A conversation with Cardinal Francis E. George

By John Mallon

In a column that appeared in the Chicago Tribune "Perspective" Section, pp. 1, 10, November 24, 1996, the controversial sociologist/novelist/pundit/priest Father Andrew Greeley launched what could be considered a "preemptive strike" attempting to poison the wells against anybody who could possibly be appointed the next Archbishop of Chicago, following the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, with whom Greeley himself often had a stormy relationship. Said Greeley in the column, "To follow the late cardinal would be a difficult task for even the best possible bishop. If the new archbishop is like the men who have been appointed to the other major American dioceses in the last decade, he will be as unlike Joseph Bernardin as anyone could possibly be—narrow, rigid, insensitive, authoritarian, probably incompetent and utterly incapable of listening." Greeley continues, "A priest said to me the other day, 'If the new guy doesn't like what I'm doing in my parish, I'll throw the keys at him and say, 'you run it if you know so much.'" 

It may be closer to the truth to say that Greeley himself belongs to a school of Churchmanship that belongs to the past; that of the cynical kind of ecclesiastical punditry still practiced by the aging Catholic Left, launched during the Second Vatican Council by the "Xavier Rynn" reports which treated high-level Church policy-making as though they were mere human exercises in shifty politicking.

However, nearly everyone was surprised by the appointment of the relatively little-known Archbishop of Portland, Oregon—who had held that post for less than a year—Francis E. George to the See of Chicago as its eighth archbishop. Things seem to happen quickly for the then-Archbishop George. After a brief honeymoon, a controversy erupted in November 1997 which some interpret as a "shot across his bow." 

A letter sharply critical of George's "style as well as substance" telling him that comments he made concerning certain practices he observed on parish visits "left damage in your wake." The letter, dated October 10, criticizing his job performance came from a group of 43 prominent priests known as the Pastors' Forum, was released in a November press conference by a group of Chicago Catholics called Catholic Citizens of Illinois, Inc. who viewed the letter as disrespectful, and sought to come to the new archbishop's defense. 

The group's cofounder, Mary Anne Hackett, told Catholic News Service (CNS) that the pastors' letter was unmatched in disrespect to the archbishop and the Church. She told CNS, "It ridicules him by calling him 'Francis the Corrector,' but he can wear that name as a badge of honor because ... there is much need for correcting. We believe there are liturgical abuses in 70 percent of the parishes." The concerns George was said to have commented on included certain practices in the distribution of Communion, improper altar bread, a need for liturgical retraining for deacons, absence of kneelers in pews, not kneeling at the Consecration, and the color of funeral vestments.

George himself was at the bishops' annual meeting in Washington when the controversy erupted, and issued a statement of remarkable finesse. He basically thanked those who sought to defend him but said he did not see a need for a defense where there is no attack, thereby diffusing a press debacle and saving face for all involved.

Inside the Vatican interviewed then-Cardinal designate George by phone February 18, three days before he was to receive his red hat in Rome as the newest U.S. cardinal serving as an ordinary. We found him to be engaging, charming and very down to earth with a quick wit and humor that puts one at ease. He is also a scholar and a formidable intellectual who takes a ready enjoyment in good-natured verbal jousting, as the interview reveals. But it is also quite clear that he is a man of God, of the Church, and a true shepherd quite willing, capable and ready to listen to others, sincerely accepting them where they are, but unwilling to compromise on doctrine, fully aware that to do so would not be good pastoring. We asked him tough questions that would make any bishop defensive which he answered with sometimes astonishing candor and calm. We found him a man of humility who is well aware of who he is, concerned with the present and the future, well aware that he doesn't have to fill anyone's shoes but his own. 

At the conclusion of the interview Cardinal George asked Inside the Vatican readers to please keep him in their prayers. We gladly pass on the request.

John Mallon: Cardinal George, first of all, congratulations on your elevation to the College of Cardinals. We are very pleased for you and the Church. What are your feelings as you prepare to receive your red hat?

Cardinal Francis George: What are my feelings... I'm very pleased that the Holy Father has confidence in me, because I have enormous respect for this Pope—the office—but especially this Pope. And I happy for Chicago, It's been received here very well, it's a sign that Chicago is an important archdiocese in the universal Church, and also, I think, even those who aren't Catholic in the city have received it as a kind of an honor for the city, as it's meant to be. So I think it's being understood well and it's a source, of course, for personal satisfaction to me. Incidentally, I might mention that I wasn't in the group that Inside the Vatican prophesied would be named in the list of new cardinals, so perhaps that a sign of some satisfaction also! (Laughter)

Well, it seems perhaps God has His hand on you!

(Laughter) I forgive you! (Laughter)

Less than a year in Portland, that's kind of meteoric, if you'll pardon the expression! (Laughter)

In November a controversy erupted in Chicago when a letter critical of your ministry from a group of priests known as the Pastors' Forum was leaked to the press. People were outraged by the letter's disrespect, and while you diffused it rather deftly, it raised important questions about an emerging situation we are seeing in the Church in the United States: that of priests of dissident persuasion in a seeming revolt against their bishops when those bishops attempt to implement Vatican norms—priests, as it were, almost holding their bishops hostage; being uncooperative, or complaining of poor morale when they don't get their way. This problem is spreading in many dioceses and many of the faithful are scandalized by it. Of course, every good bishop cares about the morale of his priests, but what happens when it comes at the expense of the faith and the good of the flock because those priests are in dissent?

Well I'm not sure I'd agree with the way you phrased the question. There are several problems with what you've said. First of all it wasn't leaked it was released by a group that in fact got a hold of it, and evidently chose a certain moment to release it, because by the time it was released it was already quite old. Secondly, I don't know how much dissent against bishops is spreading among priests. I would read that letter as nervousness. I'd been here a number of months, I hadn't gotten out to the priests as much as I would have liked to because I was captured by many administrative tasks. So in a sense it was, as I interpret it, an attempt to kind of say, "If this is what you're going to do, we're going to have a hard time with it." and even some of the facts were inaccurate. So to my mind it was an invitation to try to establish a greater degree of trust, and that's what I've been trying to do. When there's a sense of trust that nobody's out to "get" anybody—of course there's differences—and there will be—and there are some things going on in the Archdiocese of Chicago which I have to check on—I'm not sure how widespread they are—but that I can't agree to. But we'll work on that. 

Finally, priests are not evil. They became priests because they love God and want to serve His people. I find that if you keep appealing to that and you help them to see a vision that you think is accurate, there's general cooperation. In all my experience as both a religious superior, and as a diocesan bishop in two other places, I found that to be true and I have no reason to think it won't be true in Chicago. 

Yes, well of course the group of priests in question represented a small but vocal minority. I understood it was leaked, in the reports I read, I didn't realize it was released.

I don't know how the group got a hold of it so in that sense it was leaked. However, if you're going to send a letter to 143 or 150 people it's no longer a private letter. I refer to it as an internal letter, which is what I think it is, but it was unrealistic on the part of the people who wrote it if they thought that it wouldn't be. Especially in Chicago, everything becomes public eventually. So in that sense I don't know that it was leaked. At any rate, it was released deliberately by people whom I haven't met yet, but whom I would like to meet and talk to, and who I think were honestly concerned just about the concerns that you raised. But, at this point, it's a big place, it takes a while to become known, and when there is a kind of a trust and a mutual knowledge, things can usually be worked out. The problem of knowing me is much easier than my problem of knowing them. There are so many priests here, it's hard to get to know where each of them is coming from, and I find, however, that if we can sit down and talk things out there's a change in the atmosphere; and people relax and we can go on. You don't tear up a local Church. It has its own identity; it goes according to a trajectory that is set by many people over the years, over the decades. So you come in as a servant of that Church and over time you shape it.

Was there some controversy over your bringing in priests from different cultures or different countries?

Over that project there was certainly been a lot of discussion and some of it heated. It's a little ironic in the sense that there are several hundred priests serving in this archdiocese who weren't born here. So it's not as if this is something new. What was new was to go out and invite them, rather than just wait for them to show up, much as we receive immigrants. Once we say we need them, and then of course, there again, your self-image is brought into play. This is a very generous Church. We have always given, and given generously, and now we're saying we're a needy Church. To say that is something of a drama, it means that there's a certain spiritual renewal, perhaps, that takes place when one admits that he's in need of help, which can be healthy, I think, spiritually. That's one part of the project. 

The other part of it is to receive people well, that is, to welcome them and give them the tools they need for ministering here. Some of the objections were, "Well, how will they understand us?" and those have to be taken into account. In fact, some of the problems we've had have risen from the fact that we haven't really helped people who have come to help us, and so part of the project will be to do that. 

