‘A Bishop’s Bishop’: Cardinal George of Chicago Retires

One of the U.S. Church’s greatest leaders is hailed as a missionary bishop who spoke with a prophetic voice, by those who worked alongside him.

Cardinal Francis George celebrates Mass at the tomb of St. Peter on Feb. 9, 2012.
Cardinal Francis George celebrates Mass at the tomb of St. Peter on Feb. 9, 2012. (photo: David Kerr/CNA)

CHICAGO — Back in November 2008, when many Catholics called for the U.S. bishops to find “common ground” with a new administration that embraced abortion rights, Cardinal Francis George, the then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the historic election of the nation’s first black president.

But in an official address that was reflective of the cardinal’s approach of seeking constructive dialogue without compromising on foundational truths, he expressed strong support for racial equality and social programs aiding the poor while also affirming that the bishops would continue to uphold Catholic teaching rejecting abortion.

“Common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good,” declared Cardinal George during an opening address at the bishops’ 2008 meeting in Baltimore.

Six years later, Cardinal George’s remarks still resonate, as Catholic leaders face mounting pressure to accommodate moral practices that violate Church teaching, even as they strive to serve the poor, immigrants and others on "the fringes."

And now, as the Chicago archbishop, 77, who is battling cancer, prepares to step down from his post on Nov. 18, he leaves behind a legacy of nearly two decades of faithful service as the shepherd of one of America’s greatest metropolises and of prescient engagement with the nation’s rapidly secularizing contemporary culture. 

Cardinal George also shaped the direction and institutional identity of the Catholic Church in the United States during his tenure as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While serving in that post, he gave fresh priority to the New Evangelization, the internal reform of the conference and the approval of the English translation of the new edition of the Roman Missal.

Asked to describe the man who preceded him as the USCCB’s president, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York portrayed his friend and mentor as a brilliant Church leader who has offered a “prophetic” witness in a fast-changing world impatient with inconvenient moral truths.

“I mean ‘prophetic’ in the biblical sense — somebody with the freshness and the dare about him,” Cardinal Dolan told the Register.

“Like St. John Paul II, he is not a warrior fighting the culture, but a prophet offering revealed truths.”

In an email message to the Register, Cardinal George, who is a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, said he sought to guide the conference as a Catholic bishop and missionary who had spent much of his priestly life studying the dialogue between faith and culture.

“My position, both as archbishop and president of the conference, was quite clear. I offered analyses of what was going on in public life in the light of our faith,” said Cardinal George.

“As a missionary concerned about the relationship between faith and culture everywhere in the world, I have dedicated a lot of study to the dynamics of culture, around the world and here at home.”


Hometown Bishop

Before his appointment as archbishop of Chicago in 1997, he had served as the vicar general of his order in Rome and oversaw the order’s missions, until he was named the bishop of Yakima, Wash., in 1990 and then archbishop of Portland, Ore., in 1996.

That second episcopal posting barely lasted a year. Pope John Paul II sent the Chicago native back to his hometown. And in February of 1998, John Paul elevated Chicago’s new archbishop to the rank of cardinal.

Like his predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin — who wielded enormous influence over the U.S. bishops’ engagement in the public square by reformulating Catholic teaching as a “seamless garment” in which sanctity of human life and economic issues carried equal weight — Cardinal George would also put his stamp on the Church in the United States.

He served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010, where his gifts as a leader, a strategist and a pastor made it possible for him to articulate and promote non-negotiable teachings on life, marriage and religious freedom.

Cardinal George worked to unify the conference, as he took up two major tasks: reduce the size of the conference and secure approval of new translations of the Roman Missal, among other texts.

“He was involved in the reform of the bishops’ conference, which had not been structurally reorganized in 35 years,” said Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, Ill., who served as the U.S. bishops’ general secretary during Cardinal George’s tenure.

“He raised questions about making the conference more responsive to the bishops and more flexible and cost-effective.”


Liturgical Leadership

Cardinal George played a prominent role in the protracted effort to secure a more accurate translation of the Roman Missal that began in the mid-1990s and continued until 2010, when the new translation, the first English translation of the Third Edition of the Missal first published under Blessed Pope Paul VI, won final approval.

“Cardinal George has been deeply involved in liturgical activities of the USCCB, particularly in the new translation of the Roman Missal: as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, as president guiding the conference through its votes on the various segments and as a member of the Vox Clara committee advising the Congregation on Divine Worship in its approval of English liturgical texts,” Susan Benofy of Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, told the Register.

Benofy dates Cardinal George’s most important work on this matter back to 1997, when he was appointed to the Episcopal Board of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), set up by bishops from English-speaking countries and charged with providing English translations of original Latin liturgical texts.

“Many U.S. bishops, frustrated by ICEL’s resistance to amending flaws in their translations, believed fundamental reform was necessary,” said Benofy. “Cardinal George, with the support of the Holy See, encouraged the ICEL Episcopal Board to reform ICEL, offering a draft of new statutes for discussion. The new ICEL structure eliminated a powerful ‘advisory board’ of experts, giving primary authority to the bishops, as the council had intended.”

