Two years and one surprise papal retirement later, the decision now belongs to Pope Francis. The pontiff's choice will be closely watched as his first major appointment in the U.S., and the clearest indication yet of the direction he will steer American church leaders.
"Many signals for this relationship between the pontificate and the U.S. church will come from Chicago," said Massimo Faggioli, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who studies the Vatican and the papacy. "I think this is going to be the most important decision by Pope Francis for the U.S. church."
The Archdiocese of Chicago serves 2.2 million parishioners and is the third-largest diocese in the country. The Chicago church has long been considered a flagship of American Catholicism, sparking lay movements of national influence and producing archbishops who shape national debate. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin remains a hero to Catholics who place equal importance on issues such as abortion and poverty. George, who succeeded Bernadin in 1997, is especially admired in the church's conservative wing as an intellectual who helped lead the bishops' fight against the Obama administration's health care overhaul.
Whoever Francis appoints as archbishop is expected to become a cardinal and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope.
George celebrated 50 years as a priest last December with a Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral that drew bishops from across the country. In January, he turned 77, having recently been treated for a second bout with cancer. But the process of choosing his successor is confidential, so it's not known how much longer he'll serve. George's spokeswoman, Colleen Dolan, said in an email "it could be six months to a year before a change is announced."
Last week, church records released in a settlement with victims raised new questions about how George responded to some abuse cases even after U.S. bishops pledged to keep all guilty clergy out of ministry. The revelations will intensify public scrutiny of the child protection record of George's successor. But it's unclear whether the disclosures would have any impact on the Vatican timeline to replace the archbishop.
With a few exceptions, American bishops who failed to quickly remove accused clergy have remained in office well after details became public. The only U.S. bishop ever convicted for mishandling a case, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., remains on the job.
"It will increase the number of people who will ask that it be sooner rather than later," Dennis Doyle, a University of Dayton theologian, said of the Chicago documents and George's retirement. "Maybe this will hurry it along a little bit, but I don't think by much."
While Francis has been famously breaking protocol since the night he was elected, there are some limits to how unconventional he can be with the Chicago assignment. He'll be choosing among bishops elevated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as lieutenants in their campaign to restore orthodoxy. Since his election last March, Francis has argued that the church has been driving away the faithful by emphasizing divisive social issues over compassion and mercy.
Still, in temperament and outlook, the current bishops are hardly carbon copies of the former popes or each other, giving Francis a broader field of candidates than their histories suggest, Doyle said.
"There's quite a bit of diversity," Doyle said. "I think they've done a very good job not displaying that. I think they decided they'd show a unified face in public."
These differences came into view last December, when Francis changed the makeup of the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican office that evaluates and nominates candidates for bishop worldwide. Francis added Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who is considered a moderate, while letting go Cardinal Raymond Burke, the outspoken conservative and former St. Louis archbishop. Burke had banned Communion for Catholic politicians who back abortion rights, and said the Democrats risked becoming a "party of death." He is head of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest Vatican court, but his seat on the Congregation for Bishops was what gave him direct influence on appointments.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church," categorizes the 260 or so active bishops this way: very few liberals, about 30 moderates, and the rest conservatives. Yet, he splits conservatives into two groups: ideological conservatives, who he argues would be unlikely to adopt Francis' gentler tone, and pastoral conservatives.
"Pastoral conservatives are churchmen in the good sense of the word. They're loyal. They grew up in conservative families. They had a conservative education in the seminary. They're trained to be loyal to the pope. Now we've got a new pope," said Reese, an analyst with the National Catholic Reporter. "I think these people will eventually come over to Francis and his way of approaching things."
The vetting will begin, unannounced and behind closed doors, from Washington, as the pope's U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, consults with U.S. cardinals and archbishops to choose three nominees. Vigano will write a dossier on each candidate, rank them, then submit the names to the Congregation for Bishops. If the congregation approves, the names will be forwarded to the pope, who can choose from among the three men — or appoint someone else entirely.
Since Francis is less familiar with the U.S. compared to many other nations, he will likely rely more heavily on the advice of U.S. cardinals and others, Faggioli said. Francis is also aware he must tread carefully because of polarization in the U.S. church, Faggioli said. Some U.S. Catholics who had embraced the focus on doctrine under John Paul and Benedict have been alarmed by Francis' criticism that the church is obsessed with "small-minded rules."
Still, Francis has shown little hesitation so far to go his own way.
"Everybody is going to look and know that this is Francis' guy," Reese said. "This is Francis' choice."