Cardinal George leaves behind a lasting legacy

When the news of Cardinal Francis E. George’s death began to spread on April 17, the accolades started rolling in.

“A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord,” said Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich, who succeeded Cardinal George in Chicago last November.

Cardinal George, 78, had been the intellectual leader of the U.S. bishops, a theologian and a philosopher who was a staunch defender of the Church and her teachings, according to prelates from around the world. He served in the College of Cardinals under three popes, helping to elect Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, and served as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010, taking a leading role in the bishops’ fight against the HHS mandate.

Vatican insider

People close to Cardinal George say that to understand him, it’s necessary to look at where he came from. That means not just his roots at St. Pascal Parish on the northwest side of Chicago but his formation and work as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate and his academic career, which includes doctorates in American philosophy, theology and nearly a decade as a college professor.

In the Vatican, he was seen as different from other American cardinals, said John Allen, a longtime Vatican correspondent and author of nine books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs. Having served in Rome for 12 years as the vicar general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he knew his way around the Vatican, said Allen.

“He spoke the language,” Allen said, “and he was very fluent in Italian, but I mean that he understood the culture, and he knew the people, and he could navigate through the offices.”

That skill and those relationships were clear enough to his brother bishops in the United States that when there was an issue they really wanted to get through the Vatican, they would ask Cardinal George to handle it. Abuse reform

Without Cardinal George, Allen said, the zero-tolerance policy for priests who sexually abused minors that was passed in Dallas in 2002 would not have been permitted. Members of the Curia were deeply suspicious of the one-strike-and-you’re-out policy.

“I’ve talked to everyone who was in that room, and it is an incontrovertible fact,” Allen said. “Zero tolerance would not have become a canonical norm for the U.S. without Francis George.”

Critics often raise the specter of former priest Daniel McCormack, whom Cardinal George left in place for more than four months after he was questioned by police about sexual abuse in 2005. McCormack eventually pleaded guilty to abusing five boys, and more than 20 boys and young men have accused McCormack of abusing them.

Cardinal George expressed regret for not removing McCormack sooner when McCormack was arrested in January 2006.

What people don’t hear about is the time he spent with victims of clerical sexual abuse, said Michael Hoffman, who spearheaded efforts to build the archdiocese’s Healing Garden and wrote a book about healing from abuse. He said the cardinal met with any abuse survivor who wanted to meet with him and said Cardinal George was instrumental in his recovery.

“He was there for the process,” Hoffman said. “I felt heard. I can say with certainty that he listened to me. I was a victim who put my heart and soul on the table for him to listen to.”

Leading the Oblates

Oblate Father William Antone, the U.S. provincial for the order, said he knew Cardinal George during his time in Rome, sometimes going to the opera with him. They would pay about $3, he said, and sit way up in the nosebleed seats.

While Cardinal George was released from obedience to the Oblate superiors once he became a bishop, Father Antone said, “he remained very close to the Oblates until the end. He never forgot that he was an Oblate of Mary Immaculate.”

Cardinal George joined the Oblates after attending St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois, a boarding school, when his physical limitations after suffering from polio at age 13 barred him from attending the high school seminary in Chicago. The quality of his mind and the aftereffects of polio steered him to an academic life, teaching at the Oblate seminary in Mississippi starting in 1964, three years after he was ordained.

Ten years later, he moved to Rome as vicar general of the Oblates and began to visit his brothers in all the places they served around the world.

Cardinal George worked against racism, releasing a 2001 pastoral letter that called the archdiocese itself to task for its part in perpetuating racism. He advocated for comprehensive immigration reform and supported efforts to stem violence in streets and homes.

‘He loved God’

Daughter of Charity Sister Frances Ryan graduated from St. Pascal School with Cardinal George in 1951 and maintained a more than 70-year friendship with him. She said that their shared background was an important factor in their friendship, but so were the similar charisms of their religious communities.

“We really connected with our mission, not just the mission of the Church, but the mission to the poor,” Sister Frances said.

When she was working with the Alexian Brothers to minister to homeless people who had HIV/AIDS, he would come and say Mass for them and be with them, without compromising on the Church’s teaching about homosexual activity, she said.

Cardinal George was first diagnosed with cancer in his bladder in 2006, and he had surgery to remove his bladder and part of his urethra. The same cancer reappeared in his kidneys and liver in 2012 but appeared to respond to chemotherapy. It resurfaced again in 2014, and the cardinal was enrolled in a study of an experimental drug to treat it. By the end of January 2015, he had told reporters that the cancer had not responded to any of the drugs that had been tried.

Still, Sister Frances said, with the cancer and the lingering pain and limp from his polio, he got up every morning and prayed and engaged with people from all walks of life, treating everyone the same.

“He was a saint because he had a gift from God,” Sister Frances said. “He loved God from very early on. The will of God is what he accepted. He had adversity after adversity, but the will of God was the centerpiece of his life.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Cardinal Francis E. George 1937-2015
Jan. 16, 1937: Born in Chicago to Francis J. and Julia R. McCarthy George