Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, recently announced the completion of his cancer treatment.
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond forwarded a few questions to the cardinal, who is still recovering his strength and has limited his official duties.
His written responses reflect on his distinctive 2012 Advent season and encourage Catholics to pray on behalf of those, like him, who may be too weak to pray well.
He previews a new pastoral letter, which asks the faithful to return to the Rosary and other discarded Catholic customs. These traditional practices, he says, can help bridge divisions in the fractured body of Christ.
What is the state of your health right now?
Right now, I am coming to the end of my treatment for metastasized kidney cancer. The scans are very good, but scans don’t tell the whole story, and some decisions lie ahead. For the progress, however, I am grateful to God and to all those who have been praying for me.
Your recovery has forced you to set aside most of your usual pastoral visits during Christmas. Although you’re unable to this year, why have you typically made visits to prisons and hospitals a part of this liturgical season?
Visiting children in the hospital and prisoners in jail at Christmastime is important to them. It reminds them they are never alone, because God has come among us as one of us. It is also important for us to visit those who might otherwise be overlooked in the festivities of Christmas. Christ came as a poor child in an insignificant town of the great Roman Empire. God remembers the poor; and history is what God remembers.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI says that charity is at the very center of the Church’s mission, alongside the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacraments.
Charity is at the center of the Church’s mission because God is love. The works of mercy are love in practice. "Charitable work" opens our hearts to all those Jesus came to save; and, in Advent, we prepare to welcome a Savior. Jesus comes as the Savior of the world, or he doesn’t come at all.
You are preparing a new pastoral letter on the importance of taking up Catholic customs that were often discarded after the Second Vatican Council. You recently suggested that these rituals are especially worthwhile during a time of fragmentation in the Church.
The Church fragments when she permits worldly ideologies to define her life. "Liberal" and "conservative" are not Gospel terms. The Gospel speaks, instead, of truth and falsehood. The only arms the Church bears are truth and love.
If the Church permits herself to be reduced to a political voice in the current divisions, she loses her moral voice and betrays the Gospel. It is important to preach the truth as it is given us in divine Revelation and taught by the Church. It is important to live in accord with the moral teachings of the Church that protect our friendship with Christ.
But it is also important to have a distinctively Catholic way of life, customs that identify us as a group and that are habitual, not the object of individual choice each morning.
Most of life is based on habits. They carry us through times good and bad, even when we are not at our best personally. Many customary practices of Catholic life disappeared after the Second Vatican Council for various reasons.
Have bishops lost credibility, and must they now "earn" the respect of the faithful, rather than assuming respect will be there? Is the lack of respect for Church leaders and other signs of internal Church divisions primarily a result of weak catechesis?
The bishops lost much of their moral authority when they failed to govern priests who would not or could not govern themselves. This is a crisis of governance, and bishops are ordained to govern. The crisis of authority was exacerbated by inadequate catechesis and a general antinomian attitude in the Church and society in recent decades.
The response to poor government is good government, but those who would redefine the Church according to their own lights often prefer no episcopal government at all.
It is hypocritical to hold bishops responsible for scandal in the Church and, at the same time, demand that they give up the duty to govern in Christ’s name. This hypocrisy besets both left and right; each side has its favorite bishops because each side wants a Church made in its own image and likeness. Neither side seems inclined to obey, but obeying is part of loving, as Jesus has shown us.
Starting with Advent, what traditions could help to bridge the divide?
Advent can refocus us on children and their needs. Family customs of common prayer, especially the Rosary, and working together to prepare for the feast, going to confession together, identifying with poor people and visiting them, perhaps with material gifts — these are "customs" that make Advent a season all can celebrate.
Cancer treatment brings many patients to the foot of the cross — where Mary stands before her Son. You pray the Rosary daily. How has your experience with cancer deepened your spiritual life?
I’m not sure that having cancer has deepened my spiritual life, but it does force one to simplify life, to come back to what is really important and let a lot of distractions go.
Cancer is itself a major distraction, demanding a lot of time and creating major preoccupations that can get in the way of prayer. That is why the prayer of others is so important to people whose own prayer life is sometimes as weak as their physical life. There is a communion of saints, that is, a community of all those who sustain each other in the presence of the Lord.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once observed that after the Second Vatican Council the reduced role of Marian devotion helped to foster the politicization of the faith. Do you agree, and can Mary help bridge our fractured Catholic community now?
Mary is the Mother of God and our mother. Devotion to Mary, love for our mother, keeps Christ’s family united and focused on her Son, who is our Lord and our brother.
When you are fighting cancer and contemplate the possibility of death, how does that alter the more common view of Advent as a happy time for children on the cusp of their life’s journey?
Advent reminds us of Jesus’ coming 2,000 years ago, born of the Virgin Mary. It helps us take time to recognize his coming in our minds and hearts today. It brings forward, liturgically, his final coming in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Each of these comings is mysterious, but each demands the others. The God who is born as a human child is the same God who accompanies us in this life and who will reveal the meaning of all of history at the end of time. The continuity lies in God and his providential governance of the universe, not in our own feeble and broken responses to his presence.