Cancer may force Cardinal George, Leader of the Nations Third-Largest Archdiocese, to Retire

Cardinal Francis George stepped out into public view for the first time since cancerous cells were discovered in his kidney and liver. On Friday the Cardinal said he felt a little weak, but has a good appetite. He also acknowledged that while he is fearful of the challenges that lay a he’s welcomes them as he awaits word from doctors about official test results and potential treatment options.

“We all live with the Lord as much as possible,” he said. “So if this is a call to be with him for eternity, then that’s a welcome call in that sense. But it’s also a fearful call because there’s so much that’s unknown.”

George, 75, spoke to journalists for about 10 minutes at the annual Hispanic Ministry Awards Banquet in Oakbrook Terrace, one week after doctors told him of the cancerous cells on a kidney and his liver.

In 2006, surgeons removed the cardinal’s bladder, prostate and part of his right ureter after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

After the recent diagnosis, George stayed out of the public eye and canceled at least three weekend appearances. He underwent medical tests early in the week, which interrupted an annual weeklong retreat in Mundelein, he said.

The leader of the nation’s third-largest archdiocese said his medical team, which included physicians from the Mayo Clinic, had “done all the tests that they’ve wanted to do.”

He said Friday he had been going in for checkups every three months right after the surgery — then every six months in the recent past.

“The assumption was after six years having had my bladder totally removed with no evidence of cancer that it was not just in remission, but that it was cured,” George said. “I felt I licked something and I didn’t. So that isn’t a good feeling.”

Last week, doctors told him that preliminary test results showed there to be cancerous cells in his kidney and in a nodule that was removed from the liver. George underwent additional tests earlier this week.

The cardinal said he’ll talk again with his doctors — including some at the Mayo Clinic — early next week. Should he be told he will have to undergo chemotherapy, he said he’s not looking forward to it, but that he’ll continue with his public schedule as much as possible.

Until he gets a better diagnosis from doctors, George said it’s too early to say whether his condition would preclude him from remaining at the helm of the archdiocese — a position he’s held for 15 years.

Other than feeling “a little weakened” after a recent biopsy, George says he feels “good.”

In January, George sent Pope Benedict XVI a resignation letter — standard procedure for bishops once they turn 75 — though it was expected the pope would allow him to remain in the leadership post in the short term.

“Even without cancer, I envisioned a scenario where I would be able to retire as archbishop of Chicago. This might change the timeline a little bit,” George said Friday. “I’m very lucky to be the first one to live with this position long enough to retire and I’m hoping to be able to do that.”

George became head of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholic community in May 1997, six months after predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died of pancreatic cancer. Nine months later, George became a cardinal. He was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2007.

In January, when George turned 75, he submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI, as is required of all Catholic bishops. Popes generally do not accept the resignations immediately, and George has said he would be surprised if Benedict agreed to it.

“Even without cancer, I’d envisioned a scenario where I would be able to retire as archbishop of Chicago,” he said.

“This might change the timeline a little bit … but I think that I’m very lucky to be the first one to live with this position long enough to retire, and I was kind of looking forward to being able to do that.”

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