I just got through talking to a representative group of the priests, many of them incardinated now, who didn't go through our seminary system, who were born elsewhere, and some of the problems they have in ministering here. Breaking into the way in which the Archdiocese of Chicago conducts its business is confusing at times, especially for a foreigner. So that was an important part of it, now we go back and we'll continue the conversation. 

But in fact, what I'm talking about is continuing something that has happened here. Cardinal Bernardin called priests in from various places to meet the needs of Croatians, for example. The big unmet need here is for Hispanic priests to accompany the first generation, especially of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans who are here now, and Central Americans as well. That's still on target. It was always a proposition to elicit the conversation that is now taking place, and eventually we are going to start calling in some more people when we know how we can receive them well.

Who are the objectors? It's hard to imagine anyone not wanting more priests and more help in this day and age.

Well, sometimes there are objectors who have had difficulty, perhaps, trying to minister with priests who didn't go through the Chicago system. Sometimes it's just that idea that here we are receiving missionaries, if you like, all of a sudden that's a big shift in consciousness. The Holy Father has said mission is on six continents, echoing the World Council of Churches. But here's a Church that's given all the time. Suddenly to be told you're also in need is a big shift in understanding. I think that's probably the biggest obstacle.

Well, it could be seen as humbling in a healthy way.

Exactly, that's what I was saying.

Where does that whole situation with the Pastors' Forum stand now?

What do you mean the whole situation? This is an informal group that met several times when Cardinal Bernardin was archbishop here, they've met once since I've come, and the next time it meets I'll be with them and we'll talk things through. In the meantime we're having various other meetings with priests. It's an informal group; it doesn't meet regularly. It meets when it's called. And the next time they meet—I think there is something scheduled now, and I'll try to be with them.

I just read of a situation similar to yours where the bishop had a number of his priests very upset with him because he ordered that the column of a well-known dissenting priest be dropped from his diocesan paper. Now bishops like this are starting to emerge as heroes to a great number of parishioners who are really just fed up with dissent and just want to live and raise their children in accord with the Church. What can you as a Cardinal Archbishop, now, say to people like those I've talked to who feel intimidated by dissenting pastors and who have actually been mocked and ridiculed at Mass for wanting to receive Communion on the tongue, or kneel at the consecration? 

We're all supposed to be kneeling at the consecration. And we have the option of receiving Communion on the tongue. Yes, that's extremely unfortunate. It's uncharitable to ridicule somebody—anybody from any side. And if a pastor does that that's a lack of charity that should be attended to, I suppose the bishop would have to look into that. At the same time there is a kind of polarization that tells me we haven't yet received Vatican II. I really think we should go back and understand what it really says. 

It really is a very different kind of Church that's outlined there in Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. It's not a personal club, it's not a country, a society, it's not a corporation. It's something unique—the Body of Christ, the People of God, the Temple of the Spirit. The sign of the unity of the human race is what Lumen Gentium calls it so if we're not unified how can we be a sign of unity to others? I think that we should go back to the faith vision of what we are, and not either live in our dreams that may never come to pass as some of the liberals do, nor live in our memories that are no longer vital in the way that some conservatives do, but to live in the faith as the Pope himself, as somebody who says, "My mission is to implement the Council" calls us to. 

That means reading the Council honestly, and if at times it's been misinterpreted by both right and left, or rejected, then we have to go back and call people to that faith, which has been most recently expressed for us in the Council, but it's the apostolic faith. So, I think that if we possess that faith there's a certain equanimity and a certain freedom and a certain calmness. You know, expecting that the Holy Spirit will help us to work things out if we're truly faithful, that enables us to look at some of those controversies and to go beyond them very quickly, although they remain difficult. Because people on both sides—on several sides—can hunker down and not listen any longer and create an internal atmosphere that makes life with the Spirit very difficult.

Would you agree that there may have been kind of a "false start" right after the Council? This was addressed in 1985 by the synod of bishops who met for the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the Council. It almost seems as though Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes—of course the world of the 60s is much different than the world of the 80s and 90s—were misinterpreted to say, rather than opening our arms to the world we should genuflect to the world. Would you agree with that?

Well you have to put names on it. I'm sure that happened on the part perhaps of some people and in some quarters. It probably was done with good intention in the beginning. I think the Council was called by John XXIII to say, look, our Catholic faith and our experience—or our culture if you want to call it that—have now distanced themselves from one another. So that the Church wouldn't be just a museum of past customs that didn't speak to the world today, that couldn't be the missionary Church that Christ told us to be before He ascended to the Father. He had called the Council—not to update the Church, that's a poor way of saying it—but it was precisely so the Church could dust off some of the museum pieces and become truly the Church that Christ wants her to be: the living Church. 

