Francis Cardinal George: 50 years as a priest

Originally published here:

On Dec. 21, Cardinal George will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. With this milestone in mind, he sat down with editor Joyce Duriga to talk about his ministry to the Lord and the people of God.

Catholic New World: When did you know that God was calling you to be a priest?

Cardinal George: Definitively, when the bishop called me at the ordination ceremony. That’s the objective call, and that’s what counts. Before that, it’s all subjective and the church has not decided yet.

But subjectively, in the terms of the grace of God moving me to have the desire to be a priest, I think I can trace it back to my First Holy Communion, which I’ve said many times. That was a very important religious experience for me.

After that I went to Communion quite frequently, and that’s what kept the desire to be a priest alive.

CNW: Was it your idea to go to high school seminary or your parents?

Cardinal George: I still had the idea to be a priest in eighth grade and the logical thing to do was to test it by going to the seminary, in this case Quigley because I was in Chicago. But I couldn’t handle the public transportation system my first year of high school because I was still on crutches, so that’s why I went to a boarding school.

The boarding school was in southern Illinois and was a diocesan seminary for Belleville run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. That’s where I met the Oblates for the first time.

CNW: What was appealing to you about the Oblates?

Cardinal George:Well, I got to know them personally; that’s always important. And I got to see what their life was like. It was a life of prayer and community. In this case they were also teachers, but they did mission preaching and a lot of other things because the Oblates are not primarily a teaching order. I saw them as teachers but most of all as good priests.

CNW: How did the Oblate formation change you along the way?

Cardinal George: Each order has what they call a charism. There are big charisms in the church and smaller ones. The Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, Benedictines — those would be among the major charisms in the history of the church.

In the case of the Oblates, they were always concerned about the poor and concerned about bringing the poor to Christ — that’s why they were founded — and the reform of the church and reform of the clergy, which is why they ran seminaries. They were generally in small groups, very close to the people. They lived simply and in a way that was accessible to people.

But most profoundly, in any religious order they teach you how to pray. That was a large part of the formation, especially in the novitiate — how to meditate, how to spend a prayerful life. But then also the formation in community itself, that is how to live with brothers who don’t always get along.

CNW: Did you think that you would be sent on mission with the Oblates or you would mainly teach?

Cardinal George: No, I didn’t think I was going to go to Africa or someplace like that because I probably wouldn’t have been up to that physically.

That was part of the discernment when I wanted to join them; I said I probably would not be physically a very good missionary. They said, “Well, we also run seminaries in many parts of the world and we will train you to be a seminary professor.” And they did that.

CNW:When conducting our research for this issue of CNW, we heard from many people about your sense of the global mission of the church. It was said that this is not often found in Americans because we tend to have an insular view of the world. Did that come from the Oblates?

Cardinal George: I’ve got a sense that the church is truly universal and have experienced it at least second-hand and through those who lived there in ways that probably are unique. Not everybody has that opportunity. That certainly enabled me again and again to put whatever I was doing in a universal context.

Therefore you relativize whatever you are doing. Ours is not the absolute box. There are other boxes and you know that. Consequently you can judge things in the light of that universality and see where they fall short, or where they can contribute. There are a lot of things we do in this country as church that are good examples for people elsewhere.

CNW: Why is it important for Catholics to have a global vision?

Cardinal George: Because we’re Catholic. The church is universal. It predated all nation states. It’s the oldest Western institution. Therefore it has a sense of itself that is never reduced to nationalism, or racism or any other “ism.”

CNW: How is the vocation of an Oblate different than that of a diocesan priest?

Cardinal George: The fundamental difference is between priests who are ordained for a particular diocese and that’s where they will spend their life, most of them of them in parish work but not exclusively, and priests who are ordained for a religious order, which is usually international, or at least beyond that of a diocese.

It’s also a distinctive way of life determined by a rule. That’s why the religious clergy are called the regular clergy in the sense that they are under a rule, whereas the diocesan life is shaped much more directly by the demands of the people, and by the vicissitudes of ministry. That shapes their life. That determines how they live so that they can always be accessible to their people. Whereas in the case of religious, the community determines how they live with its rule of life.

CNW: What’s it like being a religious order priest and a diocesan ordinary?

Cardinal George: I’m a diocesan ordinary whose personal life is still that of a professed religious, although I don’t live in Oblate community nor am I under Oblate superiors.

Once you’re a bishop, your mission is mediated only by the pope, not by a religious superior or anybody else. You’re on your own financially, you’re on your own in every way. You live according to the laws that govern bishops in the church.

My way of life isn’t mediated by the fact that I’m still an Oblate religious. There are many bishops in the Oblates. Usually they are bishops in places that are very poor because that’s usually where the Oblates are. The founder became a bishop. We were diocesan priests in the beginning. It was the pope who made us religious, Pope Leo XII.

The sense of priesthood being dominant in a religious community is very different from life in a monastic community, for example. But the religious difference is still there — your horizons are different. You expect to be placed somewhere where you don’t have family, for example, whereas a diocesan priest usually would be in the place where he grew up. Those are the people he serves.

With a religious it’s more the availability for the religious mission, wherever they send you.

CNW: How do you think the sexual abuse crisis changed the ministry of priests or how they minister?

Cardinal George: Priests have to be much more guarded than they used to be, so there’s less spontaneity. You wouldn’t touch a child unless the child’s parents’ are present, not even to hug a child. That used to be much more spontaneous depending upon your family customs. You can’t be alone with a child in a car, for example.

There are rules now of professional behavior that limit access to children in ways that weren’t the case years ago. Behaviorally there are differences.

