Interview With Chicago’s Cardinal George

CHICAGO, JUNE 27, 2007 ( Suffering, says Cardinal Francis George, has taught him to know that no one is saved alone.

On his 10th anniversary as archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal George spoke to ZENIT about the lessons and demands of shepherding the third largest diocese in the United States.

Q: What have been the most significant trials and triumphs for you in leading 2.3 million Catholics as the archbishop of Chicago?

Cardinal George: The challenge in every generation of the Church’s history is to help God create saints, holy people formed by the Gospel, enlivened by the Church’s sacraments and encouraged and loved by pastors in apostolic succession.

All the Church’s institutions are secondary to her mission to make people holy so that they can transform the world here and live forever with the Lord as his saints.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has developed many institutions in her history, and it is a constant struggle to keep them alive and to decide when they should be allowed to die.

The population of the city and the two counties that form the archdiocese changes and moves, but the institutions are rooted in place and have to respond to the challenges of population shifts and changing economic constraints.

Extra efforts have had to be made to strengthen liturgical life and assure adequate catechesis. The reform of the clergy, overseeing the seminary and creating new formation programs for deacons and lay ministers are particular concerns. All of this is the constant administrative challenge.

Planning is part of governing, but one can’t see too far into the future. Planning is often overcome by events. The important thing is to keep the principles clear and then make decisions in light of them.

Two events of the last 10 years have impacted the Church’s life and ministry in this country and in the Chicago Archdiocese: the attack on our country in the name of God on Sept. 11, 2001, and the ongoing effects of the crisis of sexual abuse that occurred, for the most part, between 1973 and 1986, but which became a cause of national notoriety in 2002. These challenges to the Church’s mission continue here and elsewhere.

In partial response to some of these challenges, Chicago now has a new liturgical institute of some importance, a Chicago Scripture school for the laity, and reformed preparation programs in lay ministry and youth ministry.

Catholic Charities continues to strengthen its work with the poor. The cemetery system and the network of parishes and schools bring the mission home to practicing Catholics.

Unfortunately, only about 30% of Catholics go to Mass each Sunday, and many of these are immigrants, people trained to be Catholic elsewhere. The huge influx of Spanish- and Polish-speaking immigrants has been a life-giving challenge, and the archdiocese has responded in many imaginative ways.

Ideological conflict in the Church destroys the unity necessary for mission. We can’t live and act together if we are divided on essentials of faith and morals, or if some decide they don’t have to obey bishops unless they govern the Church according to their particular expectations.

Some groups operate as a kind of fifth column in the Church, convinced of their own righteousness and willing to weaken or destroy the Church if she doesn’t change to suit them, or if bishops don’t do exactly what they want when they want it.

This is also a major challenge today, but the response is what it has been for 2,000 years: conversion of mind and heart.

Q: You have written a pastoral letter on racism, and promoted workshops on the topic in the archdiocese. What has prompted you to focus on this issue so particularly?

Cardinal George: The archdiocese has an extensive program to train people to see the effects of racism, because racism is a terrible sin and one that is firmly embedded in the country’s history. It is the original sin of the English-speaking colonies of the Eastern seaboard and it affects all of us.

The pastoral letter “Dwell In My Love” addresses this sin by looking at many of the effects of racism as it influences our lives together.

Q: Your archdiocese, perhaps more than most, is known as home to large numbers of immigrants. From your experience in this area, what are the most pressing pastoral needs of immigrants?

Cardinal George: The first generation of immigrants needs to find the Church here a welcoming place, able to minister to them in their own language and culture. The children of immigrants present a different pastoral problem, for they are at home with their family in one culture and at school and work with their friends in another culture.

Priests have to be not only bilingual — or trilingual — but also bicultural, which is a bigger challenge. Culture tells us what is valuable and what not, and so does faith. Both are part of us, and the Church has to respect that dialogue between faith and cultures in the hearts of believers. It is a complicated situation, but a positive one.

The Church’s fundamental message is that we worship a God who is love, and we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for others. This means giving up things that are dear to us, sometimes even our first language, in order to be part of something bigger. This gives the context for both combating racism and welcoming immigrants.

Q: As a long-time colleague of Joseph Ratzinger, what has been your impression of Benedict XVI’s pontificate thus far?

Cardinal George: Benedict XVI is living up to his name: He is a blessing for the Church.

Q: You have encountered numerous health problems in the past several years, in addition to polio in your youth. What has your experience of suffering taught you? What message of hope does the Church offer to those who suffer?

Cardinal George: Suffering marks the human condition since the fall. Christ used something evil, suffering and death, to undo the effects of sin and to bring us the gift of eternal life.

In faith, suffering is to be embraced as a means to participate in Christ’s own passion and death. The temptation that hides the meaning of suffering is called self-pity or resentment: the “why me?” question.

What personal suffering has taught me over many years is that one cannot build a life, let alone a call to sanctity, on resentment or self-pity. These are cages that make suffering useless in the quest for holiness.

The response in faith to suffering also must go beyond stoicism, the “grin and bear it” reaction. This reaction continues the isolation that pain brings; it does not invite one to participation, which is how we are saved.

The faith community’s spontaneous response to the suffering of any of its members is to pray for him or her. This expresses the solidarity of the communion of saints. What suffering has taught me, among other truths, is that no one is saved alone; no one lives here or in the hereafter alone.

Learning how to accept help as well as learning how to reach out beyond one’s own limiting experiences are lessons that suffering can teach us. They make suffering an instrument for building communion.


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