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Cardinal George's Second Job
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
Already extremely busy as archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., also serves as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Impact of Benedict XVI’s Visit
Pre-Chicago Experience
Facing the Sexual-abuse Crisis
Leading Chicago’s Catholics
Representing the Conference
‘Provincialism Doesn’t Serve the Church’

Cardinal George baptizes Donald Napier, Jr., as he is held by his father, Donald Napier, Sr., during the Easter Vigil at St. Joseph Parish in Chicago on March 22, 2008.

IN NOVEMBER 2007, the U.S. Catholic bishops elected as their conference’s president the first Chicago-born priest to head that archdiocese—not a diocesan priest but a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., brings a rich but unusual background to his three-year term as head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Between 2004 and 2007, he was its vice president, after three years as chair of its Committee on the Liturgy (now called the Committee on Divine Worship). Besides serving on other conference committees, between 1997 and 2006 he represented the conference on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, dealing primarily with translation issues.

Since 1966, the only other cardinal to head the U.S. bishops’ conference has been Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia (1910-1996), who was already the conference president when he was named cardinal in 1967. Cardinal George became a cardinal in 1998.

Last summer at his residence north of downtown, Cardinal George spoke to St. Anthony Messenger about the Catholic Church in this country. This interview took place in a high-ceilinged parlor that contains a life-sized portrait of his predecessor in Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996). With more than 2.3 million Catholics, Chicago is the third-largest U.S. archdiocese. Depending on his schedule, Cardinal George sometimes works from home instead of his downtown office. That puts him closer to the northernmost parts of the archdiocese.

Impact of Benedict XVI's Visit

As USCCB president, Cardinal George was in the spotlight throughout the six days of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States last April. The cardinal sees the most significant part of that visit as Pope Benedict XVI’s ability to “break through many false images about him. He spoke the truth in love. The Chicago seminarians who were present for the pope’s meeting in Yonkers were very impressed with him. Other representatives of our archdiocese were impressed with the events that they attended. The pope creates unity and they felt that.”

At the prayer service in the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Cardinal George welcomed the pope in the bishops’ name and said: “We find great encouragement in meeting you here, finding in you the successor of Peter and the visible head of our college [of bishops] and the visible focus of Catholic communion.”

After recalling U.S. suspicions about the Catholic Church in the 18th century, Cardinal George continued: “In our own day the consequences of the dreadful sin of sexual abuse of minors by some priests and of its being sometimes very badly handled by bishops make both the personal faith of some Catholics and the public life of the Church herself more problematic.”

Cardinal George identified the strengthening of marriage and of family life as one of the USCCB’s five main priorities for 2008 through 2011. The other four are protecting the life and dignity of the human person at every stage of life’s journey; handing on the faith in the context of sacramental practice and the observance of Sunday worship; fostering vocations to ordained priesthood and consecrated life; and profiting from the cultural diversity of the Church here, especially from the gifts of Hispanic Catholics.

Cardinal George reports that the bishops felt very encouraged by the pope’s talk to them during that visit. When asked how the Church in the United States can avoid internal divisions among different groups, generations and members of the same religious family, Cardinal George responds that we need to concentrate on evangelization, on spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. The pope had warned against such internal divisions during his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

“The purpose of Vatican II,” Cardinal George says, “was to convert the world. Internal reform of the Church was secondary, intended to support our evangelizing work. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, founded by Cardinal Bernardin, has been helpful in addressing the divisions to which the pope referred.”

Building unity is nothing new for Cardinal George.


Born in 1937 to Francis J. and Julia George of St. Paschal Parish on Chicago’s northwest side, Francis Eugene was named for his father and St. Francis of Assisi. He has an older sister, Margaret, who has four sons and several grandchildren.

After his education at St. Paschal School, served by the Joliet Franciscan sisters, he studied at the Oblate minor seminary in Belleville, Illinois. He contracted polio as a teenager and continues to deal with its effects. Francis George entered the Oblates, a missionary congregation, in 1957 and was ordained a priest six years later.

He earned master’s degrees in philosophy (The Catholic University of America) and theology (University of Ottawa), plus doctorates in American philosophy (Tulane University) and theology (Urban University in Rome). He taught philosophy at the Oblate seminary (Pass Christian, Mississippi), at Tulane University and at Creighton University.

After two years as head of the Oblates’ Midwestern Province, in 1974 he was elected as the congregation’s vicar general, serving in Rome as the Oblates’ second-in-command for 12 years.

