By Maria Wiering | OSV News
(OSV News) — Before he died in 2015, media often asked Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago about his legacy. It was a question he had answered along the lines of having “tried to be a good priest and a good bishop.” It also was a question he had dismissed as “trying to make sense of my years here by fitting them into a narrative, a story line.”
However, in 2014, at what would be his last public Mass, he gave the congregation a more robust answer.
“Different people, of course, will have different takes on my years here as archbishop,” he said in his homily. “Some of them I might appreciate and some not, but that’s the fate of anyone in a public post, a position of public trust. The question I have to ask myself is, ‘With what have I been entrusted?’ and ‘What have I done with this gift?’ At some point, Christ will question me: ‘What have you done with my people? Are they holier because of your ministry? Are they more generous? More loving toward others?’ In short, you are my legacy.”
Author Michael R. Heinlein includes Cardinal George’s words in “Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.” (OSV), available on Kindle and set to be released in paperback March 6. The 425-page book is the first biography of the prelate, a Chicago native who returned to the city as its archbishop in 1997 and who died in 2015.
Cardinal George “filled a particular role in American Catholicism by kind of being … a ‘thinker in chief,'” Heinlein said. “He was someone who could help us understand the faith amid struggles and difficulties, and not lose sight of what really is most important in our faith.”
Father Daniel Flens, who served as Cardinal George’s priest secretary beginning in 2003, was among those whom Heinlein interviewed. A Chicago priest currently ministering in the Diocese of Venice, Florida, he said “Glorifying Christ” highlights the cardinal’s intellectual gifts while revealing his hidden physical sufferings and the other challenges he faced.
“I think he was certainly one of the brightest minds among the bishops,” Father Flens said. “He taught with clarity but also with compassion, and he was always available to people when it came to people wanting to meet him, to talk to him, to ask for his prayers, to write a note to him — that sort of thing. None of that stuff ever just got pushed aside.”
Cardinal George was born in Chicago in 1937. He planned on becoming a priest, but at age 13 was struck by polio, an event Heinlein called a “game-changer.” Young “Frannie” had planned to enter Chicago’s seminary high school, Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, but when he arrived on crutches, formators told him that despite his good record, he would “never be a priest of Chicago” due to his disability, the cardinal later recounted. So, instead of diocesan priesthood, he sought formation with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and entered the religious community. In 1963, he was ordained a priest.
He earned two doctorates, in theology and philosophy. In his 30s, he became provincial superior of the Oblates’ Midwestern Province, and then was elected to the worldwide community’s No. 2 position, which involved significant travel. He next served as bishop of Yakima, Washington, and then archbishop of Portland, Oregon, before St. John Paul II appointed him to the Chicago Archdiocese and named him a cardinal.
During his ministry, Cardinal George made significant contributions to the church, both in the U.S. and internationally, serving on U.S. bishops’ committees and international commissions, in Vatican congregations and synods of bishops, and as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Amid these responsibilities, Cardinal George lived with the long-term effects of polio in his legs: On the evening before his installation in Chicago, he told his priests that if he was ever walking with them and happened to fall, just to pick him up, Father Flens told OSV News, noting that he did that himself at least once.
After several bouts of cancer, in 2014 Cardinal George became the first archbishop of Chicago to retire from office. He was succeeded by now-Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, who had been bishop of Spokane, Washington. Cardinal George died the following year at age 78.
Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, served as archdiocesan chancellor, pastor of a large Polish parish, and then auxiliary bishop of Chicago under Cardinal George. “He was not only a very smart man, he was a very holy man, I believe,” he said. “I think he just offered up that pain and never complained about it. He was a man of prayer, and I think he’s a saint and should be canonized a saint.”
Cardinal George’s sister, Margaret Cain, told OSV News “the polio made him holy.”
“He suffered,” she said. “Anybody that suffers and offers it up to Christ, which he did, I think God hears. … He didn’t think of himself, he thought of Christ and his church.”
“Glorifying Christ” was a labor of love for Heinlein, who grew up near Chicago, admired Cardinal George’s leadership and wanted to ensure his contributions were not forgotten. Heinlein met the cardinal on several occasions, and found him to be authentic, personable and pastoral.
Despite his virtues, Cardinal George was often misunderstood, Heinlein said.
“He’s always been labeled as a ‘conservative,’ and he, of course, dismissed political labels in the church. I think because of that kind of pigeonholing, he was oftentimes looked at as someone who was too gruff, or too direct, and too black and white,” he said. “From what I could tell in examining his life, he was much more nuanced than that.”
Heinlein thinks the cardinal’s final witness lies in his choice of resting place. Rather than be interred in a mausoleum with most of Chicago’s other archbishops, including his predecessor Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, he chose to be buried next to his parents in All Saints Catholic Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Even in death, Cardinal George is accessible to his people, Heinlein said.
“You see that by people leaving things at his grave,” he said. “Any time I’ve been there, I’ve often found people either coming or going to visit his grave. It’s a testament to that kind of hidden, ever-present reality that was never talked about that much: that he really was a man of his people.”
“Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.” (OSV) can be found at https://www.osvcatholicbookstore.com/product/glorifying-christ-the-life-of-cardinal-francis-e-george-o-m-i and on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions: https://www.amazon.com/Cardinal-Francis-George-Witness-Light/dp/1681922525.