Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago who is being treated for cancer, said Friday that the Roman Catholic Church has agreed to begin formally searching for his successor as head of the nation's third-largest diocese.
George spoke about his most recent bout with cancer while meeting with reporters to share his thoughts on the canonizations later this month of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. George had been scheduled to travel to Rome for the April 27 canonizations, but canceled his plans on the advice of his doctors. A recent infection forced him to be hospitalized for a week, delaying the start of his second round of chemotherapy, and doctors were worried that he could be vulnerable to another infection during the trip, George said.
"I can't do that, it would be very foolish," he said of traveling against that advice. "I'm not going to do something dangerous. ... But I'll be there in prayer."
George spoke admiringly of both popes and said of John Paul that he was down to earth and had an ironic sense of humor even while being "a monumental figure."
"He was a genius and a poet and a philosopher and a very, very kind bishop and a saint," he said. "When you talked to him you had the sense that he was also having a conversation with the Lord, that there were three people in that conversation."
The 77-year-old said it was time to begin the search for his successor as the spiritual leader of Chicago's more than 2 million Roman Catholics. He said he has spoken with the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican's U.S. ambassador, who agreed to formally begin the process. That follows a resignation letter he submitted when he turned 75, as all bishops are required to do at that age. But many bishops continue serve beyond that point, and George had said at the time that he hoped the pope would not immediately accept the resignation and allow him to serve two or three more years.
"The fact that my health is uncertain -- it isn't a question of imminent death; I'm not going to be dying, I don't think, in the next few months -- but it's a question of being able to spend your entire energy on what is my responsibility as archbishop of Chicago," George said.
"Now, it looks as if I'm going to have to be spending a little more attention on my health. And so it's just not fair to the archdiocese."
George said the formal succession process is lengthy and will begin soon, although he had no precise time frame.
He has resumed his chemotherapy after being hospitalized for an infection that left him dehydrated and with flu-like symptoms. The cancer is near his right kidney.
George survived bladder cancer eight years ago and was diagnosed with urothelial cancer in 2012.
He had planned to meet with Pope Francis during the visit to Rome and said he still hopes to do so on another occasion.
George still intends to participate in the Holy Week services and Easter Sunday Mass at Holy Name Cathedral.