So, in that sense, some places interpreted it as a revolution rather than one more step in the development of our understanding of ourselves. It was the first Council, as the Pope has said, that really turned to the Church itself as a subject of discussion, and self-reflection. To the extent that that was misinterpreted in some places, well, certainly what looks at times to be a good initiative turns out to have been not successful. What gives life is from the Spirit, what brings death is not. So instead of talking about liberal/conservative I like to always look at what's bringing life and what's bringing death. But you do that in the vision—the universal vision of the Council simply says don't write anyone off. No one. Whether they're Marxists or whether they're atheists, or whether they're brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in other faith communities—don't write anyone off. We have to be a sign of the unity of the human race, and certainly among ourselves we have to be that too. 

Just an aside about these things like kneeling at the Consecration; these things seem so small but they really kind of derail progress. Do you know where that came from? This insistence on standing during the consecration, when the Church obviously directs us to kneel?

The universal rule is kneel at the Consecration, the U.S. rule is to kneel through the whole canon of the Mass. You can make a case one way or the other. I certainly prefer to kneel. It expresses what I understand when I adore the Presence of the Lord. The point of Catholic belief is not that Christ is present, but that He's present in such a way that it's no longer bread. The substance is the Lord. Christ is present, as we know, spiritually in many ways. Anyway, you can make all kinds of arguments for rubrical change and some of them are worth listening to, but the point is the rite comes to us from the Church and therefore we receive it and obey it. Being a disciple is bound up with obeying. In this case, obeying the Church. That's what is at issue as far as I'm concerned much less so than whether you stand or kneel, or what you do.

The impression is given that if you complain about things like this, or bring attention to them, you're being petty, but then they turn into major issues.

Well, that's it, and also when people don't follow even small—well, sometimes relatively small liturgical rubrics, inevitably that creates a conflict. People aren't stupid, and they know when they're being told to do something that is outside what the Church asks them to do, and so you have a pastoral conflict. We don't need that. 

I would echo what you said, these are things that can distract us. So we should simply take the liturgy the Church gives us. While people can discuss elsewhere, how it should continue to evolve, perhaps—those are good discussions—but they're not normative. They don't tell us what to do; they're just paper discussions until the Church Herself receives them and says, well, all right, as she did with some of those discussions during the time of the Council. But finally the Church is ruled by Her pastors not by books that are written. The Church isn't a seminar; it's a living Body. Discussions are important. I don't mean to downplay them, but they shouldn't rip up our pastoral and liturgical practices.

There is this obvious conflict going on. I see priests, many of whom came of age in the 60s who kind of want to assert their independence, and then a new generation of younger Catholics who find the authentic teachings of the Church to be kind of novel and beautiful and want to embrace them...

(Chuckles) I think that's probably true.

... and they have a conflict with the older priests who are from the 60s generation. The younger people are upset and complain to the bishop, and then the bishop has a morale problem with the priests.

Yes, but some of the complaints come from a base that is not always adequate. They are well intentioned, they mean well, but they grab onto something sometimes that isn't at the heart of the Gospel, or that isn't even so. Sometimes there are some interpretations of what the authentic Catholic faith teaches out there that are simply dead wrong. So you can come from a too narrow base, with an anxiety to be faithful, which, in fact, ironically, brings you into association with people who are too narrow to be Catholic. That's one problem. The other problem is, your desire for independence—when in fact no one can be independent of Christ, nor of the Church if you're going to be saved. So there's kind of a false independence, perhaps, that comes from the need to be mature in our culture, which means autonomous, or unrelated, very often, unfortunately. Whereas, the heart of discipleship is relationship. It's surrender.

Yes. In terms of these conflicts, I interviewed Bishop Bruskewitz a few months ago and he said it's not always a good idea to be going to the barricades over commas.

That's right. But, sometimes commas are important! (Laughter) Depends what their doing!

Depends on where they're placed!

Yeah, exactly. You look at each case. That's all. Sometimes generalizations are helpful and sometimes they're not, I find. But you need to have a sense of the faith and go into each situation and do what you think has to be done with the help of God's grace.

It's a case-by-case deal?

