Francis Cardinal George died on April 17th. I am deeply saddened but relieved that I was able to get a personal message of gratitude to him on Good Friday. I found out about his passing while reading an email from WGN radio in Chicago while sitting in my office at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. They interviewed me by Skype about thirty minutes after I got the news. It was a challenge to remain composed. They introduced him on the radio as a “doctrinal Cardinal” but then quickly added that perhaps all Cardinals were in some way doctrinal. In other words, the hosts were really not sure how to spin the news. They wanted to focus on his role in the sex abuse scandal and whether he did anything to stop it. I mentioned both his contrition for failing to act (in the case of Fr. Daniel McCormack), which he had communicated to me in private and without provocation, as well as his international leadership in defending the Dallas Charter policy of zero tolerance. I wanted to emphasize that he was thoroughly genuine, both as a sinful Christian and as a moral beacon that would challenge others.
Both the radio hosts and the news media in general paint a picture of a stalwart culture warrior. His most frequently cited quote remains: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” What is omitted from the usual citation is a crucial phrase that he added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop who will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history. He cleared the record in this column in the Catholic New World.
He had a deep affinity with Saint John Paul, a theme that comes across with clarity in his recent books: The Difference God Makes (2009) and God in Action (2011). Like Pope Wojtyła he believed firmly in the intellectual and pastoral task of building a civilization of love. He is known as a voice that challenged President Obama on the elements of the HHS mandate that brought religious liberty into question, but his defense of the preferential option for the poor was equally heartfelt and robust. Even when he occasionally had to retract a statement that some found offensive, he witnessed to the sanctification of the intellect and the need for vigilance in defending the Christian inheritance that each person from conception to natural death is endowed with a God-given image and a desire for communion.
I remember talking to a former colleague some years ago. I was then a new profesor of Theology and wanted to share my positive experiences of having participated in an academic conference with Francis George (he was Bishop of Yakima in the state of Washington at the time, I believe). I tentatively said that he might be the brightest light in the episcopal conference. “And it wasn’t a photo finish,” was the hasty response. He is now being touted as “the architect of the US bishops’ battles with the Obama administration over contraception and health care reform.” That may be. I never saw what went on behind the scenes in drafting policy, but I did catch a glimpse of his more collegial side. For example, I can report on his presence at meetings of the Committee on Doctrine that I was invited to attend. He would recount his long experience and always add a justification for a proposed policy with philosophical rigor. All mulled his opinion seriously, but it was not taken to be marching orders. More Oracle at Delphi than “architect,” I would say.
Even as Archbishop, he loved the classroom. He said it was a respite from the daily chore of managing finances and asking for donations. Once I invited him to give a class on the ecclesiology to a group of about twenty first year students at DePaul University. He did this sort of thing on a regular basis. The kids were around eighteen years old and elated to be in the same room as the Archbishop whom they knew only from local television. In that class he spoke elegantly about the theological principle of the existence of the Church where the Spirit of Christ was present in the communion of believers. After about twenty-five minutes of oration, he stopped abruptly to allow for a lengthy session of ninety minutes of dialogue. A young woman offered the first question: “Okay Cardinal George that’s what you think but what do you really believe?” The gentle pastor looked at her without hesitation and said: “You’re from Chicago, right?”
My most lasting memory was seeing him together with my family after a meeting of the New Ecclesial movements in 2008. I had just arrived in Chicago, and he was eager to greet me as a new resident of Chi-town and meet my wife and children. This was truly “Francis, the neighbor” at his finest. In everything he did, his deep life of prayer came through. His love for wisdom and penchant for academic jousting was legendary: Amicus Platonis, sed magis amicus veritatis (“A friend of Plato, but even more of the truth,” a phrase attributed to Aristotle). He was a missionary priest who could, when he met a visitor from abroad in Chicago, vividly recount precise details of a trip to remote areas of the Philippines or Latin America from his days as Vicar General of the Oblates in Rome.
I am mourning the loss of a friend and a witness to the truth. May this humble servant and pious priest rest in the peace of the Lord.