Leadership is an important element for the success of any group. When we went to the polls on Tuesday to elect our representatives, hopefully we voted for the best leaders possible.

Of course, it’s not easy being a leader. A good leader attempts to please the majority of people while at the same time being open to the voices of the minority.

As a leader, one makes decisions that are not always the most popular, but hopefully the decisions were made by a leader because he or she felt they were the “right” decisions, not just the most popular.

In the early church, leaders who reflected the Gospel message and furthered Jesus’ mission to evangelize were selected. There was not always agreement among the apostles as seen in the first Council of Jerusalem which pitted SS. Peter and Paul.

The apostles were the first leaders chosen by Jesus. Bishops are the successors of the apostles. It’s amazing to think that bishops, successors of the apostles in the Catholic Church, trace their positions to the call of Jesus himself.

In the history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the various archbishops who have led the faithful have contributed their own unique talents in directing the course of the Catholic Church in southeastern Wisconsin. Fr. Steve Avella who authored “In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1843-1958,” has just completed a second historical book examining the Archbishop William E. Cousins’ years titled,

“Confidence and Crisis: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1959-1977.”

I look forward to reading it. I am grateful to God that Fr. Avella and I are nearly the same age so I will not have to read Fr. Avella’s treatment of the Listecki years.

Every time a transition in leadership occurs, there is a sense of uncertainty in the minds of the faithful. This is true even in a parish situation with a new pastor. We grow comfortable with the person who has been in charge and know what to expect from him, and when a new person emerges, our sense of familiarity is gone. I know this had to be true when I replaced Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. I was an unknown replacing a popular and gregarious leader.

I mention this change in leadership because our neighbor to the south, the Archdiocese of Chicago, will undergo a changing of the guard. A new leader was named. Francis Cardinal George will retire after 17 years as archbishop and his replacement will be Bishop Blase J. Cupich from Spokane, Washington.

Bishop Cupich is a tireless worker and an experienced leader with a pastoral sensitivity who will be well received by the clergy and people of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

However, the change in leadership will not only be felt by Chicagoans but by the entire United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I was ordained a bishop by Cardinal Francis George in 2001 and served as his auxiliary from 2001 to 2005. In many ways I learned to be a bishop from Cardinal George. He brought a clear sense of vision to his position of leadership. His keen intellect offered insights for many individuals struggling with issues that confronted the Catholic Church in a secular culture.

I noticed early on at the bishops’ conference that when Cardinal Francis George was recognized by the president, bishops would straighten up in their chairs, pens were placed down and the bishops would pay attention.
The image is similar to that E.F. Hutton commercial that featured two individuals eating in a restaurant when one person says to the other, “My broker is E.F. Hutton and he says…” suddenly all the conversation in the restaurant stops and ears bend toward the table to hear the vital information being conveyed.

The only difference from the E.F. Hutton example was that at the conference, Cardinal George never disappointed. He always had some idea that would bring clarity to an issue. Heads would nod in agreement following his logical explanation of a complex presentation. He was — and is — the intellectual leader of the conference.

Stories abound about his excellent presentations at various events and when asked to share his text he would produce the back of an envelope on which he had jotted his notes. He was a former professor of philosophy which helped form his view of the world and his ability to ask critical questions. He was always aware he was a teacher and rarely missed an opportunity to help the faithful understand the beauty of the church’s doctrine.

But one misses a critical assessment of Cardinal George’s leadership if one doesn’t understand he is a man of deep faith and understands the church as one who has suffered for the sake of his call. Having contracted polio as a young boy, he struggled to respond to the Spirit’s call to the priesthood.

He was formed by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and, despite his physical limitations, was selected vicar general of his order based in Rome. He travelled the world visiting Oblate missionary centers. When appointed a bishop by John Paul II, he brought a view of the universal church and evangelization formed not only from the study of theology but from practical experience.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2006, he has battled with his illness in the public forum. Many have offered prayers on his behalf and he has responded with trust in God and gratitude for the affection of so many of the faithful.

It is often said the true mark of character is revealed in adversity. The Archdiocese of Chicago is considered by many to be the most difficult position of leadership in the Catholic Church in the United States. Despite his physical limitations, cancer, challenges by Catholics to church teachings and growing attacks by the secular society on the church, he has been — and continues to be — a powerful and clear voice for Christ and the Gospel in an often misguided and troubled world.

Cardinal George reminds me of another recent figure whose teachings and spirit revitalized the church in the midst of adversity: St. Pope John Paul II.

Many others and I will miss Cardinal George’s leadership but pray that he enjoys his retirement.