His many travels as vicar general led to friendships around the world. When Cardinal George had bladder cancer surgery in July 2006, people from over 80 countries visited the archdiocesan Web site for daily updates on his health. Cardinal George notes that his formation with the Oblates taught him to pray and gave him a deep sense of the universality of the Church.

From Rome he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he coordinated the Center for the Study of Faith and Culture (1987-90). In the next seven years, he was appointed bishop of Yakima, Washington (July 1990), named archbishop of Portland, Oregon (April 1996) and transferred to Chicago (April 1997). He became a cardinal the following year. He has clearly learned how to adjust to change.

Cardinal George says that in Yakima “I learned a sense of the office of bishop and the faith of the Catholics there. They appreciated having a bishop because of the long vacancy before my appointment. Because I was never stationed in Chicago, I had a lot of background to learn here. I had to resist the temptation to think that I knew more about the archdiocese than I did.”

Regarding his ministry as a bishop, he says, “I like the contact with people, visiting parishes, celebrating the Eucharist, preaching and getting people to work together. Every ministry needs to serve the purpose of the Church.”

Since 1990, he has been episcopal moderator of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities. Asked if having polio has influenced how he preaches the Good News, he responds very clearly: “These experiences have given me a clear sense of limitations. Not all things are possible. I have a distrust of utopian language. Polio has given me a spirit free of resentments, bringing me to trust God more.”

Responding to the sexual abuse of minors by clerics is one of the most difficult challenges facing Cardinal George as USCCB president. As a follow-up to his public remark to Pope Benedict XVI last April that the sexual abuse of minors by some priests was “sometimes very badly handled by bishops,” Cardinal George points out that a more uniform handling of reports of sexual abuse began after the bishops adopted in 2002 the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

He says: “When I became a bishop in 1990, the bishops’ conference already had an ad hoc committee on this. How this was handled varied from diocese to diocese but became more uniform after the 2002 Charter and Essential Norms. Dioceses are cooperating more with civil authorities on these matters. For example, the Virtus program is widely used. [The Virtus program, which assists dioceses in safe-environment training, is described at]

“No system is perfect,” says Cardinal George. “When bishops of the Province of Chicago [all the dioceses in Illinois] meet twice a year, we discuss these and other matters. From what I know, many ecclesiastical provinces meet twice a year.”

Many bishops have met with men and women who have survived abuse by local priests. “I did this once in Yakima and have done it often in Chicago,” Cardinal George explains. “I was in Portland only 11 months. These meetings with victims help one recognize the terrible consequences of abuse. I have met with individuals and with groups. These meetings have helped those who participated feel less isolated and have been part of the healing process.

“Not all those who have been abused want to speak to a bishop, but some do. Most bishops in the United States have done what Pope Benedict XVI did during his visit to Washington, D.C. The bishops with whom I speak have been doing this for years.”

Cardinal George emphasizes that the Catholic Church in the United States is now more vigilant than any other group in our society about protecting minors.

At the USCCB’s June 2008 meeting in Orlando, one diocesan priest from each of the conference’s 15 regions formed a group that met with the bishops’ Committee on Sexual Abuse. A second meeting of these two groups occurred during the conference’s meeting last November. Cardinal George explains that bishops continue to address relationships with their diocesan clergy.

Asked how the sexual-abuse scandal has affected relationships between clergy and parishioners, the cardinal responds: “Most parishioners trust their parish priest. Any change of personnel raises questions about trustworthiness of the new person. The wound is even deeper when abuse from long ago is revealed.”

On August 12, 2008, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it had reached settlements totaling $12.7 million with 16 people who said they were sexually abused by 11 different priests. Cardinal George agreed to release his 307-page deposition in the cases of several people who had been abused. “I’m releasing the deposition voluntarily, for the sake of the record, and I hope to help the healing of everyone concerned in this matter,” he said.

Most of this abuse was committed between 1962 and 1994. Two cases involve abuse in 2003-05 by Father Daniel McCormack, who is now in prison. After McCormack’s removal from public ministry in 2006, Cardinal George apologized for the mistakes made in implementing archdiocesan guidelines in supervising accused priests.

Being archbishop of Chicago keeps Cardinal George extremely busy. He led an archdiocesan delegation of almost 300 people to World Youth Day in Sydney last July and an archdiocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes the following month. The Archdiocese of Chicago is under the patronage of Mary Immaculate, the name that Mary used of herself when the apparitions at Lourdes occurred in 1858. At five locations in Chicago, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki led an at-home pilgrimage to Lourdes at the same time through Masses, processions and other prayer services.

