For Cardinal George, God’s Grace Is Bigger Than Cancer

The retired shepherd of the Archdiocese of Chicago became the 11th recipient of the Knights of Columbus’ Gaudium et Spes Award.

Cardinal Francis George speaks Jan. 30 after receiving the Gaudium et Spes Award medal from the Knights of Columbus.
Cardinal Francis George speaks Jan. 30 after receiving the Gaudium et Spes Award medal from the Knights of Columbus. (photo: CNA/Knights of Columbus)

CHICAGO — Despite the uncertainty that often comes with cancer, Cardinal Francis George, the retired archbishop of Chicago, says his days are filled with gratitude and efforts to build physical strength.

“I’m in the hands of God, as we all are,” the cardinal reflected at a Jan. 30 press conference.

The cardinal spoke to members of the media at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago shortly after receiving the Gaudium et Spes Award, the highest honor granted by the Knights of Columbus.

Cardinal George led the Archdiocese of Chicago for more than 15 years. He retired in 2014, amid a battle with cancer, and was succeeded by Archbishop Blase Cupich.

The 78-year-old cardinal took part in a clinical trial conducted by University of Chicago Medicine, but ended the trial when it proved ineffective.

Cardinal George said that the transition into retirement has gone well. He is still informed about things going on in the archdiocese and able to pray for the people, even though he is no longer in a decision-making role. In addition, he still regularly hears confessions at Holy Name Cathedral.

The cardinal voiced gratitude for his life and ability to generally maintain a schedule, although it often revolves around doctor appointments.

“Much of my life is now determined by my state of health,” he said, adding that when he does have to cancel an event, people are understanding.

Still, there is much uncertainty about his future, particularly regarding the progression of his cancer. With treatments proving ineffective and no known cure, “they’ve run out of tricks in the bag,” he said with a small laugh.

Asked about his current use of crutches to walk, he explained that his legs have been weak for all his adult life, because he contracted polio as a young teenager and never fully recovered. His recent rounds of chemotherapy prevented him from exercising, and his muscles atrophied as a result.

However, he does physical therapy daily and is working to regain strength in his legs.

The cardinal also revealed that he has written several letters to Pope Francis, the most recent being about two weeks ago.

These letters usually contain a general update, he said, noting that the Pope wrote him a note on Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis, whose name they share.

Regarding the upcoming consistory — a gathering of cardinals in Rome being held in mid-February — Cardinal George said his attendance will be determined by his health.

“I intend to go. I want to go,” he said. However, he acknowledged that “Rome is a difficult city for those who are disabled.”

Ultimately, the decision will be based on his physical stamina and strength.

“If I feel that I will be too sick to contribute, I won’t go.”

Cardinal George is the 11th person to receive the Knights of Columbus’ Gaudium et Spes Award, named after the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.

The cardinal thanked the Knights for all the work that they do in his archdiocese and across the world.

As part of the honor, he was given a $100,000 award, which he plans to give to Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, as well as local Catholic schools.

Former recipients of the award include Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.

With 1.8 million members around the globe, the Knights of Columbus is the world's largest Catholic fraternal organization.

Founded in 1882 by the Venerable Father Michael McGivney, the Knights donated more than $170 million and 70 million hours of service to charitable causes last year.

Both Cardinal George and Archbishop Cupich have been members of the Knights of Columbus for decades. Archbishop Cupich gave the invocation at the award ceremony, and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, read the award’s citation.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson reflected on the awarding of the Knights' highest honor to Cardinal George.

“The cities of Yakima, Portland and Chicago were blessed to have Cardinal George as their bishop and spiritual leader,” he said. “And his leadership has benefited not only those cities in which he served, but the Knights of Columbus and Catholics across the United States.”

“Both in his brilliant speeches, homilies, letters and books, and in the brave witness to the faith that he has shown to the world — in sickness and in health — Cardinal George has proven over and over again one of the leading voices in the Catholic Church in the United States,” Anderson said, “and the Knights of Columbus is pleased to be able to honor him in this way for the great work he has done for so long.”