor prophet. We have this famous statement where I was supposed to have predicted that I will die in bed, etcetera, etcetera. It wasn’t meant to be a prophecy at all. It was meant to assure some New Orleans’ priests who were very worried about the secularization of our culture that, at the end, God is in charge. What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? The worst possible thing is that the church would be actively persecuted. Every country, every society that has persecuted religion has collapsed. In the end, the church is there to pick up the pieces. That’s what I was trying to reassure them about.

What’s new now is that we never thought that a liberal society — and I mean that in the broad sense — a society such as our own, that has protections for human rights supposedly built into their constitution, would ever transform itself into a place where religious liberty would be threatened. But we see it doing that now. That’s new. We never thought that our kind of society could develop into a place where people would not be free to practice their faith fully. Now we realize that can happen here too — more subtly, done through the law, but sometimes liberal societies can also be oppressive.

People feel that there’s something wrong. When they question the direction of the country I believe that what they feel is the loss of freedom. In particular, after 9/11, instead of placing freedom at the forefront of our values, we now more often talk about security. Security has become our great public value for good reasons, because our society is threatened, physically and in other ways; but that’s a culture shift of enormous magnitude. It affects everybody’s life.

When we’re talking about freedom of religion, it affects religious people’s lives in a particular way.

CNW: We see you out a lot at events and sometimes we can see when you’re not feeling well or are overly tired and yet you are still there. You carry out your very busy schedule seemingly without concern for how you’re feeling. How do you do that? What motivates you to get out of bed when you aren’t feeling well and no one would begrudge you if you cancelled?

Cardinal George: I think that’s part of my responsibility as pastor to the people. I have to be among the people. I’ve tried to be present to people in many different venues. I think I have been, if I listen now to what people are saying and read their letters. That has meant accepting a lot of opportunities and obligations. In general, once I’ve accepted the obligation to be somewhere, I try to fulfill the commitment.

It’s not hard most of the time, because I like to be with the people. It’s not as if it’s a huge burden. I’d rather be with them than nursing my thoughts alone!

CNW: You told America magazine that you feel as if God is asking you to let go. What did you mean?

Cardinal George: As one nears the end of his or her life, I think the Lord sends us signs through a transformation of desire that, finally, in the end, helps us recognize more clearly that the only thing that is important is life with God. That means letting go of a lot of other desires and desirable things — good things — and concentrating more and more on that relationship to God. I think it’s a great grace to receive that help that really prepares you for the transition from this life to the next. That’s what I meant.

You can see it in the lives of the saints who start doing that very early on. The one thing that is necessary is the love of God and our relationship to God. Sometimes it starts with a sudden conversion. Sometimes it’s a more gradual thing. But the call is always there. If it’s evidently there in people’s lives, we recognize them as saints.

For the rest of us, it happens perhaps in a more concise way, in less time, because we didn’t start early enough. I think to some extent God is helping me to make that transition now.

CNW: Is there any fear? Even though I know there is a better place on the other side I still fear death.

Cardinal George: Well, there’s no absolute guarantee there’s going to be a “better place.” It’s a question of one’s free cooperation with God’s grace. We are free. God does not force us to live with him forever. We can make other choices. That’s the great tragedy. The French novelist Leon Bloy said that, in the end, the only thing that matters is to be a saint.

Am I afraid? Of course. I fear the process of dying, and I fear the unknown. No matter how much our faith assures us it is a better place if we cooperate with God — not only a better place, but an unimaginably better place — there still is the fear of the unknown.

Scripture talks about approaching God with some fear and trembling. Otherwise, what are you doing? You’re saying God is just like us. A buddy. But he isn’t. He’s infinitely different. Whatever that means is unknown to us at this point. There are, then, a number of fears: the fear of suffering; the fear of the process of dying; the fear of the unknown.

The more important question is: when you are afraid, who is with you in your fear? If you isolate yourself and you are afraid alone, then fear takes over your life. But if you’re with people, especially invisible people, the saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who accompany you, then you can make the journey. I believe that to be the case.

CNW: Throughout your ministry as archbishop of Chicago you’ve worked hard on the clergy sexual misconduct issue. Back in 2002 you went to Rome on behalf of the U.S. bishops to advocate for the approval of the sex abuse protection norms. You’ve met with many survivors of abuse. Under your guidance, documents were released related to priests who have abused children. You were personally involved in creating the Healing Garden for Abuse Survivors at Holy Family Church. In some ways it could be said you’ve gone above and beyond what other bishops have done. What motivates you on this issue?

Cardinal George: I don’t know that I do any more than others, but what motivates any of us is the terrible crime and sin that is inflicted upon an innocent child. You see the long-range effects when you talk to victims. Even when they’ve constructed a good life, the effects are still there. The effects of this sin are terrible and would move anybody to address them.

Finally there is the sin itself, which cries to Heaven. For not being as cautious as we should be at times, etcetera, the bishops are collectively sorry. We’ve said that again and again.

I think the story is complex, much more than in the way it's usually presented. Nonetheless, these sins have occurred in the church and were particularly acute in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s demonic. It weighs us down. It’s a burden that is very difficult for the church to carry, let alone to overcome. I’m not sure we ever will entirely. This will be part of our collective memory. That’s good if it warns us that even very “religious” people can do terrible things.

Nobody ever thought priests would do this. I never imagined growing up — or even after I was ordained a priest — that priests would ever do anything like this. Now we know, so naturally you look at things differently. We’ve learned some lessons, but they’ve been lessons learned at the expense of some children. Anything that tries to address the situation and tries to help victims is certainly something that should be done.

CNW: Over the years we’ve watched you embrace and seek dialogue with people who disagree with you publically or who disagree with the church publically. Most of us would walk the other way instead of toward folks who so publically disagree with us. You, on the other hand, walk right to them and meet them where they are. How do you do that and why?

Cardinal George: If you don’t do that you risk reducing people to their ideas. People are always more than their ideas. I think Pope Francis reminds us of that. Also, when you reach out, you often discover things you wouldn’t have found out had you not made the effort to speak with them.

Sometimes they won’t talk to you, but that’s not usually the case. I try purposely to keep all of the doors open that I can. God wants us to talk to him and he wants us to talk to one another. Conversation is part of loving.


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