With the 11/18/14 ceremony marking the beginning of the ministry of Most Rev. Blase Cupich as archbishop of Chicago, this is a time of thanks for the ministry of his predecessor Francis Cardinal George, OMI.
My first unknowing encounter with Francis George was hearing not his voice but his music in my 1950s childhood when he served briefly as a substitute organist in my parish, St. Priscilla. My second encounter with Archbishop Francis George was at the January 17, 1998 Chicago gathering of the National Center for the Laity, on whose board I then served, when he gave his noted “exhausted project” comments during a homily at Old St. Patrick’s Church.
The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin benefitted throughout most of his tenure in Chicago and beyond from a cheering section both in the secular and in Catholic media, as I hope Archbishop Cupich will have as well. But Cardinal George did not and probably won’t ever have a cheering section to the same extent. This is unfortunate, since few spiritual heads in the Church evidence the depth of religious and cultural insight as does Cardinal George. While Cardinal Bernardin, borrowing a line from St. John XXIII, introduced himself as our brother, Cardinal George introduced himself as our neighbor, an equally rich scriptural reference.
While Cardinal George has grown stronger in administration and in the communicative side of being the Archbishop of Chicago, it did not come easy to him. Although a gentle person, he evidences from time to time vinegar and quick wit that can either help or hurt his efforts, but he also reveals self-effacing if not humorous humility. He has this bad habit of speaking the truth as he sees it. He sometimes made mistakes in appointments, as almost all administrators do. But one of his most carefully considered and successful appointments, of the Rev. Robert Barron of the Word on Fire media ministry as rector and President of the University of St. Mary of the Lake and its Mundelein Seminary, is of far reaching significance for the Church. As did Cardinal Mundelein when he appointed Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand to the same rectorship in the 1930s, Cardinal George has appointed “a man with imagination.” May Fr. Barron stay right where he’s at as rector / president of USML as long as the Lord wills it.
An equally significant appointment by Cardinal George was that of Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, OP, as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In my opinion, Sr. Mary Paul is the best Chicago Catholic schools superintendent in living memory. May the Lord give her more strength and energy before He grants her a well-deserved rest! And may support come to the Catholic primary and secondary schools to continue this our shared Catholic mission.
In the temporal sense, three human progeny generally outlive a person: children, writings, and institutions. Cardinal George protected the Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese so many of their children could have a Catholic education. He stabilized the Chicago seminaries after a period of decline and scandal. He established the Liturgical Institute at USML to enrich the life of the Church. He defended the Catholic hospitals against radical interference, and defended religious liberty on both the health care and the marriage questions. He dialogued with Catholic university presidents both locally and internationally, keeping some in the fold, and under his support the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago has grown to an international reach. He also firmed up a structure to protect children from abusers, and to deal promptly with the perpetrators, and established a Healing Garden at one of Chicago’s oldest parishes, Holy Family. Cardinal George reached out to Muslims and those of other faiths. He dealt very patiently with Fr. Michael Pfleger, and he shepherded the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius to ecclesiastical approval. He defended the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, joined anti-violence and affordable housing efforts, and supported countless charitable works of the Church.
And he has written well–both in terms of his most recent books, but especially in terms of his essays, pastoral letters, addresses and homilies. I do hope the Archdiocese perpetually keeps open the web page with Cardinal George’s writings. His books, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, and God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World, will be read the more as religious liberty continues to erode and as religion continues to be shoved from the public square. I hope Cardinal George is given the time, energy, and privacy to continue to write.
Cardinal George presided on the hot seat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the USCCB, during one of several recent rounds of the “bad priest” scandal. He was openly disrespected by a number of politicians, several Catholic. At the same time, Cardinal George served on numerous Vatican Congregations, and St. John Paul II asked Cardinal George to preach a retreat in the Vatican. In the celebrated words of Bill Murray’s assistant greens keeper character in the film Caddyshack, at least “He’s got that going for him.”
Cardinal George’s fun side was seen early in his tenure, when he visited the TV booth at Wrigley Field, and was asked for an invocation as Sammy Sosa came to bat. When Sosa promptly hit a home run, the city got to hear the Cardinal’s laughter. Whether the home run was due to divine intervention or to some other more worldly force will remain, as we Catholics say, a mystery.
Recently, I’ve been reading the works of the great 19th century German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, whose 1848 sermons and later writings in Mainz presaged–with the Pope’s acknowledgement–Leo XIII’s social encyclicals.
The writings of Francis Cardinal George are of a similar stature. They will inform the choices that Catholic Christians will make for generations about faith and life, about religion and culture, and about church and state whether Cardinal George’s role is ever acknowledged. I’m sure that Cardinal George would be quite happy if he were forgotten and if the greater glory went to the Lord. That is why he stays to the very end of every parish event he attends, greeting and meeting parishioners down to the last person in line. Cardinal George has the charismatic gift of soldiering on, despite illness, be it polio, flu, cancer, a cold, or fatigue, long beyond his 50 plus years of priesthood. Perhaps I should say, the Gift of Carrying the Cross.
Beyond the temporal legacy of Cardinal George, there is the eternal. He learned from an early age the priestly role, an eternal role shared with the Lord. As a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, an OMI, Cardinal George gained a special appreciation for mission and religious life. I rejoice to continue sharing the Faith with Cardinal George as we look forward to joining the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews, 12:1).
Much will continue to be made of the differences between Cardinal George and Archbishop Cupich, especially regarding the 2009 Obama / Notre Dame honorary degree controversy, where each took a divergent approach.
On the above point I merely reply, that after the recent death of Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Lyne, Cardinal George could have moved from the mansion into the Holy Name Cathedral rectory at any time as was considered early in his tenure as Chicago archbishop. But I have a theory that the Cardinal elected to stay in the mansion so that his successor could elect to have the nice headline. Sometimes humility means that one look like a rich man so one’s successor does not have to. A lesser man would have kept the nice headline for himself. Archbishop Blase Cupich’s tenure will be all the better because he was preceded by Francis Cardinal George, OMI.
© Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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