You have to ask where people are coming from, always, you have to listen. For some people what is at issue is a symbol of something—not that you want to psychologize all differences, because some of the differences are truly doctrinal and they're very important. You don't want to explain it away, but it does help to have a sense of the person who's talking.

We're doing this series of interviews with bishops, and people who know me as a Catholic writer sometimes bring me all their complaints and frustrations they can't bring to the bishop. 

Yeah, and I imagine in a big see like this there are a lot of those.

Well, I'm not in Chicago, but one thing, at least I'd like to see done in this work, is diffuse some of the frustrations some of these people feel. 

Well, I'm not sure you can diffuse those frustrations, because they're living in a situation and they're frustrated by it. I'm not sure reading a magazine article about it will diffuse it. The cause of the frustration is there for them, whether objectively or subjectively or both. But it is nonetheless good if we have perspectives that are made public that enable people to see their own problem in relationship to something bigger, and relativize it. But nonetheless the problems are real. 

Yes, and give them a chance to feel they are being heard.

Yes, I think a lot of this—particularly conservative anger—is the sense that they've been banished as troglodytes, and that's terrible. Don't write anyone off—but don't write anyone off on the left either.

One person told me, for example, of a veteran priest who, almost seemed to enjoy exploiting the priest shortage by saying from the pulpit "We [the priests] can do whatever we want! There are so few of us!" Now that seems like a very a childish 1960s view of authority. 

Yeah, of course, true. If that was said, that's a terrible thing to say. I can't do whatever I want to. The Pope can't do whatever he wants to. That's a ridiculous statement—if it was said. In other words we all minister and live within a tradition that unites us to Christ. It's not my Church after all; it's Christ's.

Yes, exactly, and while this was hearsay, after a while one sees and hears enough to know that these things occur and they alienate the most faithful Catholics who would be most likely to have large families and encourage their sons to priests. I hate to say this to you—because as Cardinal Law said about fifteen years ago, he was the new kid on the block—so this doesn't apply to you—but I've heard an unfortunate phrase that is emerging across the country as a lament. There are people saying that their bishop is "personally orthodox but..." This is circulating around the country evidently because of this strange crisis. Do you see a solution?

Is that in regards to me? Maybe personally orthodox, but not willing to face down his priests? That's what it means. It seems to me that what is being said there is that a bishop can come in and snap his fingers and immediately everything these people don't like is going to going to change? That's utterly unrealistic. A community of faith is a living body; you have to know it, you have to respect it. Bishops are bishops. It's a limited job, and we have our role, it's a central role in the Church certainly, but I don't control and never will control everything single thing that happens in the Archdiocese of Chicago. So if somebody is being badly treated by a pastor then certainly that's my concern, if it gets to me, and I hope it does. But if something is just not being done the way they like it to be done in their church, or, well if I'm not changing that in fifteen minutes, well, that person is going to be very unhappy, and for a very long time. 

No, the comment is not directed at you, but rather it seems to be a general trend.

Well, I know, but you do what you can, where you can. One of the things you have to understand, and everybody has to understand is that the bishops are the centers of unity in the Church. We are very concerned about that and very clear on that. Now the unity has to be not around me but around Christ. Therefore, it has to be based upon orthodox teaching, and correct administration of the sacraments and canonical pastoring, and that's always the norm that we call people back to, but you do it in such a way that you don't write people off. You try to bring as many people along as possible until it's very clear that this is an irreconcilable difference. And you have to draw a line. 

But I think bishops are reluctant to draw lines, not because we're muddle-headed or overly soft hearted, but because we're concerned about unity. But finally, I find the best way to bring people into unity is to point to Christ. And do just what you said, call them to the truth that Christ wants us to enjoy. Otherwise it's a false unity, it's a psychological base and that isn't going to last very long.

Two more questions along these lines and then we'll move on.

Well these are very important to pastoring in this day and age. We have to ask though, where are people getting their reading, where are they being influenced? Because there are periodicals on both sides that delight in stirring up controversy, that delight in conflict. Bishops don't have a vested interest in conflict. We do what we can to avoid it. So, in that sense, yeah, I suppose we can look like wimps sometimes.

Well at Inside the Vatican we try to take the high road on many of these things!

Oh, I wasn't talking about Inside the Vatican, what made you make the reference to yourself?


Others besides bishops can get defensive too!


For the last thirty years or so—and this relates to what I said before about the false start of the Council—there seems to have been in the minds of many people a preferential option for dissent—

‍ (Laughs) Oh, come on! On the part of whom?

