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Cardinal George calls Pope Francis ‘self-effacing’ but ‘with a certain authority’

Hundreds people gather steps Holy Name Cathedral greet Cardinal Francis George following Palm Sunday Mass Holy Name Cathedral March 24

Hundreds of people gather on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral to greet Cardinal Francis George following Palm Sunday Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, March 24, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: April 26, 2013 6:35AM

Cardinal Francis George offered insight into the personality and background of the new pope — and his selection — after saying his first mass at Holy Name Cathedral since returning from the conclave in Rome that elected Pope Francis.

Pope Francis is “unassuming, you know, and self-effacing, almost, in some ways. But you know he’s there,” he told reporters after Palm Sunday services. “So there’s a certain authority that comes from, I think, from personal integrity.”

Asked about criticism of whether the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina did enough to protect targets of that country’s “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983, the cardinal said he was not a public figure at that time. “He was a religious provincial superior, you know. I’m not sure that you know the name of the provincial of the Jesuits in Chicago, OK? So he was not a bishop, and so, the obligations towards public life are a little different, once you’re a bishop, as opposed to being just the leader of your own group.”

George said a book that the new pope co-wrote with a rabbi about that “terrible time” helped him understand his back story. It will be published in English, the cardinal said.

The name the new pope took for himself was a “big surprise,” and is a strong signal of his “program,”the cardinal said.

“No other pope has taken it. You know, they always take Pius, or Benedict, or John, or Gregory,” George said. “He said immediately it was because of St. Francis of Assisi, so that tells you something. He wants to be for us what St. Francis was for the church of his day. That’s a wonderful pope.”

“It wasn’t so much surprise, at the end, that he was elected, because [he was] obviously the best one that we could choose,” he said.

A worshipper from Buenos Aires praised the pope. Roxana Koorn, who was visiting Chicago, said he is well-known in Argentina for humility. “He would take a cup of coffee on the corner. He would take the bus, the subway. Very conventional, traditional, but at the same time, open.” As for the Dirty War era, “Our idea is he tried to defend those two priests. . . . He appealed to the authorities to bring them back.”

And asked if the new pope should be viewed as a placeholder, given that he’s 76, George said: “We wanted somebody with enough vigor to [do the job], given the reason that Pope Benedict gave for resigning. But there are vigorous people who are 76 years old. I think I’m fairly vigorous, despite my arthritis and a few cancer battles.”

He laughed as he described how advancing age can make the rest of the world seem increasingly young. When he went to Rome, George said he assumed he would be older than the new pope.

“He’s a month older than I am,” he said, “so I feel kind of good about that.”

At Northwest Side church, a gestational complication changed the traditional Palm Sunday procession. At Edgebrook Lutheran Church, 5252 W. Devon, a child representing Jesus usually rides on a donkey in the procession, but on Sunday, the donkey, Tina — a visitor from Santa’s Village — went riderless because she was nine months pregnant.

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