Three lessons for the U.S. bishops from the late Cardinal George – Catholic World Report

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“Those who cannot think beyond narrow political categories always misunderstand the Church, which is why her history is consistently marked by persecution.”

Three lessons for the U.S. bishops from the late Cardinal George – Catholic World Report
Francis Cardinal George OMI, Archbishop of Chicago from 1997 to 2014, died in 2015 after several bouts with cancer. (Image: CNA)

As the U.S. bishops wrapped up their annual Fall plenary assembly in Baltimore last week, they elected a new president. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services will continue the work of Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, which involves continuing to build up unity in the Church in the face of ever-present divisions. As the author of an upcoming biography of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I. — former president of the conference (2007-2010) and late archbishop of Chicago — I’ve considered what he might say to the bishops today, amid the issues they face in our times.

Regarded as one of the most intellectual, unifying and personally upright bishops in American history, Cardinal George’s wisdom continues to prove as valuable as it was in his time. While the list of things he might have to say likely is too numerous to fully identify, here are three things that can undoubtedly offer the bishops food for thought and fodder for prayer as they face the next few years ahead.

1. “A crisis of authority in the Church cannot be resolved if bishops don’t act like bishops.”

There is no question that the faithful are looking for direction, leadership, and vision. Rocked by the continuous realities of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, emerging financial scandals and — in some parts of the country — imminent structural decline, eyes are fixed on the bishops to find answers and provide strong leadership. Bishops are not only to set a model for us to follow, but they are to provide clarity for what it means to put the gospel into practice in our lives.

By avoiding ideologies, politics and partisanship — and by avoiding division by working to build up communion in the Church and society — bishops are the visible point of reference to Christ himself. When tethered to Christ in all they say, think, and do, bishops, in turn, foster the same among their flocks. As Cardinal George put it: “The bishop as pastor is a sign of hope for the world … if his own life is transparently conformed to Christ, if his ministry unites minds and heals hearts, and if his particular Church points clearly to Christ as the source of eternal life.”

By nature of their office, through prayer, penance and an ever-apparent commitment to holiness, bishops are to ensure that their undertakings are focused at the service of the laity and the building up of the Church. This is what will make all the difference in uncertain times. Even if institutions close, vocations decline, and finances stumble, bishops will see to the continual growth and building up of the Church through proclaiming the truth, guiding us in charity, and giving us all we need to become saints.

Teaching, sanctifying and governing must always guide their hearts above all else.

2. “The Church loses her freedom to govern herself when bishops are unwilling or unable to govern or when the Church is captured by political powers or by pressure groups on either the left or the right.”

After the recent midterms, and now approaching the 2024 elections — all the while still having a pro-abortion Catholic president — the Church must be further prepared to lose its relevance and standing in American society. Bishops must be vigilant about steering conversations about politics away from the typical categories, be attentive to the temptation to use easy labels, and encourage listening, nuance and conversation for the sake of truth and for the good of the Church.

When we get caught up in any semblance of compromise in our integrity and authenticity, giving preference to political ideologies over our allegiance to the Gospel, we weaken the Church’s ability to be a force for good and truth. Mistakenly engaging first and foremost in the worldly will keep our sights ultimately limited. A Church unable to transcend the ephemeral will lose its relevance and authority when speaking about the eternal.

This gets to the very heart of the Church. As Cardinal George put it: “Those who cannot think beyond narrow political categories always misunderstand the Church, which is why her history is consistently marked by persecution. Those who oppose the Church’s mission for whatever reason try to divide bishops among themselves or portray them as enemies of the people, so that the Church is paralyzed.”

3. “Our lives are transformed through frequent contact with the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. It is impossible to spend extended periods of time with Christ, adoring him, thanking him, and uniting our wills to his, and not have him change our lives.”

The endeavor of promoting Eucharistic amazement throughout the United States, via the National Eucharistic Revival and the 2024 National Eucharistic Congress, is both lofty and laudable. Among the aims of the Revival has been an emphasis on making our Masses more in accord with liturgical norms, celebrated with beauty and reverence, as a means of truly nurturing and enhancing our faith lives. Pastors would be wise then to increase the opportunities for the faithful to attend Mass more regularly.

But our Eucharistic revival cannot be limited to this. As the practice of Eucharistic adoration has increased over the centuries, finding itself ever more relevant and fruitful in the life of the Church, the Eucharist must be at the center of everything we do. Therefore, we must cultivate increased personal availability to Christ in the Eucharist so that we may be formed into him for the life of the world.

This call to Eucharistic living means we offer ourselves to him so fully that Christ himself lives in us. Our call is nothing other than to live Eucharistically. But, as even Cardinal George’s life of suffering would attest — he was shunned from priesthood on account of disability from polio at 13, which inaugurated a life of pain and suffering that culminated in the repeated bouts of cancer that eventually claimed his life — the commonality of suffering in human life is also made sense of in the Eucharist. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Eucharistic revival that can shape the good of society is the ability to make sense of suffering and find the means to offer up our lives for God and others.

As Cardinal George wrote elsewhere, “The freedom Christ gives us with himself in the Eucharist is more than freedom to do; it is also freedom to give ourselves totally, even to the point of self-sacrifice, as Christ gave himself to death on the cross. The world understands generosity and even rewards it. The world has a more difficult time understanding self-sacrifice. The crisis in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, and ordained priesthood is a crisis of Christian freedom, the freedom to give oneself totally to God, to a spouse, to the Church.”

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