You see it in Church bureaucracies, in Catholic universities, theology departments, seminaries, chancery offices, and orthodox faculty, personnel, and lay Church employees often fear for their jobs if they are too outspoken and experience a palpable chill in the workplace.

Well, that could've happened, I'm sure it has.

Do you see a change coming?

Well, I don't know, part of the Gospel is conversion, and so we pray that everybody be converted to Christ and some of these things will disappear. Some of them might disappear only with the disappearance of some of the people. So, do I see a change? I think I'd have too look at each situation and say, well, maybe, maybe not. I don't know.

I think Pope John Paul II has done an extraordinary job of evangelizing youth, and causing them to fall in love with him, and, by extension, the faith, and with Jesus, and I think we are entering a new spring. 

I think you have a whole generation of people who don't understand and don't care about the conflicts of the '60s and '70s, and we shouldn't visit them on them. We simply proclaim the faith as we understand it to be, now, as a result of the Council's deliberations and they respond to it very well. They really do. So, not that they buy everything, they never did in any generation. But nonetheless there's something there, there's a fascination with truth, as the Pope says again and again. That's because we are oriented towards knowing the truth. 

I find that very healthy, and I find the same thing in my ministry. You go to people and you simply proclaim the Gospel as the Church teachings it and understands it and they respond—not always with great appreciation, and you can't let yourself be paralyzed by the disputes in the past or the conflicts in your own past experience. That's what I think perhaps is responsible for some of the confusion over the Council. 

That is, the Council wanted to bring faith and experience back together again, as I said. And when in fact at times they conflict—they clash, as they always have in history, people sometimes will say, "Well then it's experience that's normative rather than faith." The Church has to keep saying no, they should be brought together but when they clash, it's faith that's normative. And you have to be sure that it is the faith, and not something that somebody thinks is the faith. But that's where a lot of the conflicts, I think, have worked themselves out: "Well, the Church has to listen to the experience of the people even when that experience is in conflict with the Gospel, that's normative." And of course the Church can't do that. But you do have to listen to the experience of the people to find out what the pastoral problems are in order to make the faith alive for them. 

I think we've seen a turnover in generations now. What I'm seeing, which gives me tremendous hope, is people like young couples in their 20s and 30s who embrace Humanae Vitae with great joy, and are eager to learn about Natural Family Planning—or even leave the size of their family completely to God. But I see this joy, and this love for the teachings, and I see that as a beautiful thing and I think for some of the older priests it throws them off a little bit.

Well, I think that if somebody thinks that is settled forever, suddenly to find out there are people who really do follow it, and are joyful in that generosity, it might be disconcerting, but it makes people think. Yet, priests are not bad people. If you sit down and say, well, look what's going on here, I find that they start to rethink things themselves.

It's not a matter of bashing priests; I just want to bring the kinds of things I've seen people suffer to the question.

Yes, sure, I understand what you're saying.

God knows, we love and need our priests and bishops, and that's the proper position for any Catholic.

And vice-versa.

Now, it's obvious from these questions that few people would envy the job of bishop—

Oh, that's too bad! Great job! 


Well, that's good! Maybe I'm wrong and that's great! Yet, every Catholic has a moment of fantasy when they say, "If I were bishop I'd do such and such..."

Really? I never had one before I became a bishop! But anyway—

Well, that's a good sign!


In a relatively short period, you've been created a Prince of the Church. There has to be a great excitement in any Christian over the opportunity to really do good. What are the things that excite you about the authority God has placed in you? What issues do you look forward to tackling? 

Well, the authority is that of archbishop, the cardinal is something else added on. It gives you influence but not authority directly. So my pastoral authority is what it was before I became cardinal. And that's central. In terms of excitement, I tend to react rather late, I watch and I wait, and I get excited somewhere, maybe two years too late, so I can't say that I'm all excited about the possibility of doing something different now that I'm cardinal. I hope I'll do my job here as archbishop well, and I hope I'll serve the Holy Father well as a member of the College. I really desire that with all my heart. 

But beyond that, I think you just have to keep listening to people and to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has plans for the Church. I don't feel that I have to have detailed plans. We have to rely upon the providence of God. A lot of things come into play, the Church looked very different in 1520 from how it looked in 1510. Who would have thought of all that would have happened that was so destructive of the unity of the Church. And it can go in reverse. 

