As he enters retirement, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago noted the importance of living faith in the truth, reflecting on his time as archbishop, the approach of death, and advice for his successor, Archbishop-designate Blase Cupich.
“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,” the 77-year-old Cardinal George said in an interview with the Catholic New World, published Nov. 16.
He discussed the need to save people from the dangers of living in falsehood, “especially religious falsehood.”
“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.”
Cardinal George also noted the importance of engaging people who disagree with him or the Church.
“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.”
“I try purposely to keep all of the doors open that I can,” he added. “God wants us to talk to him and he wants us to talk to one another. Conversation is part of loving.”
Cardinal George has headed the Archdiocese of Chicago since 1997. He will be the first Chicago archbishop to retire.
The cardinal said Archbishop-designate Cupich, who will be installed as Archbishop of Chicago Nov. 18, should “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.”
Cardinal George said a Catholic bishop is “the center of unity, visible unity.”
The archbishop’s duties of assigning priests, caring for finances, attending meetings, making appearances and managing the archdiocese set the general schedule, he explained, but this is aimed at serving Church unity and “the spiritual development of the people.”
He said he is encouraged when people write him to tell him he has helped their spiritual life, helped them become confident in the faith, or given them courage to face difficulties.
The cardinal also reflected on threats to religious liberty in the United States.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he continued, suggesting that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have prompted a turn to prioritize security instead of freedom.
In addition, Cardinal George strongly denounced sexual abuse committed by clergy as “demonic” sins that were “particularly acute” in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It weighs us down,” he said. “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.”
He noted that the abuse of an innocent child can have “long-range” and “terrible” effects.
Cardinal George, who has been diagnosed with cancer for the third time, also reflected on the end of his life.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
He also warned that there is “no absolute guarantee” of heaven, unless one cooperates with God’s grace. He acknowledged his fear of the process of dying and of the unknown.
At the same time, he noted the assurances of faith.
“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.”