Extension magazine recently sat down with Francis Cardinal George OMI, who is Archbishop of Chicago and, for the past 16 years has been Chancellor of Catholic Extension. Cardinal George has a keen understanding of how Catholic Extension can best support the mission dioceses. In fact, for nearly six years, he was Bishop of Yakima, Washington, a diocese served by Catholic Extension. He also served as Archbishop of Portland in Oregon before assuming his role as the eighth Archbishop of Chicago.


What did you bring back from Rome in terms of hopes or dreams for our Church here at home?

Cardinal George: Well, we were there to elect a pastor of the Universal Church, and so he speaks to all Catholics. He does for us (here in the U.S.) what he does for everyone– he presides over all the churches, in love, as the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ. He has the papal magisterium, which we look to for some security, for a rock and anchor. Then, he also is to be a witness to Christ’s love for the world that Christ died for. So, those are universal things. Specifically for this country, he’ll do the same thing. Because he has the poor foremost in his mind, I think he always will remind us of our obligations toward poor people, both spiritually and materially. Everybody’s poor in some fashion, and he recognizes that. Pope Francis is a very straightforward man, not dramatic, and he listens carefully, but what you hear is what he means, and what you see is what you get. So, I think we have a man we can trust and who will help us to know God’s will for the future.


Please Comment on the relationship between faith and charity.

Cardinal George: Faith without love is dead. It’s just a set of ideas. But, love without faith is undirected. It’s just a feeling or maybe it’s generosity, but it has no focus. So, you need faith and charity together–that’s what the Church has always been about. It’s about a living faith as opposed to a dead faith, because even Satan has faith, and he knows the truth, but he has no love. And there are people who have a generosity and a love, which is admirable, but it might be directed toward the wrong thing. So, you need faith and love to go together, and that’s what we do in preaching to the world about who Christ is. he tells us who he is, which is a matter of faith, and then he shows us who he is by going to his death on the cross out of love for us.


Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of serving the poor and building faith. This focus also is the foundation of the mission of Catholic Extension. As Chancellor of Catholic Extension, what is your perspective on the link between Pope Francis’ call to serve the poor and the work of Catholic Extension?

Cardinal George: Historically, the Extension Society helped Catholics who weren't able to build their own churches, so they were poor as parishes, and the connection is immediate there. In the dioceses where Extension serves, the Catholic Church isn't able to build itself up with all the ministries necessary, take care of

its seminarians, take care of its youth ministry and its catechetical programs. So, there's a certain poverty of means that is the inspiration for Catholics in other places in this country to help out the Catholics in these poorer areas, or at least areas where there aren't so many Catholics.


What is the significance of Catholic Extension being a papal society?

Cardinal George: Societies in the Church are either diocesan or papal, and this is a society that’s bigger than any one diocese and so it’s under the holy See, at least indirectly. Its charter comes from the holy See, and that’s appropriate because Catholic Extension’s mission is the same as the mission of the whole Church, although localized in certain dioceses in our country. So, it does tell us that the pope is concerned about that mission everywhere and, therefore, sponsors this in a way that is appropriate for somebody who is the universal pastor.

Why is it important for Catholic Extension to build faith in these poor areas?

Cardinal George: Well, faith is a gift, first of all. We can build up communities of faith. If people don’t have faith, what do they have? Where do they turn for an understanding of who God is and who they are? And it’s a very different vision of life without faith. The fundamental reason why we call people to faith is because that’s what Christ told us to do. Christ wants everybody in the world, whom he died to save, to know him within his body, the Church. And we’re a long way from that, but that’s the goal. Catholic Extension has been a very generous means to help the Church achieve that goal for the last hundred years.


Is there a specific message you'd like to share with our readers about this historical time in the Church?

Cardinal George: Well, the election of the new pope is a joyful occasion. This time, as last time, what was clear is that we are the only truly global organization, and we’re a universal Church. Everybody was interested, young people especially. So, the idea that somehow the Church isn’t what people are interested in was belied by the way everybody followed the conclave. you know, we were a global organization 2,000 years ago, so we’re at home in this kind of world, provided it’s not secularized, provided it’s not organized in such a way that we can’t speak about God in public. And that’s something we’re very concerned about, and so is the pope. So, the importance of the conclave, I think, made evident the importance of the Church in her mission. But, it’s a new moment because we have a new pope, and he’s someone who has indicated a program in choosing the name Francis after Francis of Assisi. Jesus told Francis to rebuild the Church. Francis thought he meant physically, but Jesus meant all the living stones, and we are to do that by embracing the poor. Francis did it by taking lepers in hand whom he’d had a very difficult time getting close to, so repugnant was their condition. But, he embraced them and, therefore, entered into a new life free of the constraints that his own class and his own character had imposed upon him. So, if you’re going to be free, you have to do it by marching with the poor, staying with them, and this pope says that very clearly. And then, of course, there’s always what St. Francis did: namely, to tell the world who Christ is, to confess Christ as the one crucified for our salvation.

The pope was very clear on that. If you go back to his homilies, he talks about Christ, but always crucified and, therefore, a Christ who offers us mercy at every possible occasion. That mercy, that generosity has its echo in our hearts when we help others, and especially when we help them to live in the Church, which is what Extension does.


Is there a specific message you'd like to share with our readers about this historical time in the Church?

Cardinal George: If faith is a gift, that isn't material. If you get money or material and you give it away, you don't have it. But faith is a spiritual gift. If you don't give it away, you won't have it. And so the idea of sharing our faith with those who don't have it is at the heart of Catholicism. But in order to do that, the Church has to be established everywhere, and that's what Extension is about, establishing the Church in all her dimensions. That includes training seminarians, helping sisters who are doing catechetical and other works, helping sometimes build a church, doing research for Hispanic ministry and for those people who might be overlooked in many places. So, it’s all part of the mission of the Church, and Extension is starting from the concern that the Church should be visibly present by even building a building over a hundred years ago, and now is expanding its mission. But for a Catholic, the mission speaks for itself. I’m very grateful, and I don’t think the readers of Extension magazine or the donors to the Society would be interested at all if they didn’t themselves have the gift of faith.


Are there any lasting impressions you brought back from Rome that you'd like to share with this devoted group of followers?

Cardinal George: One thing that was clearly felt was the presence of Catholics around the world through their prayers. I know many readers of the magazine and many others associated with Extension prayed for us, and we felt that very, very deeply. Some people wrote us and said, ‘We’re writing to you, and I don’t know you, but you’re going to be electing our pope, and know that you’re in our prayers.’ So, you get the conviction again that the Church is a network of prayer, which is what she is, official prayer in the liturgy that worships God in spirit and in truth, and then personal prayer, as well. The impression of being united with the whole world in prayer was very strong and, therefore, we had a confidence that the Holy Spirit would guide us.

The second impression as you go through that intense period the week before the conclave is the way in which to vote. you have to really try to be free, free of your own background, free of your own language group, free of where you come from, so that you can think of a universal pastor who will be free himself to exercise this ministry without a lot of baggage, without a lot of encumbrances, who will be able to strengthen the papacy and not weaken it. And so, all that time, you’re trying to work toward a greater freedom, to vote well, and at the end, there’s a sense of liberation because you feel, by golly, we did it, and with the help of God’s grace and the prayers of many people. So it’s an intense experience, but it’s an experience of freedom, and then an experience of great joy and peace.