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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Analysis: Bishops' VP popular choice in Rome


While the election of Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference dominated the headlines stateside, it was the choice of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as vice president that raised eyebrows in Rome.

In George, 67, the Vatican will be dealing with someone it already holds in high regard. In Vatican circles, sources have repeatedly told NCR, George is seen as the deepest thinker among the 13 American cardinals, and an indispensable point of reference on American affairs.

The Holy See has long tended to prefer dealing with a nation’s cardinals, who are created by the pope and presumed to have a special bond of loyalty with the Holy See, than with the elected officers of a bishop’s conference. From the point of view of the May 1998 Vatican document Apostolos Suos, a bishop’s conference has no official standing between the individual bishop and the Holy See. Yet a conference’s officers come with a mandate to speak on behalf of their fellow bishops that a cardinal may lack. Now George has both.

That combination means George is set to play an even more central role in delicate exchanges between the Holy See and the United States on issues ranging from norms for cases of sex abuse to English-language translations of liturgical texts. Many Vatican observers believe that while Skylstad will be the public face of the bishops’ conference for the next three years, George may well emerge as the most important behind-the-scenes force, especially in dealings with Roman authorities.

Sources close to the bishops’ conference told NCR that the election of George was to some extent calculated to produce precisely this effect. One source said that outgoing president Bishop Wilton Gregory had suggested to George that he run, thereby adding “gravitas” to the Skylstad ticket. In this fashion, the bishop’s tradition of the vice president succeeding to the presidency of the conference would be maintained, while at the same time the Vatican would have confidence in the result.

If that was indeed the thinking, it seems to have worked. Several Vatican officials told NCR in mid-November that George is indeed a figure who enjoys wide esteem here.

“He’s on the A-list of cardinals that every dicastery wants for its congresses and plenary assemblies,” one official said. “He’s seen as a tremendously supple thinker, as well as somebody who knows how to get things done.”

One American in the curia told NCR that George is the United States’ answer to cardinals such as Diogini Tettamanzi of Milan or Ivan Dias of Bombay -- i.e., a speaker everyone wants to have. It’s a widely held view in Rome that if George were not an American, and hence a citizen of the world’s lone superpower, he would be a serious contender to be pope.

As proof of the point, in recent months George has given major Roman addresses at a plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, an international congress organized by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, during the ad limina visit of American bishops, and a major conference at the Lateran University on moral law.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II tapped George to preach the annual Lenten retreat for the Roman curia, widely seen as a sign of special papal favor. (As cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla preached the retreat for Paul VI in March 1976 prior to his own election as pope). George is a member of four all-important Vatican congregations -- Eastern Churches, Divine Worship, Evangelization and Consecrated Life -- as well as the papal charity Cor Unum.

George brings several assets to the Roman scene.

For one thing, he is no stranger to the Eternal City; from 1974 to 1986, he served here as vicar general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the ecclesiastical scene and a fluent grasp of Italian. George is also a genuine academic. He was coordinator of the Circle of Fellows of the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture in Cambridge, Mass., from 1987-90, which means that he is comfortable with the abstraction and theory that is often fashionable in European intellectual circles. Finally, as the archbishop of a wealthy and complex archdiocese, he has resources at his disposable that are keenly prized by Vatican officials for various projects and causes.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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