The national Catholic community is remembering Cardinal Francis George, who passed away Friday, as a man of intelligence, scholarship, and leadership skills – with an often acerbic wit and penchant for controversial comments. But for many of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics, George is a man who touched their lives personally in his 17 years as their spiritual leader.
“He was a person to me, more than being a client or being the archbishop,” says James Serritella, the outside legal counsel to the Chicago archdiocese. Serritella choked back tears recalling how George attended the wake of his wife Ruby, who died of cancer in 2009. George stopped to talk with all of the family members present. He then invited Serritella to stay at the Cardinal’s Residence until he felt up to returning to the home he had shared with his wife.
“We had many long conversations. He made sure I was comfortable and my needs were met. He even invited my son over for dinner at the residence. It was a difficult time for us and he did a very human thing. I will have a hard time ever forgetting what he did for my family and me,” Serritella says.
George later nominated Serritella for induction into Order of St. Gregory the Great, a prestigious honor given to men and women for their service to the church, which few in Chicago hold. “He was thoughtful, caring, humble,” Serritella says – a side of the cardinal that mainly came through in his one-on-one contacts.
Serritella lists among George’s main legacies the establishment of the Lumen Christi Institute, a Catholic think tank, at the University of Chicago.
Serritella says he last talked with George was on Wednesday. “He was sounding weak. He said he didn’t know how much time he had left. We talked, he asked me for my advice on some academic and personal matters. I said I would call him in a couple of days, and of course, I won’t now have the chance to do that.”
Patrick T. Reardon, who got to know the cardinal initially as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, says George had a warm personal side that sometimes seemed in conflict with his public persona. Reardon once spent a day following the cardinal for a newspaper profile he was writing. “He was very personable, I would say, even playful. But when he was doing his official duties, he was much more black and white, you’re either in or you’re out.”
Reardon says the only time the cardinal seemed annoyed at having a reporter and photographer following him was “when we interrupted him when he was praying, which was at, like, six in the morning.”
At another point, Reardon accompanied the cardinal to an event at Loyola University and found the cardinal relaxed and outgoing around the students. “He liked talking to people. He really did. But as soon as he got onto church business, he became very strict and dogmatic.” Among the many marks he left on the church, George will likely be remembered as “bulldog who championed the church’s rights in the modern world, which he defined as a rather negative place” Reardon says.
Reardon, who served under George as an advisor on to the Archdiocese Pastoral Council, notes that George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, waged a highly public battle with cancer. It led to an enormous outpouring of support for Bernardin in his final years. George largely kept his illness from the public eye. “In the last five or six months, I could see he was withering away. Mainly because of his personality, there wasn’t that same bond with people, and so he was dying outside of just about everybody’s consciousness. I feel very sorry about that,” Reardon says.
George stepped down as cardinal last fall, two years past becoming eligible for retirement at age 75. By then, he had been battling cancer for years, and worked through all of his treatments for the illness. “I’m so sorry he didn’t have more time for himself at the end of his life,” Reardon says. George, the first Chicago native to head the archdiocese, was succeeded last October by Blaise Cupich.
Sister Patricia Crowley, a Benedictine sister from St. Scholastica Monastery, on the city’s far north side, recalls that George visited her mother, the well-known Catholic activist Patty Crowley, when the elder Crowley was nearing the end of her life. As George was leaving, Sister Patricia says she asked her mother if she wanted a blessing from the cardinal. Instead, her mother suggested that she give George her blessing. “Cardinal George graciously deferred to her,” Crowley said.
Greg Pierce, head of ACTA Publications, a Catholic publishing house, says George asked to speak to him after hearing that Pierce was advocating for women’s ordination. “I said I’ll be happy to talk with you, but you have to come to my house and talk about this with my wife and children as well.” Later, he says, he got a call, “The cardinal would like to come to dinner on August 16.” Before the dinner, Pierce says he and his family decided they would wait for the cardinal to broach the controversial subject.
“He never brought it up, so we never did. We just had a good time. I remember he was very good with our teenagers. He listened to them, asked them about themselves. And it was genuine. When I was driving him back to his residence, I said, ‘You know, Cardinal, there are many families in Chicago who would love to have you over for dinner.’ He said, ‘I don’t have one unscheduled minute in my life.’ I thought, that’s sad.”
Pierce called George “one of the most hardworking cardinals in the country.”
The cardinal’s passing was also marked by numerous political figures as well as church leaders and folks in the pews. Said Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is from the Chicago suburbs, “Francis Cardinal George...touched the lives of countless others through the Church's schools, pastoral care and social services. He shepherded the Church through some of its most trying times, but leaves behind a strong community of faith that has tremendous positive impact on the people of Illinois, regardless of their creed.”