Chicago’s six auxiliary bishops help Cardinal George provide pastoral leadership for the Church.

As part of the normal work of leading an archdiocese of more than 2.3 million Catholics, Cardinal George spoke at three vicariate meetings about the pope’s April 2008 visit to the United States and gave participants an opportunity to share their experience of it. His twice-monthly column appears in Catholic New World, the archdiocesan newspaper ( He is also frequently interviewed on radio and cable TV.

Last May, Cardinal George ordained 11 priests for the Archdiocese of Chicago (five men from Poland, two from Tanzania, two from Mexico and one each from Colombia and Ecuador). He told the new priests, “No one is a priest on his own terms. We’re all priests on Christ’s terms. That is a priest’s life—standing before the people and kneeling before God. It will be a life of great joy.”

He later ordained two priests from Chicago for a new diocesan community, the Society of St. John Cantius.

During the interview, he notes: “Many Catholics are born outside the United States. We need priests for first-generation immigrants so that the presbyterate looks like the people it serves. Chicago has many Polish and Hispanic immigrants.

“This year was not typical for our archdiocese,” he explains. “Future classes have more men originally from our archdiocese. Young people have a thirst for God. Those who went to World Youth Day or who made the pilgrimage within our archdiocese are very impressive.”

He spoke briefly about the translation of the Roman Missal, a project with which he was very much involved for 10 years. He reports that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal has helped to promote greater reverence. “Some flexibility is possible in the ordinary rite, the Novus Ordo Missae, approved in 1969. The liturgy must always be God-centered and must not be manipulated—even for good purposes.”

The cardinal’s hobbies include reading history, biographies and poetry. He enjoys listening to music and fishing when he can. What is his favorite philosophy course to teach? “Metaphysics,” he answers, “to open students’ minds to realities beyond physics.”

Cardinal George is sometimes invited to speak in other parts of the country. Last April he inaugurated Duquesne University’s Richard T. and Marion A. Byrnes lecture series with an address entitled “The Importance of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Life of a Catholic University, the Church and Society.” That tradition, he said, helps people prepare for eternal life “before, during and after our working lives.”

In the last 14 months, he has made three trips on behalf of the USCCB: to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories last January; to Rome for the spring meeting of the USCCB president and vice president (Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson) with the pope and with heads of several of the Holy See’s offices; and then back to Rome for the Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” (October 4-25).

Cardinal George, one of four bishops representing the USCCB, served as the moderator of an English-language discussion group and was later elected to the 15-member Council of the Synod of Bishops. This group will meet twice a year to follow up on the synod’s work and prepare for the next one (perhaps in 2011).

During the synod, Cardinal George and Bishop Kicanas also made their fall visit to the pope and several offices of the Holy See.

Early during the synod, Cardinal George said that the context in which we hear the text of Scripture draws our attention to the need for conversion. We can stop our souls from responding to God’s Word.

Two days after the synod ended, he was back to a full schedule of meetings and events in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During his presidential address on November 10, 2008, for the USCCB’s fall general assembly, Cardinal George said: “As bishops we can only insist that those who would impose their own agenda on the Church, those who believe and act self-righteously, answerable only to themselves, whether ideologically on the left or the right, betray the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Asked last summer what he wishes U.S. Catholics would remember more often, Cardinal George immediately answers, “That the Catholic Church is a universal communion, working to transform the world. Provincialism doesn’t serve the Church.” He wishes that non-Catholics in this country would recall more frequently the saints whom the Church has nurtured.

In his presidential address cited above, Cardinal George said: “What the Church [in the United States] looks like today in her ethnic composition, her economic situation, her generational cohorts, the entire country will look like in 25 to 30 years. This gives Catholics a perhaps prophetic perspective on our society’s life and concerns.

“In Holy Scripture, a true prophet’s life is always marked by suffering. What is of major importance to us, as bishops of the Church, is that the Church remain true to herself and her Lord in the years to come, for only in being authentically herself will the Church serve society and its members, in time and in eternity.”

With strong faith, Cardinal George faces the immense challenges of his “second job.”

Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is editor of this publication. He interviewed Bishops Joseph Fiorenza, Wilton Gregory and William Skylstad during their terms as president of the bishops’ conference.

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