Some of the best advice Cardinal Francis George can give his successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich, is to listen up, George said in a Chicago Sun-Times interview Monday.
“Spend a lot of time listening to people,” said George, who will retire Nov. 18 as the leader of Chicago’s 2.2 million Catholics.
“. . . The more that people are able to explain the challenges of the faith that they’re living and what they expect of him, the better off he’ll be able to govern, and likewise the more they understand of him, his skills and what he’s going to try to do, the easier it will be for him to govern. . . . It’s a question of listening. I have 11 councils, which he’ll inherit. So . . . you spend a lot of time listening . . . you don’t always agree, but you listen.”
George has met with Cupich in the weeks since Pope Francis named his successor, marking the first major U.S. appointment of Francis’ papacy. George said among Cupich’s most impressive strengths is his intelligence.
“He’s very smart, and has a quick analytical mind and he picks up on things and asks the right questions,” George said. “. . . He’s a good bishop. He’s devoted to the church and to the Lord and his people and he’s got very good administrative skills.”
Cupich is inheriting a diocese with challenges that include staying on track to achieve a balanced budget.
“Because I subsidized schools for too long in the recession, we are now living under some rather stiff financial protocols to be sure we have a balanced budget in two years time, and we will,” George said. “. . . We’ll be all right, but we have to stay within the parameters that the Finance Council has worked out for us.”
Cupich is being brought up to speed on the financial situation, George said.
He added that the diocese has much better financial “numbers than we’ve ever had” and described the current state of Catholic schools as better academically and “as centers of faith, an oasis of peace in neighborhoods. We put a lot of work into that.
Cupich will “still have the sexual abuse crisis to attend to, but he knows about that. He’s been in charge of the bishops committee for that,” George said, referring to Cupich’s role in having chaired the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In retirement, George hopes to continue playing a pastoral role with victims of sexual abuse, but he has no plans to play a public role at the diocese in any capacity unless asked.
“I think it’s important that [Cupich] set the tone and become firmly established as archbishop of Chicago,” he said. “. . . If he wants me to do something or play a role in public life, I will do it. Otherwise, I will hear confessions, I hope, and help with soup kitchens . . . give some lectures. . . . Do some studying, a lot of reading.”
As George prepares to step aside, he said he’s most proud of the role he has played in the development of Chicago area Catholics’ spiritual lives.
“As I retire, people are kind enough to write me letters sometimes saying, ‘We’re grateful that you did this. You don’t know it, but you touched our lives when you did that. You said this at a certain point, it was just what I had to hear.’ Those are things . . . that are most important. . . . That’s what the church is about. . . . Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re having this impact . . . but God uses us in ways that we don’t always understand . . . When I read those stories, I’m very touched and very gratified.”
George, who has been participating in a research trial of a new cancer treatment drug, said, “the jury is still out” on the impact of the treatment on his cancer.
He still hopes to travel to Rome in November to meet Pope Francis, but he hasn’t yet asked or received an OK from his doctor to do so.
George also spoke about Francis’ synod on the family, which wrapped up in Rome this weekend. The synod showed continuing deep division among bishops on welcoming gays and on whether divorced Catholics who remarried outside the church should be allowed to take communion, But George said one of Francis’ goals was achieved.
“I think what the pope wanted was a meeting where every opinion would be expressed that is in peoples’ hearts and minds, and I think that’s what he got, and so that’s good,” George said. “Now we have to sort it out and say which of these opinions are compatible with divine revelation and therefore we should make changes if necessary, which are not. And how do we move in such way that the doctrine is respected and yet so are people.”
George revealed in March that he was undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer surrounding his right kidney and that he expected the cancer to likely be the cause of his death. He was diagnosed with cancer in August 2012 and underwent chemotherapy at that time.
He had radical surgery to remove his cancerous bladder, prostate and part of his right ureter in July of 2006. He spent 19 days at Loyola University Medical Center and emerged cancer-free.
George submitted his letter of resignation in 2012, as all bishops are required to do when they reach age 75.
Asked what he will miss the most, he replied, “I don’t know yet. I’ll be free of anxiety in a way that is new to me because I’ve had administrative positions since I was 35 years old. I might even miss that pressure. . . . If I were to lose contact with people, I would miss that a lot, and I hope that won’t happen. . . . I think the impact of being retired will hit me the day after I retire.”
He offered a message of thanks to his flock for their cooperation over the years and prayers, especially now.
“I’m very much encouraged by their prayers for me, a promise of prayers on my part for them no matter what happens next, and support Bishop Cupich,” he added.