Cardinal George has been elected Chairman of the United State's Bishops Committee on the Liturgy. Writing in his column on on 25 November 2001 he stresses the importance of the liturgy and the problem that "Division and strife within the Church also discourage participation in her life."



About John Lilburne


Journal entry 4 December 2001




Cardinal George's Column

[I have copied this from Cardinal George's Column on There is an archive of his columns, but it has not been updated for months. I think what he writes is important and so want to preserve it. It is dated 25 November 2001.]

Entering into the Mysteries of Christ through living the Liturgy

During last week's annual fall meeting of the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, a Chicago Archdiocesan priest who became an auxiliary bishop here and is now the Bishop of Belleville, was elected the president of the conference. He had been vice president for three years, which is equivalent to being president-elect; but the actual election was still a moment of grace. Not only is he from the Archdiocese, but he is also the first African-American bishop to become president. In a few words after his election, Bishop Gregory rejoiced appropriately in being the first black bishop to become president of the U.S. Conference and then pointed out that his election is not as extraordinary as some might think, since the Catholic Church is home to people of all nations and cultures. It was a classy talk and, I'm sure, the forerunner of many more. Bishop Gregory will do us proud.

I was elected by the bishops to a far less prominent office: chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. (See stories, Pages 18-19.) Liturgy in recent years has had its own dramatic moments, and I stood for the office only because I believe we have to find some way to move beyond controversy to a less contentious way of producing liturgical texts in the English language. This past year, two documents from the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome were initially greeted with some hysteria, but both the new General Introduction to the Roman Missal, on actions in the Mass, and the new instructions for translating liturgical and Scriptural texts for use in the liturgy are workable documents. They signal a new moment in the liturgical life of the Church, however, and diocesan offices for liturgy across the country, including our own, are preparing the explanations we will need when the documents come into force.

Over the years, we have done much good study and reflection on the liturgy in the parishes of the Archdiocese, but it is time to examine where we are in our worship of God in the Church. The impetus given to interest in the liturgy by the reforms of Vatican II has led to a new awareness of the rituals used in the liturgy and to the involvement of many more ministers of the liturgy in our celebrations. The rites make use of speech, gesture, rhythm and structured ceremonial, and all these express our human emotions and aspirations; they are part of the response we make to God. But if we stop at this level, we have not begun to understand the Second Vatican Council's call to full participation in the celebration of the liturgy.

The liturgy is more than a form of human self-expression, a community-building exercise or even a catechetical tool, because the liturgy is more than its ritual forms. The liturgy is the action of Jesus Christ, our great high priest. Risen from the dead, he is free to act wherever he wills; and he wills to act through the sacraments. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus gives glory to his Father and wins God's forgiveness of our sins, the grace to make us holy and the promise of our eternal salvation. Through the worship of the Church in and with Jesus, her head, we lift our minds and hearts to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Liturgy is prayer given us by the Church to bring us out of ourselves and into Christ.

Entering into the celebration of the liturgy shapes us in the likeness of Christ (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1086). The season of Advent is about to start; it is the beginning of the liturgical year and prepares us for the feast of Christ's birth. From Christmas through Easter and the Ascension to Pentecost, the liturgy of the Church brings us every year through each of the mysteries of Christ's life, death and resurrection. The rites teach and form us as we worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The liturgy takes us beyond the life of every day and leads us into the life of eternity. Through the liturgy, we always have one foot in heaven. But the liturgy also sends us back to daily life with the perspective and courage necessary to transform this world. In the celebration of the various saints' feast days throughout the liturgical year, we find guides and intercessors to help us follow the path of discipleship in this life, a path marked out for us by the Blessed Virgin Mary and her brothers and sisters in holiness who have gone before us in faith.

If liturgy is "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed" and "the font from which all her power flows" (Vatican II's decree on the Sacred Liturgy, 10), then the mission of the Church in every age is to include as many as possible of the baptized in the regular sacramental life of the Church, especially in the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist. Our present situation of about a third of baptized Catholics participating with some regularity in the celebration of Sunday Mass is a problem far more grave than that presented by the difficulties of liturgical translation.

Much is sometimes made about the shortage of priests, and justly so. But a deeper problem is the shortage of Catholics. In a diocese which officially counts about 2.3 to 2.4 million baptized Catholics in Cook and Lake counties, we have a weekly Mass attendance of about 581,000. This was the number of the "October count" this year, the count of all those who were at Sunday Mass on the four Sundays of last October. It's slightly more than the October count of last year, but it should still give us pause. October counts aren't the only means of assessing the number of practicing Catholics but, for the sake of discussion, let's assume we have about 850,000 practicing Catholics in the Archdiocese, many of them immigrants who were trained to practice their faith not here but in Poland or Mexico or Vietnam. Since we have parishes and schools in the Archdiocese to accommodate almost 2.5 million practicing Catholics, we obviously have too many parishes and schools. One could also argue that we have more priests per practicing Catholic now than we had a generation ago, when 75 or 80 per cent of baptized Catholics went regularly to Sunday Mass.

The conditions of ministry have changed, of course. Meetings, especially administrative meetings, now take up much of the time that a priest used to have; and the burden of administration is heavy indeed. It prevents many priests from attending directly to people as they would like. The financial strain of having fewer contributors in our parishes, even when those who do praclarly are very generous, and the burden of living alone and with diminished energies because of the higher average age of priests have all made priestly life and ministry more stressful. Nevertheless, the deepest problem is declining participation in the liturgical life of the Church. Administrative and financial concerns aside, this is not so much a problem for the Church herself as for those individuals who, absenting themselves from regular worship of God as He wants to be worshiped, place their eternal salvation in jeopardy.

Why are there so few practicing Catholics? I suppose the basic reason is because it's hard to be Catholic. So much of what the Church has received from the Lord and teaches about her own life, about probity and justice in public life, about sexuality and marriage in personal life, runs against conventional wisdom, as our culture and society have developed in the past 40 years. Usually, when there is a clash between cultural norms and faith, the culture wins hands down. Culture is a lot more pervasive around us and persuasive within us than the faith, especially for those who don't worship regularly. All the national statistics on the difference of attitudes between practicing and non-practicing Catholics on issues of social justice and human sexuality bear this out.

Division and strife within the Church also discourage participation in her life. Who wants to get into tugs-of-war, even around the Mass, which is supposed to be the source and sign of our unity? These fights, which some delight in, make ecclesiastical life resemble ward politics more than the kingdom of God. They disturb our life with God and paralyze the Church's mission.

We have about ten years to really address this issue, an issue that was pointed out to the Archdiocese some years before I became Archbishop. Faith is like a language. If it isn't spoken for a generation, it disappears. The faith speaks, first of all, in worship. In my celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy and the liturgy of the hours each day, I speak to God about you and for you. Please do the same for me. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago

Posted by J.R. Lilburne, 3 December 2001. Last updated 11 December 2001.

Links to other sites:

Cardinal George's Column Archive

Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy members

Archdiocese of Chicago report