Evangelizing Communities: A New Image for U.S. Parishes?

Archbishop Francis George OMI

Chicago Archbishop Francis George played an important role in the recently completed Synod of Bishops for America. He is also among a smaller panel of Synod Fathers assisting Pope John Paul in drafting a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

The archbishop spoke with REGISTER correspondent Stephen Banyra in the Vatican at the conclusion of the Synod.

Banyra: The Special Synod of Bishops for America was a landmark gathering—bringing together nearly 300 cardinals, bishops, and other participants, for a month. How would you assess the meeting?

Archbishop George: The assessment is still provisional because we'll have to see what the Holy Father gives us as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which will be a guide for our vision and for our action in the future as we go into the next millennium.

Nevertheless, the most important assessment is that the bishops leave Rome knowing one another better across all the countries in the western hemisphere and determined to cooperate more closely in the future. The particular areas of cooperation are outlined in many of the Synod propositions but I'm sure others will come along as we begin to work more closely together.

Your brother bishops elected you to the post-synodal council and to assist Pope John Paul II in the preparation of his post-synodal exhortation. What impact do you think that forthcoming document will have on the Church throughout the hemisphere?

One task of the post-synodal council is to help the Holy Father create that document by going through the many interventions and all the papers that have created the content of our Synod discussion, in order to digest it in some form he can use—to save him time basically. And that document will have effect only if, in fact, it is well known.

Sometimes these very beautiful post-synodal apostolic exhortations have less effect than they ought to have because they're not incorporated into the pastoral vision of the dioceses. However, given the fact that many bishops from throughout the hemisphere have been present for this Synod, I would hope that whatever document comes out will have an impact pastorally.

We're at the crossroads of the third Christian millennium. At this time, how would you judge the “health” of the Church in the United States and what is the greatest challenge facing the Church for the new century?

One of the most interesting things to come out of this Synod is the relativization of national boundaries. The Church now speaks more easily of cultures than she does of nations. Sometimes that concept hasn't had a chance to sink into the mental paradigms—even of the bishops. So the Church in the United States is very different depending on the region and the cultures of people who are Catholic.

Nonetheless, there are a few things that could be said. However, fewer than the media generally permit. The media have a paradigm for the Church: that it's a conversation between conservatives and liberals, defined as individualists and authoritarians. That's a very partial conversation. It's part of the whole, but it's a very small part of it.

The challenges of the Church and the health of the Church in the United States are determined by how she conforms to the mission that Christ left her. By those standards, I think things are very promising because the whole concept of evangelization, which was so prominent in this Synod, is also now taking hold in the dioceses that are preparing for the new millennium. Some dioceses are doing better at this than others. I think there is a renewal of life in the parishes, which are always the most vital parts of the American Church, precisely to the extent that they are beginning to see themselves as evangelizing communities. That's a new concept for the Church in the United States. If it takes hold, it will be a way to escape the prism that has shaped our life together (for the last 25 years, anyway)—the kind of prism given to us in most of the media and even in Catholic periodicals.

You've had to address racial tension in Chicago. How would you describe race relations within the United States?

I'd be slow to make a general statement about race relations in the United States. One weakness, however, of the whole conversation around race in the United States is that it makes very little reference to class.

Americans are generally uneasy with class analysis since it's Marxist, but in fact it tells us something and I think it has to be brought into the discussion on race since many actions interpreted as “prejudiced” are, in fact, acts that will defend personal property—sometimes a house for example, which is the major life investment for people of modest means. Its value is something that they won't negotiate.

So the issue is complicated by economics and by class divisions more than the conversation generally permits. It's easier just to talk about attitudes and about education, therefore, as the response. In the United States, the response to everything is “more education,” as if information of itself could change hearts.

In Chicago, I think the discussion hasn't gone very far—it hasn't really probed the depths of what we're dealing with. Nor has the Church, which is perhaps less used to calling its people to conversion than it should be, really faced the fact that there is hatred for people who are different—particularly people of different races—in the hearts of many people. Nevertheless, that alone doesn't explain many of the phenomena that crop up under that rubric “racism.”

Do minorities feel they're a part of the Church in the United States? Why don't we have more Black, Hispanic, and Asian bishops, priests, religious?

Well, who's the minority? Everybody in the United States is a minority in a sense. Catholics are a minority in the United States—it does not matter the color of your skin.

Why aren't there people from other groups? There are quite a few Asians particularly because of the Filipinos and now the Vietnamese. I'd say, proportionately, there are more Asian minorities in the Catholic Church than there are in the society as a whole.

Among African-Americans, since historically they were slaves in the South, they adopted the Christianity of their masters who were mostly Protestants. So they have been overwhelmingly Protestant. Still, there are about 2 million out of some 20 million—almost 10% of African Americans are Catholic. And we would hope that would increase, because the kind of secularization of good Protestants that we see among good Catholics is the same.

Secularized Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, have to be called again to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and accept the Gospel discipline into their lives. I think the field for evangelizing is as rich and ripe among African-Americans as it is among any other kind of Americans. So we'll have to see what the future holds. We've begun to talk about that in Chicago already: “What should the Church's presence be among African-Americans?”

You have come to your post in Chicago as a religious, thus bringing a whole tradition of prayer, of the Divine Office, and of community life. Does this have any impact on your ministry in the archdiocese?

I'm not sure that religious are automatically any holier than, for example, diocesan priests who are also obliged to prayer and to the hours. Traditionally, the ministry, particularly in parishes, has shaped even the spiritual life of diocesan priests, whereas a rule has shaped the life of religious. But religious in pastoral work are as much shaped by ministry as are their diocesan priest brothers.

My own work has been very much shaped by my pastoral ministry as bishop. I think perhaps the missionary dimension of my own religious family, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate [OMI], gives me a kind of vision that is somewhat different from the average Chicago parish priest. Still, it's very hard to generalize about Chicago priests. They're as different as any other group.

I would hope, however, that some of the experiences I bring from living outside of Chicago for almost 40 years will help me both appreciate what is there and perhaps change the vision somewhat.

Would you care to make a final comment?

I think all of us are very grateful to the Holy Father for bringing us together for this Special Synod for America. And particularly, for emphasizing the need for the synods of the various continents to prepare for a new springtime for the Gospel—the new millennium of Christianity that we'll be celebrating in a few years.

The more we do this, the more this “sinks in” as a moment of renewal, a moment of encounter, changing the page on the calendar isn't so important. Yet the encounter with Jesus Christ will change many things.

—Stephen Banyra

Archbishop Francis George OMI

Current Posts: Archbishop of Chicago, Ill.; chancellor of The Catholic Church Extension Society and of University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Ill.; member of U.S. bishops' committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism; various other bishops' committees and advisory positions.

Background: Born Jan. 16, 1937; entered Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1957; ordained to priesthood in 1963. Appointed bishop of Yakima, Wash., in 1990; made archbishop of Portland, Ore., in 1996; appointed archbishop of Chicago in 1997.

Notable: Holds a STD (doctor of sacred theology) in ecclesiology from the Pontifical University Urbanian, Rome, and a PhD in American philosophy from Tulane University, New Orleans, La.