The Holy Spirit can do marvelous things and the Pope talks about a springtime for the Gospel. I look forward to serving as bishop in the new millennium in its first years and I'll try to do my best to see that the Archdiocese of Chicago is faithful to the Apostolic Teaching that's witnessed to by the See of Rome, and its bishop. And I find a lot of joy in that. But in terms of, you know, what am I going to look to right now, I can't say I've got detailed plans.

So it is exciting just to wait upon the Holy Spirit.

Well, It's always exciting; the life we have is a marvelous gift. Who would we be if we weren't in Christ? Everything would be so different. I'm not sure excitement is what matters—(laughs)—why are we worried about excitement? The important thing, as Mother Teresa says, is to be faithful, and take a certain joy in that. Sometimes it's exciting and sometimes its not. But it's always joyful. 

Recently at the Synod of America, you said, "The difference between U.S. society which has a Calvinist and individualist mentality and Latin American society with its strong family ties," (you were speaking about Catholic people immigrating from South America to the United States) "these people are called upon to find new ways of being Catholic in order to preserve their faith in a culturally hostile context. They find themselves living in a society which protects—and very efficiently—human rights, but cannot provide a fully 'human' culture." [ITV January 1998, p. 10]

I don't think I said it quite that way, that last sentence, there's a slight change I think. Well, maybe not, but anyway...

Well, in any case, can you explain what you mean by U.S. society as a Calvinist and individualist mentality?

I think it's a matter of history. The people we look back to even before the Revolution, if we're talking in the English tradition, because there were a lot of other folks here, not only the natives, but Spaniards and the French, but our documents were shaped by people who came out of a Protestant culture, and who looked upon this country as kind of a church—you know, a new covenant, a new dispensation, a new way, a city on a hill, a new dispensation in the wilderness as they called it. So that sense of being chosen is very much predestined, if you like, it's heavy in Calvinist thinking, and even though it's secularized now, it spins off and Americans do tend to look at their country not just as their home, but as a kind of a church; with a mission that maybe God has given it, or history, or destiny if they're no longer theists. 

That gets in the way of those of us who have a sense of Church. At the same time it is our home and we love it, but people who come from other cultures where the dialogue hasn't been, even in the beginning, with Protestant faith, but rather with Catholic faith have a different set of sensibilities and they experience that here. We kind of look like half Protestants to them, because we are somewhat Protestantized by reason of our being immersed in this culture. But that's not necessarily all bad; it's just a fact. And we should recognize where the influences are coming from—sometimes from the culture, sometimes from the faith—and sometimes they clash—and be more understanding and welcoming of the immigrants who are truly our brothers and sisters in the Church. 

We're all Catholics and yet we live our faith differently—and understand there are many ways of being Catholic—but they have to find a way of being here. Somebody from Mexico cannot be Catholic here as he was in Mexico. It won't work. Their grandchildren will tell them that. So our challenge is to find the resources within our own American culture in order to be Catholic, because, finally, after a couple of generations, that's the only culture they have, except, of course for some cultural memories. 

How can we as Catholic Americans provide a more fully human culture?

Oh, well, we're involved in that discussion all the time, quite apart from the immigrants, it's a question of, I think, relativizing the absoluteness of choice. In other words, understanding that human freedom brings you into relationship rather than into autonomy. We get that from the Holy Trinity. We get that from being members of the Body of Christ. Catholics have to keep saying there are some relations that cannot be unchosen. Marriage, for example. The Church is one of them, ordination is another. And that idea that some things once chosen freely cannot be unchosen—that's something that isn't very much reinforced, and at that point the culture is less than human. It is less than adequate to the profundity of the human soul itself, that calls out, I think, for a kind of stability—in Christ, at least, we believe—that runs counter to this idea, "Well I can undo anything that's done, I can unchoose anything that I've chosen."

Do you think that leads to the deterioration we've seen, and the loss of respect for human life?

Well, sure it does. I mean, we choose autonomy rather than life, at certain points when there's an abortion. 

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Oh, I'm late for my next appointment! I have to be at Mundelein Seminary, with about 100 priests to build up this trust that we were talking about.

Well, you have our prayers for that.

I appreciate that.

It's very good speaking with you, we're very happy for you and wish you all God's best, and blessings.

Well keep me in your prayers, and I'd appreciate it if you'd ask your readers, if that's appropriate, to keep me in their prayers too.

I will.

© 1998, 2007 by John Mallon