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A new shepherd for Chicago

Earlier this year, Cardinal Francis George turned 75 and submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Benedict XIV as archbishop of Chicago.

As George said in an interview with the Tribune, it was “formula almost.” A requirement under Vatican rules, but, as the Cardinal indicated, not something the Pope is likely to act on for at least two years.

Nonetheless, George has begun the transition process, tidying up his administrative house and naming new aides who will carry on the work of the archdiocese under the new archbishop — whoever that is.

That’s a key question, of course, for me and for the other 2.3 million Catholics in Cook and Lake Counties. The spiritual leader of the archdiocese will set the tone for us in terms of how we pray together and live our faith.

But the eventual appointment of Chicago’s new Catholic leader is also important for the millions of Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, other believers, agnostics and atheists in the metropolitan region.

The archbishop of Chicago — the last six have also been named cardinals — is the city’s most prominent religious leader. He’s in the best position to talk about morals and ethics, not only for Catholics but for society in general. It’s a bully pulpit that George has used although not always in ways that some Catholics, including me, have agreed with.

Yet, just the other day, I realized that, for me, the particular philosophical bent of the new archbishop — whether he is liberal or conservative — is not the essential thing. For me, I’m hoping for a new Catholic leader who is pastoral.

What does “pastoral” mean? I’m not sure how to put it into words. I guess, it is someone who, like a shepherd, cares for his flock. And cares about his flock.

I’m not sure exactly how an archbishop does that, but a brief encounter from my newspaper career came to mind that seemed to encapsulate what I’m looking for.

I worked nearly four decades in the journalistic trenches, most of them with the Tribune. And, during that time, I interviewed my share of high-ranking officials. When I was part of a small group of reporters to meet with President Jimmy Carter, I called him “Mr. President.” At a news conference or in an interview, I called Mayor Richard M. Daley “Mr. Mayor.”

As a good Catholic from birth, I knew that, when conversing with a Cardinal, you addressed the man as “Your Eminence” or, at least, “Cardinal.”

So I was surprised back in December, 1990, when I had my one and only interview with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

It was during a period when Bernardin was having to close many parish schools for financial reasons, and I was helping Mike Hirsley, the Tribune’s religion writer at the time, with some of the coverage.

Bernardin was appearing on a radio show to talk about some new development, and I was waiting for him in the lobby of the station with a reporter from another newspaper.

When the Cardinal was off the air, we sat down with him for 10 or 15 minutes to run some questions past him. Nothing very memorable.

When we were done and he’d left, I started walking back to the Tribune, and it dawned on me. For some reason — probably it was his quiet, gentle demeanor, even when acting the bureaucrat — I hadn’t called him any of the fancy names I was supposed to use.

Instead, I had called him “Father.”

Thinking back now, I guess that’s what I mean by “pastoral.”

Patrick T. Reardon, a former Tribune reporter, is the author of three books of religious meditations including “Starting Out: Reflections for Young People.”

Patrick T. Reardon

This essay was published in the Chicago Tribune on May 31, 2012 —,0,6653577.story

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