The Church in America has lost its intellectual leader, that gentle yet firm, passionate and principled voice of the Catholic conscience which time and again courageously raised itself against the seemingly implacable tides of secularism. With the baculum pastoralis firm in his hand, Cardinal George guided the Archdiocese of Chicago, and indeed the entire American Church, into the 21st century by his resolute firmness in Christ, fidelity to His Gospel, and humble submission to His Church. His episcopal motto– Christo gloria in Ecclesia— encapsulates his unshakable conviction that only in and through the Church is mankind saved and Christ glorfied on earth.
Francis George was born 16 January 1937 in Chicago. From the earliest years, he showed signs of a sacerdotal vocation, although the fates seemed to conspire against it. Struck with polio at the age of 13, he was rejected by the archdiocesan Quigley Preparatory Seminary due to his poor health. Yet the young Francis was resolute, he conquered the affliction, and thereafter resolved to enroll at St. Henry Preparatory Seminary, a school of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate– the order to eventually accept him into the priesthood.
His intellectual prowess seemed to ensure for him an academic career. After priestly ordination in 1963, George received several teaching assignments at Our Lady of the Snows Seminary, Tulane University, and Creighton University. This period also saw him earn various graduate degrees, including a MA in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America, a Master of Theology from the University of Ottowa, and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Tulane. Beginning in 1974, he began a twelve-year term as Vicar General of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, based in Rome, and in 1988, he completed a Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Urbanian University.
All these experiences, from his intense academic formation, to his international missionary work, to his administrative tenures as provincial superior and Vicar General, it seemed that Francis George was being groomed for higher service to the Church. Thus, in 1990, John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Yakima in Washinton State, a position he would hold for almost six years. He received episcopal consecration from future Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, erstwhile Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. Governing the people of Yakima with his characteristic sweet firmness, he was promoted to the Archdiocese of Portland in 1996.
In 1997, after less than a year as Archbishop of Portland, John Paul II sent him packing to Chicago, the sede maxima of the United States (sed non optima, as Cardinal Krol would say), to help correct the course of the Church in America, to steer it past the turbulent post-Conciliar hermeneutics which dominated the era of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernardin. In retrospect, one can scarcely imagine anybody else for the job. The multilingual Archbishop (more than capable in English, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Greek, and Latin) was an apt choice for the sprawling metropolitan and multicultural archdiocese, and his stellar academic pedigree ensured that he would remain the clear, resonant voice of the timeless Catholic Faith. For 17 years, George stood at the helm of America’s largest particular Church and dutifully held firm to the faith of the Apostles in a time increasingly marked by areligiosity and relativism.
As is customary for Archbishops of Chicago, John Paul II received Francis George into the Sacred College of Cardinals at the consistory of 21 January 1998, granting him the cardinalatial title of San Bartolomeo all’Isola, the final resting place of the Apostle Bartholomew on the Tiber Island. Like all Cardinals, he was charged by the successor of Peter to remain firm in the faith usque ad sanginis effusionem. And although the suffering of his later years was not a bloody one, he nevertheless withstood the lingering effects of polio, and later, the onslaught of cancer. But despite these ailments, he lost none of his zeal for souls, and he accepted his tormented body as a gift, so that through his pain-ridden ministry, he might “fill in his body that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ” (Colossians 1:24).
Perhaps more so than any other American prelate, Cardinal George was the face of the New Evangelization in the United States. Time and time again, he exhorted the faithful of Chicago, and indeed, of the whole United States, to recover the missionary zeal of the first Christians, to bravely preach the Gospel of Christ, and to zealously seek souls for the Lord. In his first pastoral letter to the people of Chicago, Cardinal George focused on the theme of evangelization, linking it inseparably to repentance and conversion.
