April 21, 2015

Requiescat in pace: Francis Cardinal George

The late Cardinal Francis George (1937-2015)
A giant of the American episcopacy, Francis Cardinal George, died Friday.  He was 78.  I was a seminarian at Mount Saint Mary’s when his predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was called to his eternal reward in November, 1996.  The seminarians of the Chicago diocese praised Cardinal Bernardin’s stewardship and wondered who his successor might be.  Cardinal Bernardin was considered at the time, the leading intellectual among America’s cardinals.  Five months later, my fellow seminarians had their answer in Francis George.  He was in every way a worthy successor. 

Cardinal Francis George was the first Chicago native to become Archbishop of Chicago. As a young man, he joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary congregation, after being denied admission to Quigley Seminary. Installed in May 1997, he was the ninth Archbishop of Portland, Oregon for less than a year, before being named head of Chicago’s Catholic prelature. In January, 1998, Saint Pope John Paul II announced Archbishop George's elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals with the title of Cardinal-Priest.

Much has been written about this humble servant and disciple of Christ. I quote a priest with whom Cardinal George was extraordinarily close, Father Robert Barren, who writes:
… to understand this great man, I think we have to go back in imagination to when he was a kid from St. Pascal’s parish on the Northwest side of Chicago, who liked to ride his bike and run around with his friends and who was an accomplished pianist and painter as well. At the age of thirteen, that young man was stricken with polio, a disease which nearly killed him and left him severely disabled. Running, bike riding, painting, and piano playing were forever behind him. I’m sure he was tempted to give up and withdraw into himself, but young Francis George, despite his handicap, pushed ahead with single-minded determination. The deepest longing of his heart was to become a priest, and this led him to apply to Quigley Seminary. Convinced that this boy with crutches and a brace couldn’t make the difficult commute every day or keep up with the demands of the school, the officials at Quigley turned him away. Undeterred, he applied to join the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary congregation. Recognizing his enormous promise and inner strength, they took him in. 
(To read Fr. Barron’s thoughts on Cardinal George’s life and legacy go here.)

Cardinal George published a column in which he reflected upon the Church’s role in post-modern American society and aspects of Christian discipleship.  His thoughts were often prescient.  In a column entitled “A Tale of Two Churches,” (September 2014), the Cardinal wrote:
Throughout history, when Catholics and other believers in revealed religion have been forced to choose between being taught by God or instructed by politicians, professors, editors of major newspapers and entertainers, many have opted to go along with the powers that be. This reduces a great tension in their lives, although it also brings with it the worship of a false god. It takes no moral courage to conform to government and social pressure. It takes a deep faith to “swim against the tide,” as Pope Francis recently encouraged young people to do at last summer’s World Youth Day.
In 2010, in a speech to a group of priests, Cardinal George outlined the degree to which religious freedoms in the United States and the West were endangered: "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."

Cardinal George died at 10:45 Friday morning (April 17), at his archdiocean residence where he had been since returning from the hospital April 3rd after courageously battling cancer.

Pope Francis, in a telegram to Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, offered his blessing to all those who mourn Cardinal Francis E. George.

“To all who mourn the late Cardinal in the sure hope of the Resurrection, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of consolation and peace in the Lord.”

The funeral Mass for Cardinal George will take place April 23 at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago after lying in-state for two days. He will be buried in a family plot at the All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill, next to his parents.

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