Always in the back of priests’ minds now is the fact that to some extent they’re targets. Somebody can come along with an allegation — true or false — and it completely transforms their life. There’s a precariousness to priestly life that wasn’t there before. There was a lot more security before.

CNW: How did it impact your priesthood?

Cardinal George: Mostly my priesthood has been touched by dealing with it as a bishop. I’ve never been the subject of an allegation or anything like that, thank God. But I’ve been trying to deal with it with others who have done it, many of whom I don’t know. Most of the allegations in Chicago are against priests whom I never met. They’re either dead or out of ministry, but you still have to deal with the consequences.

It’s been something that’s impacted my sense of priesthood. I used to have perhaps an idealism that couldn’t imagine a priest doing terrible things like this. Now I know a few priests — not many proportionally, but enough — that have done things like this, and they are terrible things.

Then when you see the results in the victims you live with the consequences. I live with that every day. It affects my prayer life. It affects my prayer for priests as well as victims.

It’s a permanent sorrow that’s always there.

CNW: Many of the people we interviewed for this issue spoke of your intelligence and how you are someone looked to for guidance or as a definitive voice in the church today. Who do you look to for your inspiration or who have you looked to over the years?

Cardinal George: John Paul II had a big influence on me not only in the way he taught and how he used theology and philosophy, sometimes in novel ways, but also in the example he gave of how to be a bishop in Krakow and then pope with universal vision implementing the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict XVI has influenced me because of his great theological learning. You always picked up something from anything that Benedict wrote or said.

Besides the popes — bishops have to read what the popes are doing in order to govern in communion with them — but another person who influenced me was the Oblate founder. He was a smart man, but his education was interrupted by the French Revolution. But he was a deeply spiritual person, whose spiritual insights are there in the Oblate constitutions, and they’ve shaped my thinking about the possibility of being close to Christ as he was.

Beyond that there are the people we read in the seminary — St. Thomas Aquinas. I always tried to be close to Thomistic thought because it’s true, not just because it’s St. Thomas. The training I had in philosophy puts you in touch with great thinkers across the ages.

I don’t know that there’s any one more than another who influenced me. It’s more of picking up things as you move along and integrating them into a kind of synthesis that makes sense to you and that you can use as a basis of talking to others.

You have to assimilate what you’ve learned. You can’t just repeat it like a parrot does; otherwise people know that you are somehow saying something that isn’t your own.

It’s always amazing to me on that point when some people assume that what I write and what I say isn’t my own. Somebody else wrote it for you, they insist. I don’t know where that came from but I run into it again and again. It’s a puzzle to me. I don’t know why people assume that you’re too stupid to write your own stuff.

Of course, I get help from people sometimes. I ask them, “If you were going to give a talk on this subject, what would you say?” That’s very helpful. It isn’t if you’re thinking alone in a closet. Intellectual life is a conversation. If prayer life is a conversation with God, intellectual life is a conversation with other thinkers. You try to reach out as much as you can, but in the end you have to work it out for yourself.

CNW: Looking back over the 50 years, would you do anything differently?

Cardinal George:Well, I’ve always done what I was told to do, basically. My life isn’t self-constructed. That’s an odd thing to say. Studying philosophy is something I was told to do. I don’t know that I would have done that if I had my own choices. I’ve done what I was told to do, and I’ve tried to do it as well as I could.

What I would try to do is avoid mistakes I’ve made; but in terms in what I’ve done, it’s been what I’ve been told to do and I did it. The fundamental evangelical virtue is the obedience of faith in charity. Christ was obedient unto death. We don’t talk about obedience, but in fact we are all obedient to God or else we’re on our own, which is a way of saying we are sinners. If you’re in touch with God, you’re obedient to God. I’ve tried to be obedient to the Lord’s will as expressed by the church.

CNW: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Cardinal George: Recently the allegation is sometimes made — by people who resent the church’s position on homosexuality, or married life and love — that the church sacrifices her concern for the poor to other moral issues. The resentments there run deep.

The anti-Catholicism used to be because of the pope — you know, that we can’t be good Americans because we’re loyal to a foreign despot. That’s kind of died down, although you will still find it in fundamentalist quarters. Now most of the resentment against the church centers around her sexual teachings and the anthropology behind them.

Sometimes the allegation is made in a rather spiteful way that we’re willing to sacrifice our service to the poor for the sake of our so-called doctrine. Doctrine aside, what I’d like to say is that one of the great things about being the archbishop of Chicago is precisely the way in which this diocese has put most of its efforts toward serving the poor. That I find very consistent with my own calling as an Oblate.

One of every three people in the City of Chicago is a client of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I wish people would think about that more. What does it say about the level of poverty in our city and what does it say about the level of generosity of Chicago Catholics?

Every time we have a collection for something like the earthquake in Haiti or the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines, millions of dollars are given from the pockets of people who are not very wealthy, most of them.

In the parishes there are the St. Vincent de Paul Societies who know the poor by name. People who talk about the poor should come with me to the St. Vincent de Paul societies and I will introduce them to the poor. The PADS programs, the scholarships for poor children, the food kitchens, the medical and food deserts that are endemic in neighborhoods in our city, the church is there among the poorest of the poor.

People who don’t know where else to turn if they’re homeless or jobless know that if they go to a parish or they go to Catholic Charities somebody will listen to them.

This is a church that’s very much in contact with the poor and in service of the poor. It’s very hurtful and it makes me angry to receive letters or sometimes a taunt that the church is not concerned about the poor. The church is always concerned about the poor but this archdiocese in particular — and it’s something of which I’m very proud — has a marvelous record of concern for the poor — for them personally and for the reform of the society, so that it is more just and loving.

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