What does it mean to evangelize? It doesn’t mean beating people over the head with a Bible or a Catechism or our own spiritual experience stridently repeated; but it does mean more than the quiet witness of Gospel living and Christian service…
Repentance is the beginning of conversion to Christ. Sometimes we can tell our people how truly great they are without pointing to the cause of their greatness: the power of the healing Spirit sent to us by Christ. Jesus can be reduced to a role model who shows us the way to an ethical Kingdom of peace and love constructed by us on our own insights. But Jesus is much more than a model or a source of personal inspiration: he is our Lord.
Conversion is therefore a call to change, to live life on his terms, to surrender, to submit to God’s holy will made visible in Jesus. The power to surrender is itself a gift from the Holy Spirit. We are people filled with hope precisely because God’s kingdom isn’t ours; it’s Christ’s.
Neither did he deny the necessary salvific nature of the Church:
This Jesus we love wants us to introduce people to him so that the gifts he left his Church – the Gospel and divine revelation, the Sacraments and other means of sanctification, the pastoral governance which continues the ministry of the Apostles – can be shared universally.
Finally, he proposed the Little Flower, Therese of Lisieux, as a model of both true evangelization and love for the Church.
Most profoundly, she is a missionary because of her vocation “to be love in the Church.” She wrestled with the various callings that came to her from her study of God’s will and came one day to an insight: “I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places…I cried out…my vocation, at last I have found it…my vocation is love. Yes, I have found my place in the Church.”
Throughout his tenure, evangelization, repentance, and conversion to Christ stood at the heart of Cardinal George’s message. When opposition to the Gospel arose– and arise it did– the good Cardinal remained true to his episcopal charge, wielding the pastoral staff, firmly gathering his sheep while striking at the wolves.
In a meeting with John Paul II, Cardinal George recounted, the pontiff asked him a pointed question: “what are you doing to support the New Evangelization?”. George had no answer. The question hit the Cardinal hard enough that it remained with him well after the pope’s death. Eventually, after much reflection, he decided to launch a project which utilized modern means of communication to spread the Gospel of Christ. He selected one of his talented, intelligent priests– a hitherto unknown Robert Barron– to lead the project. Thus was born “Word on Fire”. Through Cardinal George’s enthusiastic support through funding, resources, and above all, prayer, the world has come to know Fr. Barron as one of the most articulate and charismatic Catholic evangelists of our era. Thousands, and perhaps millions of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have come to appreciate the complexity, the nuance, the depth, and the breadth of the Catholic faith through Word on Fire’s ministry. Here, too, the handprint of Cardinal George looms large.
Even after two bouts of cancer and two subsequent chemotherapy treatments, he remained resilient, continuing to govern his Archdiocese and give precious guidance to the American Church. He attended the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, playing a role in the elections of Benedict XVI and Francis, and continued his mandatory travels to Rome for every consistory. Were it not for his health woes, he certainly would have been more papabile on both occasions. The third reappearance of cancer, however, got the best of him. Soon after divesting himself of the pallium, Cardinal George returned to the hospital, for his cancer had reappeared and spread to such an extent that treatment was no longer feasible. Of his last days and hours, we still know very little. We can only be sure that, as he had done throughout his ministry, he suffered greatly. giving fresh meaning to the old biblical adage, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”; and yet, like the Man who first coined that phrase, the dear Cardinal held fast to his priestly character to the very end.
Sadness at his passing is natural; we cannot yet be sure of his eternal fate, nor can we quickly presume his salvation; accordingly we must pray fervently for the repose of his soul. However, for us who have received the fruit of his apostolic testimony– whether through Word on Fire, or the revival of the liturgy, or his preaching on the sanctity of life– our mourning cannot but be tempered with Christian joy. May this little tribute– a poor, stuttering homage to man of high culture and sanctity– be united in spirit with the prayers of the Church. In the words of Fulton Sheen, “a Nunc dimittis is at the same time a Te Deum“, and so we give thanks to God for the gift of Francis Cardinal George, a faithful son of the Church who, throughout his life, in word and deed, solemnly proclaimed the truth which he always held close to his heart: Christo gloria in Ecclesia.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.