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Despite another round of chemo, ‘I’m joyful,’ Cardinal George says

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Updated: January 13, 2013 11:18AM



The cardinal’s story. . .

It’s not easy being George.

But he’s not complaining.

Cardinal Francis George has never had a day without pain since he was stricken with polio when he was 13.

“I used to dream about running all the time after that,” says the head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, now battling cancer for a second time and into his last lap of chemotherapy — but recent tests have not shown evidence of cancer. “Although cancer cells could be floating around there somewhere,” he said.

“Three more weeks of chemo and then we’ll know,” the Chicago native said Tuesday afternoon over tea, no sympathy and a reminder to drink lots of water during a two-hour interview at the cardinal’s residence.

So what makes a man who thinks like a philosopher and talks like a theologian tick?

“I am joyful,” he said. “Living this way introduces you to an alternative universe. There is always more. Christ is always more. Life happens. You just adjust and move on.”

But just when you think the interview is wafting down the theological trail, come these reflections:

◆ “I miss an occasional beer and a glass of wine at dinner, but I’m not supposed to drink during chemo.”

◆ “The first time I saw the cardinal’s house was walking past it as a child to visit the famous gorilla ‘Bushman,’ at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Seeing Bushman was a highlight of my young life and the cardinal’s residence was just a big house on my way to the zoo,” he says.

◆ “My father, a devout Catholic, wasn’t happy about me becoming a priest. He was a good man, but he didn’t really like priests as people. He thought priests were lazy. We never had a priest in our home. He didn’t know how hard they worked. He reminded me I’d never be able to marry. But then he said, ‘If you’re going to become a priest, become a good one.’ ”

Pope John Paul II (who made George the first American cardinal to come from a religious order rather than being a diocesan priest) “was a good listener, who didn’t interrupt and let you talk. He had a great sense of humor — by first laughing making fun of himself and then making fun of you. He was much loved.”

So how has Cardinal George changed since battling cancer the second time?

“Well, I have to admit it was a shock. But you adjust. I sleep more now and talk to my sister more often and I just read a John Grisham novel called ‘The Racketeer’ and thoroughly enjoyed it,” said the cleric, who mainly reads history and philosophy books.

But the toughest battle was with polio. “I was angry at myself for being disabled and in the hospital for a long time. When I went to Quigley Seminary in the 1950s, I was told I couldn’t be a priest because I was disabled. Times have changed.”

Though criticism from some priests and nuns calling him too doctrinaire has declined, Cardinal George claims he can imagine a life in retirement.

“I submitted my [required] retirement letter to Pope Benedict XVI when I turned 75 earlier this year and am hoping to carry on for as long as I can. The scans will tell all and then we’ll see.”

“But if retirement comes, I can see myself working with the poor, working with Catholic Charities, and spending a lot of time hearing confessions. There is no peace without forgiveness.“

Would Cardinal George have become a Catholic if he had not been born one?

“Who can answer that question? Who knows? But I’d like to think so.”

Amen.

Sneedlings . . .

Get well soon to the toughest of the tough, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose stomach illness forced her to cancel her trip to Morocco this week . . . Wednesday’s birthdays: Bob Barker, 89; Mayim Bialik, 37, and Jennifer Connelly, 42.



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