This week we bade farewell to the eighth Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George. During the nine years that I have been at Assumption, I had only a few conversations with the Archbishop, and these were casual in nature. That is not surprising. Our Archdiocese is divided into six districts called vicariates, and most of my official business with the Archdiocese has been through the office of Auxiliary Bishop Francis Kane, who has responsibility for Vicariate II.
Were it not for the fact that I previously ministered in the Archdiocese during his tenure, my column on Cardinal George may have ended with that one short paragraph. However, back in 1997 I was named Administrator of Our Lady of Sorrows parish at about the same time he was named Archbishop of Chicago. Cardinal George handled the “meet and greet” phase of his new ministry a little differently from the way Archbishop Cupich has handled it. First, he wanted to hold a prayer service with men and women religious, and Our Lady of Sorrows was chosen for this gathering. I sat with him at dinner that night before the service; and I got a chance to experience his sense of humor and his comfort level with people of every stripe—something which did not always come across in his public persona. A short time after this prayer event, Archbishop George met with the priests and deacons of our deanery. That was my first exposure to his “feisty” side. Whenever complaints were made, concerns raised, or “advice” offered, he became fully engaged in arguing the point back and forth. What I noticed at this meeting was that, like many good teachers, he seemed to enjoy a good argument. This point also did not come across well to Chicago Catholics and was one of the reasons that people never warmed to Cardinal George in the way they did to his predecessor Cardinal Bernardin. Remarks that might have created a lively classroom often came across as harsh and doctrinaire in the newspapers.
One of the things often mentioned in the media accounts of his death was that Cardinal George was forced to close more than 70 Catholic schools. I know how much he valued Catholic schools and how much he would have lamented seeing that line in his obituary. I was there when the closings began. A few years before I arrived on the West Side, most of the Catholic schools in the area had been joined under a single administration to try to reduce costs. In the spring of 1998, the area school administration announced plans to shutter four of eight campuses, including the campus at OLS. Since this would essentially cut in half the number of Catholic schools on the West Side, the matter came to the Archbishop’s attention. He called a meeting of the pastors and principals of all the affected parishes for 4:00pm on a Friday afternoon. Given the day and time, I figured this would be a rather perfunctory meeting. Instead it lasted two and a half hours. Cardinal George listened to each one of us and also added his own insights about what he thought had gone wrong with the schools and with the process that led to retrenchment. He had obviously done his own analysis and not simply accepted the official reports that were given to him. In the end he said, “I feel I have no choice but to sign off on this, but I deeply, deeply regret it.” Almost a year later, I was at Holy Name Cathedral with our catechumens and candidates from Our Lady of Sorrows for the Rite of Election. We had ten people in the RCIA that year. Cardinal George presided at the ceremony and noticed our numbers. He spoke to me after the ceremony, saying how happy he was to see the parish growing in spite of the loss of our Catholic school.
Many people have remarked about the faith and courage Cardinal George showed as he faced his impending death from cancer. Just as remarkable was his determination to carry on his ministry until his successor had been installed. Over the last year the effects of cancer had compounded his handicap from childhood polio, and he was obviously growing weaker. At an Awards Ceremony last fall at the Cathedral, it took almost forever for him to walk down from the altar platform to hand out the parish awards; but persevere he did. Cardinal George once spoke about his first cancer operation in 2006 when he almost died on the operating table and how in those moments when he felt life about to slip away, all of his worries vanished and he just felt the love and the prayers of so many people who had written to say that they were praying for him. Hopefully last week, as he was about to be born into eternity, he felt that love and those prayers once again.