The essence of the man was a humble, missionary spirit devoted to truth and the shared identity of humanity.
That’s about it, in a sentence. But volumes can be written about Francis Cardinal George and his life, leadership and legacy of steadfast devotion to God and the people of God, even those who oppose religion and the tenets of faith. No one was beyond reach, and he reached for everyone. By the time “the Lord took him home” last Friday, in the words of his successor, Cardinal George had left a huge impact on much of the world, beyond the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Popular evangelist Fr. Robert Barron called him ‘A Lion of the American Church‘, and then went on to explain how he engaged the universal Church and people across the globe.
As the vicar general of his order, he undertook travels to six continents, dozens of countries, visiting with thousands of OMI evangelist priests. I was continually amazed at his detailed knowledge of the politics, culture, and history of almost any country or region you could name. It was born of lots of direct experience.
This missionary consciousness is precisely what informed the intellectual and pastoral project that was closest to his heart, namely, the evangelization of the contemporary culture.
Internationally renowned Catholic scholar George Weigel paid tribute to ‘the man who reshaped U.S. Catholicism.’
In the first place, he refused to think of the Church as something that could be defined in terms of “liberal” or “conservative.” As he said at his first Chicago press conference in 1997, the Church is about true and false, not left and right.
Cardinal George never wavered – couldn’t waver – from that incisive vision of truth and falsehood, which was clear in every address he gave, every column he wrote, every letter to members of government he sent. His engagement of hot button issues was crystal clear and irrefutable, so politicians and activists tended to avoid confronting the truth statements by attacking the man and putting him into a box with labels, though neither fit.
Vatican watcher and correspondent John Allen encountered that in this conversation with Cardinal George.
He spurns the entire left/right dichotomy, calling it “destructive of the Church’s mission and her life.”
“For us, the category that matters is true/false,” he said. “I reject the whole liberal/conservative deformation of the character of our lives. If you’re limited to that … then somehow or other you’ve betrayed your vocation as a bishop and a priest.”
His vocation as a priest was essential to his whole life, even as he became the preeminent American prelate, elector of popes, consultor to popes, head of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Last November, at the press conference introducing his successor to take over the Archdiocese of Chicago, allowing him to become the first Archbishop of Chicago to actually retire, reporters asked how he would spend his retirement. Battling cancer and its effects, he did note that his health would determine that to some extent, but allowed the opportunity, he wanted to read more, write more, continue to be present to attend all sorts of events, and hear confessions. At core, he was a priest who wanted to continue to hear confessions, to be close to the people.
So I have a confession to make. I have over-thought this. I’ve gone over so much material I have saved over the years written by and about him, and the many tributes written since his passing, and devoted radio show hours to his thought and teaching and witness for the past week, that in whatever time I could emerge from the work bunker I’m still in, I couldn’t assemble it into a personal account of the man I’ll forever be grateful to have known.
My family has not only known, but encountered and engaged in services, events and conversations with him since just about the time he arrived in Chicago, over 17 years ago. That grew into friendships, with me and my priest son especially, but he always asked about other family members. We had some very special, memorable, profound conversations. My son’s appreciation for Cardinal’s great philosophical mind led to great conversations between the two of them, which led to long conversations between my son and me about the philosophy of relationship and identity, the basic theme of Cardinal’s book The Difference God Makes. I’ve given talks on that book, it’s so fundamentally true. And challenging.
Like this snip about being ‘counter-cultural’, even though talking about faith in a secular culture that grows increasingly hostile to Christianity sure seems counter-cultural.
A faith that demands that culture change is sometimes called “countercultural.” The adjective is unfortunate if it leads believers to see themselves on one side and their culture on another. Our culture is as much in us as we are in it. Religious critics of a culture can imagine a bad system opposed by good people, but the distinction is too facile. If our social system and culture are, at least in part, evangelically deficient or even corrupt, so are we all. The evangelizer begins by taking responsibility for the culture to be evangelized.
This is another reminder, as was his whole public life, that Francis Cardinal George did not fit labels or boxes.
The above links to tributes and article on Cardinal George were written by friends, and ‘friends of the show’, somewhat regular guests on my program. Here’s another, by good friend Mary Hallan FioRito, his longtime executive assistant. She wrote it when he retired. It’s good to recall now.
Many have already offered comment on the Cardinal’s legacy: his brilliance as an intellectual and scholar (he holds two Ph.D.’s, one in American Philosophy from Tulane University and an S.T.D. in Ecclesiology from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome), a man of languages (he speaks five) and culture (his weekly columns in the Archdiocesan news media often tackled issues of the day) and a popular author (“The Difference God Makes” and “God in Action”), a sought-after lecturer and public speaker. He loves to engage in debate and discussion, and his Q & A sessions on college campuses always received rave reviews from students, even when they disagreed with him.
I never understood how anyone intellectually honest could refute his arguments. But as well know as he is and was for his intellect and clarity, relatively few knew how humble he was, and devoted, and deeply committed to serving human dignity and the common good.
Over the years, he attended countless wakes and presided at hundreds of funerals, comforting those who were grieving. Speaking on behalf of those who had no voice in the public square, he prayed in front of both an abortion clinic and in front of a government deportation center. As the member of a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he had traveled to many of the places where the poorest of the poor call home…
And in the past 17 ½ years, the Cardinal has truly shown himself a neighbor, offering help in times of need, advice when asked, a friendly smile when greeting you, an encouraging word if you appeared down. At his final Mass at Holy Name Cathedral last (November), Francis our Archbishop, our pastor, and yes, our neighbor, remarked that many have asked him what his legacy here would be. He noted in his homily that God has given us, the people of the Archdiocese, to him as a gift and he in turn has tried – like the good and faithful servants in last Sunday’s Gospel – to use those gifts wisely, to teach us, to help us to be holier, more generous, and more responsive to the Lord’s call in each of our lives. “YOU are my legacy,” he concluded.
May each of us live up to it. Thank you, Cardinal George, good and faithful servant.