Big shoes to fill in Chicago

At the end of August, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that Cardinal Francis George would be participating in a research clinical trial of a new drug at the University of Chicago as part of his long battle with cancer. The news sparked both renewed speculation about how long Cardinal George would serve as shepherd of the third largest archdiocese in the country and who Pope Francis might name as his successor.

The appointment of the next archbishop is fraught with significance. It is the first major selection by Pope Francis for one of the highest positions in the U.S. hierarchy. And then there is the reality that the new shepherd in Chicago will follow one of the great intellects in the history of American Catholicism.

Archbishop of Chicago since 1997 and a cardinal since 1998, Cardinal George turned 75 in January 2012 and thus submitted the customary letter of resignation to the pope. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006 and is now dealing with it for a third time. The seriousness of the situation was clear in April when he advised the papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, that the Holy See should start searching for his successor.

Chicago’s history

The Archdiocese of Chicago still claims more than 2 million Catholics — more than one-third of the total population of the Chicago metropolitan area. The see is one of the most prominent in the country, and while it confronts a host of crises, its ministries and hospitals serve millions of Catholics and non-Catholics every year, and its next archbishop will assuredly become an influential cardinal in due course.

There have been 12 bishops or archbishops of Chicago, starting with the Irishman William Quarter in 1844 after its founding the year before. The see became an archdiocese in 1880, and the first cardinal was George Mundelein in 1924. Since then, every archbishop has been named a cardinal, a tradition that will likely remain, even in the rather unpredictable pontificate of Pope Francis.

Historically, the diocese has been a tough one to govern. One early bishop resigned because of the weather, and his successor, Bishop Anthony O’Regan, stepped down in 1858 after barely four years in the face of unruly priests and his irascible French-speaking flock who disliked his stern Irish demeanor.

Turbulent times

Cardinal George’s time as archbishop has witnessed its own host of trials, including chronic financial troubles, clergy sexual abuse cases, school and parish closings, and wider cultural trends toward secularism. He has dealt with all of them with considerable energy and leaves to the prelate who follows him several works in progress and a see that could be in much worse shape.

The Church in Chicago was hit hard by the great recession. The archdiocese has spent years contending with annual deficits of more than $30 million. These were deemed by Cardinal George to be “unsustainable,” and he was determined to do more than preside over the slow, irremediable decline of Catholic life in the Windy City. The numbers, nevertheless, are striking. Since 1997, the Catholic population has fallen by more than 150,000, and the number of priests has decreased by more than 300. There are 22 fewer parishes.

In 2013, the archdiocese announced significant budget cuts, including closing five schools, eliminating 75 positions at the archdiocesan chancery and imposing a moratorium on loans to its 356 parishes from the archdiocesan bank for three years. It was expected that the budget would be balanced in several years, but the tasks ahead remain significant.

The archdiocese also confronted numerous cases of clergy sexual abuse. Cardinal George acknowledged the toll the cases have taken on the faithful. In a letter issued in January that accompanied the release of documents detailing sexual abuse by 30 Chicago priests, Cardinal George wrote, “I apologize to all those who have been harmed by these crimes and this scandal ... (and) shamed by the actions of some priests and bishops.”

Focus on unity, education

Meanwhile, the archdiocese has undergone a transformation in its ethnic makeup. Mass is celebrated across the archdiocese in 24 languages, ranging from Mandarin and Cantonese to Indonesian and Ge’ez, as well as Spanish and Polish. The archdiocese ranks with Los Angeles, Galveston-Houston, New York, Miami and Washington, D.C., in setting the pace for impressive Catholic diversity in the new century, but George has stressed the need for unity in the midst of that opportunity. He wrote in 2006, “If the Catholic Church is to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ, as a Church we must walk together in unity.”

Cardinal George has been particularly keen as well on Catholic education and maintaining and fostering Catholic identity. As with other dioceses, Chicago has struggled. There are nearly 70 fewer high schools and elementary schools since 1997, prompting the archdiocese to launch a multi-year strategic plan to arrest the untenable financial trajectory of declining enrollments and increased expenses. The archdiocese also is in the midst of a five-year strategic pastoral plan to improve Catholic formation and promote the New Evangelization in a secularizing environment.

Lasting legacy

Cardinal George has long been one of American Catholicism’s most formidable intellects and keen observers of ecclesiastical life and the wider culture. He has spoken eloquently on a host of pressing issues in the country, especially in his role as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference from 2007-10, during which he focused on Catholic identity and resisting any movement that would imperil religious freedom.

