An ailing Cardinal Francis George kept his appointment to address the annual meeting of Catholic Charities on Thursday, arriving in a wheelchair, using crutches to walk and pointedly not mentioning his illness.

Battling a reccurrence of cancer, George is participating in a clinical research trial of a new cancer treatment drug. He’s suffering from a cellulitis infection in his right foot that makes walking painful, and has he recently canceled several appearances and out-of-town trips, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

But the 77-year-old archbishop cheerfully greeted many of the 350 attendees at the archdiocese group’s ninth annual meeting at the Chicago Hilton & Towers, and he seemed optimistic about the status of the archdiocese he will leave to Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich, the successor whom he introduced on Sept. 20.

“Services come and go, as do institutions. But mission remains the same. It remains steadfast,” said George, who has steered the helm of the nation’s third-largest diocese for the past 17 years.

“That sense of mission is so strong . . . because I would venture to say that every single one of us in one way or another has a personal experience with God’s love, such that our own personal motivation in joining ourselves to the work of Catholic Charities brings us also back into the love of God that we experience personally in some fashion,” he said.

George did not speak to reporters, and he did not mention his illness in the notably brief address of under 10 minutes, though he openly shared his battle in one-on-one conversations with well-wishers during the two-hour luncheon.


Cardinal Francis George chats with a well wisher Thursday at the Catholic Charities luncheon. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times


“Your own steadfastness gives me great encouragement. Your own sense of purpose that brings you  here again and again — that brings you into places you would not be on your own but that you go because you know what Catholic Charities does — that gives me great, great encouragement as I look forward to my own retirement,” the cardinal said in his speech.

Cupich, 65, bishop of Spokane since 2010, will be installed at a Mass at Holy Name Cathedral on Nov. 18.

George, who was first diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006, again fought the disease when it returned to his kidney and liver in August 2012 — the year he submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican as all bishops are required to do at age 75. The cancer remained dormant for more than a year before being found in his right kidney in March.

The archdiocese disclosed in August that the cardinal is participating in a clinical research trial of a new drug at the University of Chicago Medicine. It will be a few months before doctors can determine whether it is working.


Cardinal Francis George is suffering from a cellulitis infection in his right foot that makes walking painful, so he uses crutches or a wheelchair to get around.  | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

George spent most of his address covering the history of  the archdiocese founded by Cardinal George Mundelein, whom he called “a genius as an administrator,” briefly summizing his own tenure.

“During my work here, I have tried to strengthen that sense of mission, so that ministry, institutions as they come and go, will not weaken our purpose for doing, or our sense of mission, so that the purpose remains the same,” he said.

“God wants to transform us. He wants to transform society. He must use us to do that. And if we do that together with one heart, then indeed the mission is ensured for the indefinite future.”