The breakthrough in the impasse over the Roman Missal translations highlighted the Chicago archbishop’s ability to engage constructively with those advancing opposing perspectives and to identify practical solutions.


Dedicated to Dialogue

As USCCB president, Cardinal George’s efforts to achieve a consensus on hot-button issues also reflected his remarkable qualities as a leader.

“You could have this intellectual gift and not be able to work with people. He listened to others, made his insights known and entered into a dialogue,” recalled Bishop Malloy.

“He would try to find good in everyone’s motivations” and to see the logic behind his opponents’ positions.

His thoughtful engagement with conference members went beyond policy debates; many bishops came to view him as a trusted mentor.

“Above all things, he is a bishop’s bishop and has been of great service,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the current USCCB president, told the Register, remarking on the fact that conference members have turned to the Chicago archbishop for guidance on both ecclesial and personal matters.

His moral credibility was tested as the conference refused to endorse the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the signature legislation of President Barack Obama.

Universal health care had been a long-term goal of the conference, but key USCCB staffers, who worked closely with pro-life House members, were unable to win congressional support for language that both explicitly barred federal funding of abortion and offered strong conscience protections. Absent such language to protect unborn human lives and religious freedom, the U.S. bishops felt compelled to withdraw their support for the president’s health-care reform.


‘A Message of Freedom’

During a recent interview with the Jesuit magazine America, Cardinal George was asked whether the bishops had become more politically engaged. He responded that Church leaders were not looking to pick fights, but were required as teachers of the faith to uphold the truth.

“The Gospel is a message of freedom, and the Catholic way of life trains people in habits that protect that freedom from slavery to various addictions,” he commented. “My own conviction is that we must be completely clear about the Gospel and how it is to change us, and then we work respectfully with individuals and groups who cannot agree with us. I do not know that we will be permitted to have that pastoral approach in the immediate future.”

The prophecy of hard times ahead for Christian believers is a familiar theme in Cardinal George’s public statements and writings. Most notably, addressing a group of priests a number of years ago, he stated, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

But as Cardinal Dolan and others have observed, such warnings are not political statements, but expressions of his deep love for his country.

“Cardinal George has said, ‘You can’t evangelize a culture you don’t love,’ so the Church can’t hunker down behind its walls,” explained Father Robert Barron, the director of the Word on Fire apostolate, as mainstream America discards the biblical values that once anchored the nation.


Missionary Charism

Father Barron, the current rector of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, told the Register that Cardinal George’s own example had inspired his efforts to find the “seeds of the word” in film, books and other elements of 21st-century American culture. “Christianity exists in our culture, and we can find points of contact,” said Father Barron.

Father Barron suggested that Cardinal George’s engagement with contemporary culture also derives from the charism of his missionary order, an assessment shared by Father Bill Antone, provincial of the U.S. province of the Oblates.

“Our founder, Eugene de Mazenod, had a great love for the Church, a love of the poor and the conviction that what we believe is based on Revelation and revealed truth, and not on some passing belief,” Father Antone told the Register, adding that Cardinal George closely adheres to the Oblates’ charism.

Father Antone also took note of the striking circumstances that led the Chicago native to enter the Oblates in the first place.

When he was a young teenager, Francis George applied to the minor seminary for the Chicago Archdiocese, “but was denied entry” because he had been physically weakened after contracting polio, noted Father Antone, so the teenager applied and was accepted into the Oblates.

Decades later, the Chicago-born missionary was called back to his hometown and the archdiocese that had turned him down — this time, as archbishop of Chicago.

Now, he is poised for the final phase of his life, with continued cancer treatments in store.

“What I will do as public ministry after my retirement depends on what Archbishop [Blase] Cupich might ask me to do,” said Cardinal George in his email message to the Register.

“I would hope to continue with sacramental ministry: hearing confessions, celebrating Masses, doing confirmations. I have some private projects I would like to pursue, but everything depends on whether or not my health stabilizes.”

In his opening address Nov. 10  to the U.S. bishops' general assembly in Baltimore, Archbishop Kurtz reported that when he and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, the USCCB's vice president, met with Pope Francis in Rome last month, the Pope expressed his personal concern about Cardinal George's health.

“Speaking of prayer, I have to tell you that not once but twice during our visit with the Holy Father, he spontaneously inquired about the health of Cardinal George,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “I was eager to tell the cardinal of our Holy Father’s concern, so I picked up the phone and called Cardinal George immediately. I didn't realize that I was calling before 7:30 in the morning in Chicago! Of course he answered graciously and was delighted to get the news!”

The assembly of U.S. bishops responded with an outburst of spontaneous applause for Cardinal George.

 The future may be uncertain for the cardinal, but that is not likely to quiet the prophetic voice of this Catholic shepherd.

“He listens to God in his prayer and in his suffering,” said Cardinal Dolan. “He is a man who has physically suffered a lot. That is the crucible of the cross.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.