The choice, then, of the prelate to follow Cardinal George requires not only someone with extensive administrative and pastoral experience, but an ability to live initially in the shadow of a truly memorable figure. This will also be the most significant U.S. appointment of Pope Francis’ pontificate thus far and will reveal much about his vision for the Church in America in the coming years. The choice will likely fall to a seasoned archbishop already serving in a large archdiocese, but Francis may surprise everyone. Look, for example, to the possibility of a younger bishop in a mid-sized diocese who fulfills Francis’ vision of pastoral care united with imaginative, dynamic and joy-filled leadership. The same qualities demonstrated by Cardinal Francis George for the last two decades.

Possible successors

Archbishop Timothy Broglio
Military Archdiocese


Age: 62
Years at current position: Six
About Archbishop Broglio: A former papal diplomat, he has served in the nunciatures of the Ivory Coast, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He has also served as chief of cabinet for Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State to Pope St. John Paul II, who ordained him as an archbishop in 2001. Archbishop Broglio served on the board of directors for Catholic Relief Services and currently as chairman of the USCCB Committee for Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, and he is a member of the subcommittees for the Defense of Marriage and Health Care.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond
Archdiocese of New Orleans


Age: 64
Years at current position: Five
About Archbishop Aymond: Has been in the Crescent City since 2009, where he has continued to rebuild in the post-Katrina era. According to the archdiocese’s website, he is the first New Orleans native to serve as archbishop in the archdiocese’s 216-year history. Archbishop Aymond served as president-rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans for 14 years before being ordained as auxiliary bishop of New Orleans in 1997. In 2000, he was named coadjutor Bishop of Austin, Texas, before being installed as New Orleans’ archbishop. He currently chairs the board of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller
Archdiocese of San Antonio


Age: 57
Years at current position: Almost four
About Archbishop Garcia-Siller: A Mexican-born member of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, Archbishop Garcia-Siller is very familiar with Chicago and Cardinal George, having been ordained as a bishop of the Chicago archdiocese by the cardinal in 2003 and serving as Cardinal George’s liaison to the Hispanic community in the archdiocese. He was sent to the United States by his order in 1980 and has since worked closely with the immigrant communities in California and Oregon. He was installed as the sixth archbishop of San Antonio in November 2010 and serves as a member of several committees for the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory

Archdiocese of Atlanta


Age: 66
Years in current position: Almost 10
About Archbishop Gregory: A Chicago native who would be its first African-American archbishop, Archbishop Gregory converted to the Faith while attending a Catholic grammar school on the city’s south side. He was ordained a priest in the archdiocese in 1973 and was ordained an auxiliary bishop there 10 years later. In 1994, he was installed as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, where he served for 11 years before being appointed to Atlanta. He is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky


Age: 68
Years in current position: Seven
About Archbishop Kurtz: Currently president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop Kurtz is a native of central Pennsylvania and was ordained in 1972 as a priest in the Diocese of Allentown, where he served in a variety of roles for 27 years, including as pastor, teacher and administrator. In 1999, Pope St. John Paul II appointed him as bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, where he served until being named the fourth Archbishop of Louisville in 2007. He was elected president of the USCCB in November after serving as its vice president for three years.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain
Archdiocese of Seattle


Age: 62
Years in current position: Three
About Archbishop Sartain: He is best known for his ongoing work in overseeing the reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but the Seattle bishop has ties to Illinois. He served as the bishop of Chicago’s neighboring Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, from 2006 to 2010. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Archbishop Sartain was ordained in 1978 as a priest in the Diocese of Memphis, where he served as a pastor, chancellor, director of vocations and vicar general. In 2000, he was appointed as bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, where he stayed until he became bishop of Joliet. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Archbishop of Seattle.

Archbishop Joseph Tobin
Archdiocese of Indianapolis


Age: 62
Years in current position: Two
About Archbishop Tobin: A former superior general of the Redemptorists, Archbishop Tobin in March was named to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican, the only new American member named to the congregation. He was born and raised in Detroit and joined the Redemptorists in 1973, serving the order in Rome first as its general consultor (1991-97) and then as its superior general (1997-2009). After serving at the Vatican, he was appointed as the sixth Archbishop of Indianapolis in December 2012.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski
Archdiocese of Miami


Age: 63
Years in current position: Four
About Archbishop Wenski: A native Floridian, the archbishop is an avid motorcycle rider who is fluent in Haitian Creole and Spanish and celebrates Mass in both languages regularly. He was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Miami in 1976 and has served in a variety of positions, including as director of Miami’s Haitian ministry and as the archdiocese’s director of Catholic Charities. In 1997, he was elevated to auxiliary bishop of Miami and served as the chair of the U.S. bishops’ committees on migration and international policy. In 2004, he was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, where he served until 2010, when he became Miami’s fourth archbishop.