CHICAGO – With snow falling outside, Cardinal Francis George celebrated his final Sunday liturgy as Archbishop of Chicago Sunday morning, telling a packed Holy Name Cathedral that he’s been asked about his legacy as he prepares to hand over the reins Tuesday afternoon.
“You are my legacy,” George told the more than 1,100 worshippers gathered in the 19th-century Gold Coast cathedral.
“At some point, Christ will question me, ‘What have you done with my people? Are they holier?’ ” he said during a seven-minute homily while seated in the cathedra, or bishop’s chair. “Well, there are a lot of holy people in Cook and Lake counties.”
George, who has led Chicago’s 2.2 million Catholics since 1997, elaborated on his legacy during an impromptu press conference in the cathedral’s narthex after Mass. Asked by a reporter to describe the gifts he has given the people of Chicagoland, George clarified.
“No, it is rather what God has given to them, and the use that they have made of them over the course of my ministry,” he said. Those gifts include Chicago Catholics’ “increase in holiness, their increase in charity, their concern for the poor. If those gifts — which have come from Christ, they’re not mine — have grown because I have been able to be part of their lives, then that’s my legacy, that growth in Christ’s love, in the people themselves.”
George was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006, which then spread to his kidney and liver. After undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer returned in March; in August, he entered a clinical trial of a new drug at the University of Chicago.
Wearing green and gold vestments with a matching miter and flanked by five priests, George was presented with a book of thank-you notes from Holy Name parishioners.
“If there are moments when I’m a little low, I will bring them out and be cheered, I’m sure,” he said.
During Mass, parishioners used cell phones to take pictures of George’s every move and offered prayers for the 77-year-old archbishop. “For Cardinal George, that the Spirit may continue to inspire him as a faithful servant of Christ,” a lector said during the prayers of the faithful.
George said he’s had a “packed” few weeks leading up to his retirement, and joked it’s been a bit like “presiding at your own wake.”
“Everywhere I’ve been in recent days — this is my last time here, my last time doing this — and I’ve been very gratified by the kindness of so many people. But it’s what I would expect given the people of the archdiocese,” he said. “It’s been a very packed few days, and now we move on to the next phase in the diocese’s history, and I will be part of the history here, but in a very different way.”
That next phase begins Monday evening when Archbishop-designate Blase Cupich knocks on the cathedral doors during the Liturgy of the Word with Rite of Reception.
During that ceremony, which George will lead, Cupich “will be welcomed into the cathedral where he will receive the Archdiocesan stole and greet civic, ecumenical, interreligious and official Archdiocesan representatives,” according to a press release from the archdiocese. Cupich will deliver the homily.
On Tuesday afternoon, Cupich will be installed as Chicago’s ninth archbishop.
But George, who is undergoing experimental cancer treatment, said he’s not finished yet. In an interview with Crux’s John L. Allen Jr. Friday, George said he’s looking forward to meeting Pope Francis, and has several questions. He’d like to ask the pope, whom he says he doesn’t know well, if he realizes that his statements have been “very misused” and why he won’t clarify.
“I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds,” he said.
At the end of Mass, Holy Name Cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Dan Mayall, said that George had celebrated Mass at every parish in the Archdiocese during his 17-year tenure, but most often at Holy Name, and he hoped that the cardinal was pleased with the cathedral’s parish community.
George responded, saying he was sure his successor, Cupich, “is very pleased with what he sees here.”
As for him?
“I will remain pleased all the days of my life, with this, my legacy,” he said, receiving an extended standing ovation.