After greeting hundreds of parishioners at Queen of All Saints Basilica with handshakes, blessings and a smile, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George told the Tribune he expects to complete chemotherapy by early January.
But further tests will have to be done before he knows whether the treatment was a success, he said.
George, 75, who battled bladder cancer six years ago, has been undergoing chemotherapy since September, shortly after doctors discovered cancerous cells on his liver and a kidney.
“So far, I'm responding well,” said George during an interview with the Tribune after celebrating the Sauganash-neighborhood basilica's 50th anniversary mass.
Wearing traditional purple vestments to mark the First Sunday of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, George delivered a homily in which he connected his health concerns with the liturgical season when Christians spiritually prepare for the celebration of Jesus' birth, and for what they believe will be his second coming in the future.
“Hope is a funny virtue in a way,” George said. “It keeps us brave in the midst of difficulties; it keeps us courageous in the midst of our own fears.”
When asked how he remains hopeful during his time of illness and a second bout with cancer, George said he has leaned on his faith more than ever.
“We live in hope whether we're sick or whether we're well,” George said in the interview. “There is a clarification of what we are to expect … You have a heightened sense of what's really important.”
Seeming to feel well, George asked for little help from aides, other than Father Daniel Flens, George's personal secretary, offering him a glass of water near the end of the mass. He delivered a 12-minute homily, filled with personal reflections and a joke about the 12:30 p.m. mass' competition with the Bears game against the Seattle Seahawks.
“At least I know who doesn't have season tickets to the Bears' games,” George joked. Even so, every pew in the large basilica was filled.
George led communion and spent considerable time with the Catholic congregation afterward, heading back inside the church for refreshments after his greetings outside the church's entrance.
Dozens of people whispered about how good George looked. “He's got great color,” one woman whispered to another.
“Let's have lunch sometime after Christmas,” George said to a man who greeted him familiarly.
Although some days George said he becomes exceptionally tired, he has other days when he feels “really good.”
George said he has been inspired by others during his time of illness.
“The interesting thing about being in a difficult situation physically now, in a time of chemotherapy treatment … is people write and say `Here's what happened to me when I was in chemo,' ” George said. “And I'm very grateful to receive that witness.”
After George was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, doctors removed his bladder, prostate and a portion of his right ureter.
In January, he became the first Chicago archbishop to submit the letter of resignation required of all Catholic bishops when they turn 75. In his 15th year as the leader of the nation's third-largest archdiocese, he had not expected Pope Benedict XVI to grant that retirement for another three years. However, he has since said that the cancer diagnosis might alter that timeline.
During Sunday mass, the congregation prayed for George's health, along with others who are sick, ending with a unified, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
George confirmed that he has, for the most part, been able to maintain his regular work schedule and meet most of his daily obligations during the four-month course of treatment. Flens said he is planning more public appearances for the month of December.
“He's doing well,” Flens said, standing behind George as he greeted people outdoors on the exceptionally warm December day.
“I'm grateful also,” George said, “for the way in which I've been able, through many prayers, to sustain my own.”