R eflections on our life in the Archdiocese and plans for its ministries often arise from what I hear from my councils or from the questions people bring up. Recently, I planned to write about foreclosures on homes and the loss of jobs, because many individuals and families now find their lives terribly disrupted. The vision given us by faith and the solidarity of the faith community itself demand that we attend to these great difficulties together. I’ve also heard of the progress or lack of it toward nuclear disarmament from the Peace and Justice Office, and this moral issue becomes more important as the headlines tell us of nuclear proliferation among states and terrorist groups. Our archdiocesan Women’s Committee has discussed with new urgency the prevalence of domestic violence, especially against women and children. The media report about violence on the streets, but violent responses are learned in the home before they are acted out in the neighborhoods.
What strikes me is that these issues, like all issues in the church, can’t move forward without attention from our priests. Priests represent Christ to their people, and Pope Benedict XVI recently proclaimed a “Year of the Priesthood” in order to help all of us revisit what the faith tells us a priest is and to encourage ordained priests in their lives of service and dedication.
The letter from the Holy See announcing the Year of the Priesthood explained that it is to be a year “in which the church says to her priests above all, but also to all the faithful and to the wider society … that she is proud of her priests, loves them, honors them, admires them and that she recognizes with gratitude their pastoral work and the witness of their life.” The year is to be marked by intense prayer for the sanctification of priests and renewed study of the nature of the priestly office in the church. The message of Pope Benedict announcing the special year, along with prayers and information, can be found on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site www.usccb.org/yearforpriests .
Two weeks ago, a bishop from Cuba was a houseguest in my residence. Over several days, we spoke about the situation of the Catholic Church in Cuba after 50 years of Communist rule. He told me that less than 2 percent of Cubans practice their religion, partially because of the scarcity of churches but also because of the atheist propaganda and because one is penalized for practicing the faith by being excluded from professions like teaching or the practice of law. Nevertheless, about 55 percent of Cubans still baptize their children and many still visit the national shrine on special occasions, even though the church is without schools, youth groups, charitable organizations, regular means of communication and the institutions that are taken for granted as part of church life here.
Until the visit of Pope John Paul II several years ago, the government limited the number of priests in all of Cuba to 200. If a bishop wanted to ordain a priest, he had to wait until another priest died. There are now more seminarians; they come with little Catholic culture but with a desire given by Christ to serve the church. The bishop told me that he began two new parishes last year. What does it mean to start a parish in Cuba? After years of personal formation, each of two newly ordained priests was sent into a neighborhood and told to begin gathering people to listen to the Gospel and to celebrate Mass and the other sacraments when and where he could. The parishes would probably never have a church building or anything else we would regard as normal and necessary. They would have only what the church had at Pentecost: Faith in the risen Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the ministry of the apostles and those appointed by them to love and govern the people in Christ’s name.
I have asked the Presbyteral Council and the seminary staffs to suggest ways we should celebrate this year of the priesthood here. I’ve also asked the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council to consider what we might do, and I’d be glad to receive suggestions from anyone in the archdiocese.
Recent years have been hard on the priesthood, as it has undergone what Pope John Paul II called a “purification.” As those few priests who sexually abused minors have been removed from active ministry and sometimes from the priesthood itself, every priest has felt personally diminished, as have all Catholics. Some priests worry greatly about false accusations, of which there have been some. I have confidence in the process now in place, and I have been able to say for years that no priest who has been judged responsible for the sexual abuse of a minor is in ministry in the archdiocese. As important, victims have been helped spiritually, psychologically and financially, as possible. The costs of settlements have been met partially through insurance and partially through the sale of undeveloped property, as reported in the annual financial reports.
It is a process that continues and that we have to live through with the help of God’s grace. Perhaps, however, this year of the priest will be the occasion to discover again what priesthood really is and to support the overwhelming majority of faithful priests here and throughout the country.
On the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 19, please pray for the sanctification of our priests and for vocations to the ordained priesthood in the church. Thank you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago