Appearing to strike a balance between participating in Holy Week and following doctors' orders, Cardinal Francis George was at Palm Sunday Mass but avoided close contact with parishioners.
"I will not be able to greet everybody as I like to do … because I'm not supposed to be shaking hands," he said at the conclusion of the 11 a.m. standing room-only Mass at Holy Name Cathedral.
Last week George, 77, announced he would participate in Holy Week activities, but accepted doctors' advice not to travel to Rome for the April 27 canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.
George announced last month that doctors had found new cancer cells in his right kidney. He had been in remission after a diagnosis of urothelial cancer in August 2012. The cardinal was hospitalized for an infection shortly after receiving his first dose of chemotherapy, a setback he did not want to risk again by traveling overseas. George has also told the pope's U.S. delegate, called the apostolic nuncio, that the search for his replacement should begin.
Before the start of Sunday's Mass, George presided over a blessing of palms on a table just outside the doors of the cathedral. A crowd of about 40 people and the media formed to watch as George read scripture and sprinkled holy water. As he concluded the blessing, he waved to the crowd, smiled and turned to join a procession into the church, which started the Mass.
Once inside, George walked slowly, clutching the arm of another priest, and remained seated as he delivered the homily. He did, however, preside over the Communion blessing by standing at the altar.
Twenty-seven-year parishioner Visnja Gardner, 53, of Chicago, attended Sunday and said she was at first surprised the cardinal didn't walk to the pulpit. "Then I realized that makes sense. He needs to be saving his strength."
"It just shows he's committed to his calling without being reckless," Gardner said of George's participation Sunday, adding she is praying for him.
Joe Sotolar, 54, of St. Louis, "made a special point" to attend Mass at Holy Name after reading on the church's website that George would be there during Sotolar's weekend visit to Chicago. After seeing George's weakened state, Sotolar said, "It struck me as being more serious than I perhaps realized."
George's presence, despite his illness, says a lot about his character, Sotolar said. "He wants to be with his people."
"I admire him for having the courage (to continue his duties), like Pope John Paul II," he added, referring to the late Catholic leader's battle with Parkinson's disease. "I get inspiration (from Pope John Paul II). I think the Cardinal is going to be that for Catholics in Chicago."