The Visionary in Red: Cardinal Francis George United Truth and Charity

The most impactful American bishop of the last generation, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, died April 17 at the age of 78, after a long, courageous, public and serene battle with cancer.

Even though outside of Chicago his name might not have been recognized in every Catholic household, his work made a profound difference in how every English-speaking Catholic prays the Mass, how children are protected in Catholic institutions, how the Church interacts with an increasingly secular culture, how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops functions and chooses its leaders and scores of other ways.

Although I was never close enough to him to be numbered among his friends, I did know him and, from the time I was a collegian, looked toward him for guidance and example.

I first met him when I was a freshman at Harvard. He had come to Massachusetts to help lead a think tank called the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture, an initiative heavily supported by Cardinal Bernard Law. He would regularly celebrate Mass at St. Paul’s in Cambridge, where the Catholic Student Center was located.

Those of us who were daily Massgoers were fortunate to have so many fine priests and great preachers at and around St. Paul’s at the time helping out with Masses. Four of them went on to become bishops, another to become a provincial and others to head up major departments for dioceses or universities. The quality of pastoral care was so high that — I’m embarrassed to say — I took for granted “Father George,” the diminutive giant of a priest who would celebrate Mass about once a week. His deep, somewhat academic homilies were a testimony to how much he knew and how much my fellow students and I needed to learn.

When I came back for my junior year, he was no longer on the schedule, and I didn’t know what had happened to him — until one Sunday I read in the bulletin before Mass a note from the pastor welcoming back to St. Paul’s “Bishop Francis George of Yakima, Wash., who helped at daily Masses at St. Paul’s from 1987 to 1990.”

I was bewildered that I couldn’t recall any priest whose first name was Francis or last name was George during that time. But as we stood for the opening hymn, I saw “Father George” with his familiar limp, a result of childhood polio, ambling toward the altar, this time with a zucchetto on his smooth crown. Once I got over my confusion that I had always thought his last name was his first, I was left stunned in my juvenile, ecclesiastical myopia that they had made him a bishop, since he always seemed more like my professors than like any bishops I knew.

Thanks be to God, Pope John Paul II and his advisers saw what I was missing!

Six years later, when I was a seminarian in Rome, an American bishop invited me to join him for lunch on the Borgo Pio. Right before heading down from the seminary, I saw a rector’s notice that Pope John Paul had appointed Francis George as archbishop of Portland, Ore. When I sat down with this bishop at Da Roberto, I asked him if he had heard the news about Portland that had been made public an hour before. “No,” he replied, “but please tell me it’s Francis George!” A little surprised, I told him his wish had been granted.

He shared with me various stories about the new archbishop before saying, “The only disappointing part of this appointment is that I had been hoping that Francis would become the next archbishop of Chicago.” Eleven months later, to the shock of almost everyone, that wish would come true, too.

Cardinal George was a sincere, bold and visionary leader who united truth and charity and had a great ability to transcend the simplistic frames that so often straightjacket others.

When he was asked upon his appointment to Chicago whether he was a conservative response to a liberal predecessor, he replied that the Church is concerned about true and false, good and evil, not left and right. When the group Dignity, which believes that Church teaching on chastity and sexual morality is not part of the Good News, claimed that under him the Church in Chicago was becoming unwelcoming to those with same-sex attractions since he said same-sex activity was immoral, he replied that the Church indeed heartily welcomes everyone but also calls everyone to conversion and seeks to help them live according to the Gospel.

He was both meek and forthright. Once, he arrived late for lunch at the North American College and politely asked if he could sit with five of us seminarians at our table. A first-year man, to the embarrassment of the rest of us, asked across the table, “Bishop, who are you?” The cardinal replied with a smile, “I’m Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago.” Failing to quit when he was behind, the importune seminarian continued, “Chicago. Don’t you have a big mess at your seminary?” Without missing a beat as we passed him the pasta, Cardinal George cut through the potential tension, saying, “You’ve heard right, but we’re cleaning it up. We just finished bringing kneelers back into the seminary chapel, and more good changes are on the way. Just give us time, and pray for us.”

What are aspects of his legacy? Beyond the multitude of ways he strengthened the Archdiocese of Chicago, I’d like to focus on five things that have had a great impact well beyond the Windy City.

— He was the foremost American figure of liturgical reform. His work at the U.S. bishops’ conference and with the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission was pivotal in the decade-long work of the retranslation of the Roman Missal that priests throughout the English-speaking world now use at Mass. It led to a much richer, more humble, more sacred vocabulary.

In the year 2000, he founded the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary to train people across the country in liturgical studies. He also supported the work of Father Frank Phillips to found the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius to put many aspects of the liturgical reform into beautiful action.

— He was one of the greatest articulators and defenders of the faith within the rapidly secularizing culture and various branches of government. He understood the culture at its roots and was able prophetically to preach to it and model for others how to preach effectively within it.

— He was one of the boldest agents of the New Evangelization. In 2000, he took one of his most talented priests, and one of the most gifted in the country, Father Robert Barron, and gave him the permission to develop resources to help all Catholics throughout the United States.

Father Barron started Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, an apostolate that has led not only to the Catholicism series, but to so many other helpful resources. Father Barron’s evangelizing work alone is an impressive legacy, but without Cardinal George’s unselfishness in magnanimously placing Father Barron’s talents at the service of the wider Church, we might never have had any of it.

— Cardinal George’s election as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not only led to a great reform and consolidation of the conference’s central infrastructure but also to a major change in its mentality. Prior to his election, which was a sign of the esteem his brother bishops had for him, cardinals were not elected to lead the conference because, the idea went, they already had a great deal of influence. But rather than use that influence to strengthen the situation of the Church in the country, many bishops looked at it as an opportunity to give someone else a voice.

The election of Cardinal George was a sea change, making possible the selection of the bishop considered to be their most qualified leader for the challenges of the time — something that seemed to be replicated in the selection of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan as his successor and, hopefully, will be repeated many times over.

— Finally, Cardinal George played a pivotal role in formulating and defending the radical response of the U.S. bishops to the clergy sexual-abuse scandals, which led to a Copernican shift in Church law. The Vatican initially resisted the U.S. bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy that mandated that a priest would be irreversibly removed from ministry following the admission, conviction or substantiation of one case of the sexual abuse of a minor.

There were many thorny canonical reasons for the Vatican’s hesitancy, but it was Cardinal George who successfully got the Vatican to budge. Now, as the sexual-abuse problem has been seen in its worldwide context, that zero-tolerance policy is gradually being adopted by the Church across the globe.

The cardinal authored two books I’ve read more than once and highly recommend: The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture and God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World

They’re fitting titles also to describe their author: God made a great difference in the life of Francis George — and through him and his faith-filled response to divine action also made a great difference in addressing several of the Church’s and the world’s biggest challenges.

Father Roger Landry is a member of the Holy See’s permanent mission to the United Nations.

This column originally appeared in the April 24 edition of The Anchor,

the newspaper for the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.