‘A bishop stands for Christ, the head of the church,” Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George said to Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., America’s U.S. Church correspondent, in one of his last interviews. “What he faces is always tied to that vocational understanding. It means that the bishop has a unique perspective on the ‘whole,’ on an entire local church with all its people.... His is a ministry of unity.
“Within that vision, he has to see that the church has the institutions necessary to pass on the faith and that the faith is clearly enough presented to call people to conversion of life.”
The cardinal told Sister Walsh in October 2014, “A growing challenge to this ‘normal’ life of the church and the full range of a bishop’s concerns is the secularization of our culture and the conviction, on the part of many, that religion is a threat to peace and social harmony, not a contribution to the common good.”
Cardinal George may be best remembered as a defender of church orthodoxy during a time of rapidly shifting cultural and political realities, responding to that problem as a public intellectual. He passed away at the age of 78 on April 17 after battling cancer for many years. The return of the illness in March 2014 contributed to his decision to step down from shepherding the nation’s third largest archdiocese and its 2.2 million members—the first man to retire rather than die in that office.
“A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord,” Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago said, confirming media reports of the cardinal’s passing. Archbishop Cupich recalled Cardinal George’s courageous struggle with cancer. “He pursued an overfull schedule,” said Archbishop Cupich, “always choosing the church over his own comforts and the people over his own needs.”
The archbishop added,“Let us heed his example and be a little more brave, a little more steadfast and a lot more loving.”
Archbishop Cupich observed that “Cardinal George’s life’s journey began and ended in Chicago.” He said, “He was a man of great courage who overcame many obstacles to become a priest.” George had been afflicted with polio as a child and was forced to wear a leg brace. Because of that encumbrance, Chicago’s Quigley Seminary rejected his application, and Cardinal George joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Archbishop Cupich remembered Cardinal George as “a resolute leader among the bishops of the United States when the church struggled with the grave sin of sexual abuse,” insisting that zero tolerance be the policy adopted as the bishops established guidelines to respond to the crisis. The cardinal has been credited with guiding that policy through Curial obstacles in Rome soon after its adoption in 2002’s Dallas Charter. Ironically, his apparent willingness to sidestep the policy in the case of the serial child molester Dan McCormick proved a painful error.
George was a native son of Chicago, born on Jan. 16, 1937, in Portage Park, an altar boy who thought of becoming a priest from the time of his first Communion at age 7. Perceived as well-aligned with the policies and intentions of previous popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Cardinal George struggled to understand the direction Pope Francis hoped for the contemporary church. A willing combatant on challenges to the church on religious liberty issues, the cardinal also joined church leaders in defense of human dignity for contemporary migrants and people left behind by a volatile economy.
He was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010 and was remembered by its current president, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., as an exemplary churchman in a statement released on April 17. “Cardinal George led as a kindly servant and unmatched intellectual,” Archbishop Kurtz said, “a man who encouraged everyone to see how God makes us all brother and sister to one another.”