CHICAGO — The Knights of Columbus bestowed their highest award on Chicago’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, on Friday, citing his leadership in the nation’s third largest diocese and as former president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his role as supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, read a citation to those gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Lori, who leads the US bishops’ religious liberty committee, described George as “a staunch defender of religious freedom against incursions by the government and attacks from the secular culture” as well as “a voice for the needy and helpless, especially the unborn and those marginalized on account of race.”

Carl Anderson, head of the knights, presented George with the Gaudium et Spes Award, named after a keystone document from the Second Vatican Council. Andersen said the award was first presented to Mother Teresa in 1992.

The award comes with $100,000, which George said he plans to donate to Chicago Catholic Charities and local Catholic schools.

The 78-year-old George, who retired in November amid complications from cancer, said he intends to travel to Rome next month to take part in a meeting of the College of Cardinals, but said he must be “realistic” about his health.

“Rome is a difficult city for those who are disabled even in the best of times,” he said.

But George said he communicates with Pope Francis through letters, and revealed that the pope sends notes to cardinals on their name days, or the feast day of the saint they are named. George received one Oct. 4, the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.