Battling cancer and celebrating what could be his last Easter Sunday Mass as Chicago’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Francis George said he was in good spirits and that the holiday teaches “nothing is ever without hope.”
“There’s a lot of joy in the air,” George told reporters outside Holy Name Cathedral after presiding over the 11 a.m. Mass.
The archdiocese announced last month that doctors had found active cancer cells in George's right kidney. He had been in remission after a diagnosis of urothelial cancer in August 2012.
George, 77, said recently he has suggested to the apostolic nuncio — a papal adviser similar to the ambassador of a country — that the six- to nine-month process for naming his successor get underway. If that remains the timeline, Chicago could have a new archbishop by next Easter.
More than an hour before the start of the Mass at Holy Name, two lines of people — many dressed in their Sunday best — began to form. The lines grew to eventually wrap around both sides of the cathedral, which is the seat of Chicago's Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Many in line said it was George and their concern for his health that drew them there.
Joseph Kelly and Elisa Martinez of Chicago usually attend Mass at Ascension Catholic Church in Oak Park. But they made a special trip to the cathedral this Easter, knowing George likely would not be the archbishop next year.
“He's very ill. We wanted to be here for his last Easter Mass and celebrate with him,” Kelly said. “He's done so much for the city. We wanted to pay our appreciation.”
“It's a very courageous thing for him to do,” Kelly added, regarding George's request for a successor. “He's a very humble man.”
The Shipbaugh family of Darien also waited in line Sunday. Mark Shipbaugh said he started an Easter tradition five years ago, traveling to Holy Name for Mass “to be in the presence of the cardinal.”
Shipbaugh said the fact that his family was in the pews for what might be George’s last Easter service as archbishop is “pretty amazing.”
“He’s obviously in our prayers,” he said. “Hopefully, he can persevere through it.”
Inside the cathedral, a frail George held the arm of another priest as he walked down the center aisle and up the stairs to the altar. Although he did not walk to the pulpit to deliver the homily to the standing-room-only church, George stood up from his seat to speak from behind the altar.
In his address, George talked about things that people often don’t understand, like the resurrection of Christ, and included a reference to “complicated medical diagnoses,” which he later told reporters did not solely refer to his own health struggles.
In his final blessing, the cardinal thanked the congregation for their “patience,” noting how he sat during Communion instead of offering it to parishioners. He also thanked them for their prayers.
“I feel good off and on these days, ... but I’m OK,” George said after Mass, noting he would be visiting the doctor Monday as he continues chemotherapy.
George said Easter services are always moving but knowing that a new archbishop will be in place next year didn’t necessarily make it more so.
“There’s always the emotion of knowing that Christ invites us into his freedom, that we too can have the promise of resurrection and therefore nothing is ever without hope, no matter what the situation is,” he said. “So it is a moving experience to be reminded of that in a special way on Easter Sunday.”
The cardinal was more active Sunday than after recent services, standing outside the church after Sunday’s Mass to greet worshippers.
Many kissed his hand, told them they were praying for him and received their own blessings. Recently, he’s refrained from close contact with parishioners because of a weakened immune system.
Onlookers took photos and videos of George, who waved and posed for shots.
George said he’s “very moved by the number of people who have written,” and who are praying for him.
“It might be the last Easter in which I’m the archbishop of Chicago,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be the last Easter in which I’m on the face of the Earth. It’s in (God’s) hands.”
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