Cardinal George passes on a rich legacy

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.

‘Rights and duties of the state and individual’

When Pope Benedict makes apostolic visits to to various countries, his remarks and addresses always reflect keen insight into that culture’s strengths and weaknesses. But he’s really addressing people of the world beyond that nation in his message of universal human rights and dignity.

In his visit to Britain, there were so many highlights. Here’s one in which he took the example of Sir Thomas More as a jumping off point to address civil society today.

The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This is an urgent issue now.

Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

He delivered a similar message in his apostolic visit to the US in 2008, especially in his address to the UN General Assembly. In the US at least, this message seems more urgent even now.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?

…distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

To repeat – faith and reason need to be in constant dialogue “for the good of our civilization,” no less.

Now this is critically important:

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

We are approaching elections in America. Hold those who seek office to this measure of leadership, and service to the common good.

“Forgiveness does not replace justice”

Big statement by Pope Benedict, who answered journalists questions on the plane as he traveled to Portugal, a now familiar habit of his on these journeys. They’re spontaneous encounters, Benedict and the press, and always yield interesting thoughts and sound bites. This one had a bunch of them…

First, on the secularization of Europe (extend that to other societies). He says ‘build bridges and create dialogue’, but takes it further, returning to his frequent call to join faith and reason as the common ground of human dignity. Build communication on that, he says.

Thus I would say that secularism is normal, but separation and contrast between secularism and the culture of faith is anomalous and must be overcome.

Next, the economic crisis, and here’s an interesting reflection:

“ethics are not something external, but inherent to rationality and economic pragmatism. … Catholic faith, Christian faith, has often been too individualist, it left concrete and economic matters to the world and thought only of individual salvation”, he said.

Yet “the entire tradition of the Church’s social doctrine has sought … to widen the ethical and faith-related dimension, over and above the individual, towards responsibility for the world, towards a rationality ‘moulded’ by ethics. Moreover, events on the markets over the last two or three years have shown that the ethical dimension is inherent and must become part of economic activity, because man is one, and what counts is … a sound anthropology that embraces everything.

But there’s more. Like the ‘Third Secret of Fatima,’ the suffering of the pope, which has been taken to explain the shooting of John Paul II. Benedict says yes, it was that. But it’s more… It’s the suffering of the pope beyond that pope, the need for a ‘passion of the Church’. Yes, the pope has been under attack, from the media and high profile dissidents and atheists…..though he didn’t say that part. Here’s what he did say:

“…attacks against the Pope and the Church do not only come from outside; rather, the sufferings of the Church come from inside the Church, from the sin that exists in the Church. This was always common knowledge, but today we see it in truly terrifying form: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from external enemies, but is born of sin within the Church. Thus the Church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice”.

He would go on, later, to talk about where justice ultimately comes from.