Cardinal Francis George, in his first Sunday mass since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, called the upcoming change of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church “a huge moment.”
George, a Chicago-native, asked parishioners at St. Bride Church in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood to pray for him and other cardinals as they vote.
He is scheduled to leave for Rome Feb. 26 to begin the process of choosing the next pope once Benedict’s resignation becomes effective on Feb. 28, a task that could take time, George said.
During a meeting of Vatican cardinals, Benedict said he lacks the strength to fulfill his duties. He will become the first pontiff to step down since the Middle Ages.
This will be George’s second time voting in the conclave of cardinals following his participation in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
In fact when Benedict was elected, George stood just several feet away on the Vatican balcony as his name was announced.
The Vatican recently raised the possibility of starting the conclave earlier than March 15, but in this case the cardinals already know that this pontificate will end Feb. 28, according to Vatican spokeswoman said.
George, however, said that the decision is based upon cardinal discussions.
“If you don’t do the work with discernment beforehand the conclave could get very long,” George said after the mass. “The conversations that should take place if you’re going to act responsibly should take place before the conclave begins and really I don’t how long that will take.”
He said he spoke briefly with Pope Benedict the Thursday before he resigned and the Pope asked George about his health.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask him about his (health),” George said.
George said that the pressure of voting is an internal one, but is “an intensity of concern that is very real.”
“You put your salvation on the line,” he said.
Though many question if the new Pope will come from outside of Europe, George said the decision is based on the person not the region.
“I think the most important thing is who is the person, is he able to do the ministry of the successor of peter, is he anchored in the faith, does he have a heart for the poor, does he speak the languages necessary to communicate in the contemporary world, can he govern,” George said. “These are all personal questions that are far more important than where he comes from.”
Many have tried to predict who the next pope will be, but George said that he is not anticipating anyone in particular.
“It would be premature because you rely on collective discernment,” George said. “You don’t go in with your mind made up you go in with indifference at mind and heart.”