CHICAGO — In his 17 years as the Archdiocese of Chicago’s shepherd, Cardinal Francis George leaves a powerful legacy as pastor, teacher and defender of the Catholic faith.
“He is a man of tremendous intellectual power and clarity and strength,” said Dan Cheely, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois and president of the Chicago Church History Forum. “I’d go so far as to say that in the entire history of the American Catholic hierarchy, the only person I know who had the intellectual qualities comparable to Cardinal George was Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I’ve seen him give talks at the drop of a hat to highly sophisticated audiences that were breathtaking — and without notes.”
Cheely described Cardinal George as a “thought-word-and-deed bishop” who communicated his “powerful love of Christ and his Church on both a personal level and as philosophical truth” to the people and clergy of the sprawling archdiocese, which encompasses six vicariates. And Cheely identified Cardinal George’s dedication to the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the largest major seminary in the United States, as one of his main achievements.
Cardinal George’s engagement with Mundelein went beyond the personal level, extending to the seminary’s curriculum. He worked closely with, and fully supported, the man he appointed first as a professor then as rector, Father Robert Barron, whom Cardinal George also helped raise to national recognition by supporting his Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and his hosting of the acclaimed Catholicism series that aired on PBS stations as well as EWTN.
Father Thomas Baima, vice rector for academic affairs at the seminary and a professor of dogmatic theology, praised Cardinal George’s deep personal engagement with the seminary community.
“He spent a lot of time here, meeting with faculty and getting to know the seminarians very directly,” said Father Baima.
With 210 seminarians, one-third hailing from Chicago, Mundelein is the largest American seminary after the Pontifical North American College in Rome. It has grown about 9% a year for the past three years. “We could grow even more, but we’re at a comfortable point now,” said Father Baima.
Cardinal George has made two other signal contributions to the seminary.
First was the formation of the Liturgical Institute 15 years ago, mainly to train lay ministers from around the country, such as directors of divine worship and those studying for the permanent diaconate.
Cardinal George insisted the liturgy be studied through a specifically theological lens. “It’s important to study the liturgy from the perspective of sacramental theology,” said Father Douglas Martis, professor of sacramental theology and liturgical studies. He hopes that the work of the Liturgical Institute will help the revival of liturgy in the United States.
Second was Cardinal George’s founding of the Bishop Abramowicz Seminary for Polish seminarians seeking to serve in the Archdiocese of Chicago and his continued support for Casa Jesus, founded in 1987 to serve a similar role for men from Latin America and Mexico. There, they receive formation, as well as intensive English training, before being sent for further training, mainly at Mundelein.
“One reason he saw the importance of doing this is because Chicago has a very diverse ethnic population, but the priests often didn’t reflect the laity,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who served as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago and an auxiliary bishop there before being appointed bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in downstate Illinois. “Now, the percentage of priests from different ethnic groups, from Poles to Indians to Spanish speakers, has increased. So the profile of the clergy more closely approximates the makeup of the laity.”
These priests from abroad do not cater to their own ethnic groups alone, he added, but serve the whole laity.
One addition to the seminary will be future professor Father Andrew Liaugminas, a Chicago priest who is working on a doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He considers Cardinal George to be a true father.
“Cardinal George has been a shepherd truly after the heart of Christ, as he has formed us — through his homilies, talks, columns and books — in the mind of Christ,” he said. “As our archbishop, Cardinal George has carried the needs of the Church and the world very close to his own heart and helped us understand the challenges facing the Church and society today: from the local and neighborhood levels to the national and global levels.”
Father Liaugminas added, “I have deep gratitude to Cardinal George for his years of service to us as our shepherd in Chicago and for the relationships he developed with us in the context of living out the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ.”
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.