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From JFK to Pope Francis: Cardinal George reflects on 50 years as a priest

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Updated: January 20, 2014 8:14AM

Looking back as he celebrates 50 years in the priesthood this week, Cardinal Francis George said the first year brought an unexpected challenge — one that influenced his life.

“I was ordained just after Kennedy was assassinated, and I didn’t realize the impact of that on the collective psyche of the American people because I was living in Canada,” he said. “I came back a month later to be ordained here, and suddenly I realize that I’m beginning my priestly life among a people who are collectively mourning and [dealing with] an event that leaves permanent wounds.

“We were trained to deal with individuals and their difficulties, but to realize that the whole people can suffer in that way was a very sobering way to begin my priesthood.”

That has affected the way he looks at things.

“I’m aware of certain trends and certain events that affect the whole peoples’ psyche,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been the case had I not been ordained in that moment.”

Catholic leaders from around the country, as well as leaders from other faiths, gathered at Holy Name Cathedral on Wednesday afternoon for an invitation-only Golden Jubilee Mass for George. A public celebratory Mass will take place there Sunday.

In a Chicago Sun-Times interview in which the archdiocese wanted questions primarily limited to a discussion of the anniversary celebration, George also shared his thoughts on Pope Francis’ statements about the growing gap between the rich and poor and gave his take on what’s key to growing the Catholic Church.

In the interview, George said among lessons he has learned is that faith has many faces.

“I spent 12 years going from poor country to poor country and even rich countries where there are poor people, listening to them and discovering that the constant in their life was faith . . . the Catholic faith,” he said. “This universal faith can be expressed in myriad ways. That gives you a sense of relativism vis-a-vis your own country, that we have ways of doing things that might be good, but they’re not universal. There are other ways that might be better. Listen to them, take counsel from everybody. That was a big lesson.”

Among the most challenging times he has faced was during the priest sexual-abuse scandal. It tested his faith, he said.

“When I was ordained, I never thought any priest could do something like that,” said George, 76. “To suddenly realize, yes there are priests who can do things that evil was a shattering moment as it is for many Catholics. . . . How is it that God didn’t protect the children? The question of evil is an eternal question . . . but God is someone who can bring good out of evil. Even with something as evil as this, there is healing.”

Regarding Pope Francis’ comments deploring economic disparities and materialism, the views didn’t surprise George.

“He’s a South American; they have a very different sense of the present economic order than [Americans] have because we profit from it, and they don’t very often,” he said. “So he speaks out of that.

“But what he’s saying is the social teaching of the church. You have a right to private property. We’re not socialists. But private property has a social mortgage, and so that has to be controlled, as [it] is in this country, with good legislation, the courts, the culture, etc., and yet we’ve seen inequality grow in very troubling ways in our own country now.”

But he added that the church isn’t here “to tell us how to do economics or how to redistribute wealth. It is here to say if the gap is growing between the rich and the poor, the common good is hurting.”

As to what’s key to growing the church, George shares Francis’ view.

“You don’t start with rules,” he said. “You start with a relationship. You start with Christ. Use everything that you can to help people encounter Jesus Christ. That’s what the pope is saying all the time. Let’s start there. Be sure that you’re there.”

He acknowledged that the jubilee celebrations make him a bit uncomfortable.

“I didn’t come from a family where we had huge celebrations,” he said. “I’m a little uneasy with celebrations where I’m the center of attraction. But I’m very glad of this one because it brings to the fore the priesthood and the role of priests in the church and in the world.”

Congratulations at the jubilee came from Pope Francis, delivered by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who traveled here from Rome. Acknowledging the illnesses that George has battled, Francis said in his message, “Indeed, you did not consider any physical weakness as an obstacle to following in the footsteps of the High Priest . . . You have provided a valuable witness of the great joy that each of us can find in tribulation.”

“Intelligent and articulate, courageous and curious, humble, zealous,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of George. “Like Pope Francis, we see in you a generous heart and zealous missionary spirit . . . a humble man of vision.”

George can’t imagine himself having taking a path other than the priesthood.

“I became a priest because at a certain moment I realized through God’s grace that it fits,” he told the gathering. “It still does.”

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