Many of us heard the news late last Friday that Cardinal George’s cancer has returned. It was sad news indeed. During the fifteen years that he has served as our Archbishop, Cardinal George has certainly faced his share of criticism for things he has said and done. But that is true of any public figure. If the Gospels are any indication, people found fault with a great many things that Jesus said and did. As is so often the case, the people who are unhappy with his leadership have been more vocal than those who are simply appreciative of his dedication to God, the Church, and the people of Chicago. These last fifteen years have been difficult years for the Catholic Church and for the Church in Chicago. Changing demographics have stretched the resources of the Archdiocese very thin, forcing the Cardinal to make some difficult and unpopular decisions.
Here at Assumption we have a shrine on the east side of church dedicated to St. Peregrine, known as the cancer saint. St. Peregrine is a very unlikely saint. As a young man in thirteenth century Italy, he was a member of a violent street gang and was strongly anti-church. When a Servite priest, the future St. Philip Benizi, came to Forli preaching reconciliation, Peregrine physically attacked Philip. Philip, instead of reciprocating with more violence, turned and said “I forgive you.” This shook up the young man. What kind of inner peace did this priest possess that he himself lacked? After a time Peregrine left his former way of life and began a ten year spiritual search, finally entering St. Philip’s Order, the Order of Servants of Mary. He was never ordained a priest, but spent the next thirty years as a Servite brother ministering to the poor and the sick (the very people he had despised as a young man) and doing penance. At the age of sixty Peregrine was diagnosed with cancer, and a physician said the leg would have to be amputated. Given the primitive state of surgery at that time, an amputation was most often fatal. The night before the operation, Peregrine dragged himself before an image of Christ on the cross and fell into a deep sleep. During the night he felt Christ reaching down from the cross to touch his leg. When he awoke the next morning the cancer was gone. Peregrine lived another twenty years and died in 1345. He was canonized in 1726.
The statue of St. Peregrine that we have at Assumption also has an interesting history. Fr. John Bosco, O.S.M., founded the National Shrine of St. Peregrine at the former St. Dominic Church in 1953. St. Dominic, which was at Locust and Sedgwick, was staffed by the Servites from 1934 until the parish closed in 1991. Fr. Bosco had dreams of establishing not just a national prayer ministry centered on St. Peregrine, but of building a cancer hospital in Chicago dedicated to St. Peregrine. The hospital never materialized; but the work of spreading devotion to St. Peregrine continued. When St. Dominic closed, the statue of St. Peregrine and the title of National Shrine were transferred to Assumption. In 1993 Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica became the National Shrine of St. Peregrine. However, the statue of St. Peregrine from St. Dominic Church remains at Assumption. Each Monday following the 12:10 Mass we have a brief service in honor of the cancer saint and a blessing with his relic.
A few years ago Cardinal George spoke to a gathering of priests about his previous bout with cancer. He described being on the operating table and realizing at a very difficult moment in his surgery that life was slipping away from him. He says that at that point all of his worries and all of concerns about his many responsibilities as Archbishop fell away, and what he experienced was the warm feeling that came from all those who had sent cards and letters saying that they were praying for him. I am sure you will join me in praying for him once again.