Cardinal Francis George: ‘A Man of Peace, Tenacity and Courage’

Archbishop Blase Cupich, his successor in Chicago, joins with other Catholic leaders in celebrating the life and mourning the death of one of the U.S. Church’s greatest shepherds.

Cardinal Francis George, 1937-2015
Cardinal Francis George, 1937-2015 (photo: Archdiocese of Chicago)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with the papal telegram on Saturday, April 18, and again on April 20 and 21.


CHICAGO — Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop emeritus of Chicago and among the most influential Church leaders of his generation, died today at age 78, after a long battle with cancer.

“A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord. Our beloved Cardinal George passed away today at 10:45am at the [cardinal’s] residence,” announced Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, in a statement marking his predecessor’s death, at a press conference.

“He was a man of great courage who overcame many obstacles to become a priest,” said Archbishop Cupich, who noted his critical role as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) during the 2002 clergy sexual-abuse crisis and the counsel he provided to the Vatican during three pontificates.

Archbishop Cupich touched on Cardinal George’s devotion to the faithful in his native city.

“Here in Chicago, the cardinal visited every corner of the archdiocese, talking with the faithful” and pursuing “an overfull schedule — always choosing the Church over his own comfort and the people over his own needs.”

“Most recently, we saw his bravery firsthand as he faced the increasing challenges brought about by cancer,” said the archbishop.

“Let us heed his example and be a little more brave, a little more steadfast and a lot more loving.

“This is the surest way to honor his life and celebrate his return to the presence of God.”

The archdiocese has stated that there will be public visitations at Holy Name Cathedral on Tuesday and Wednesday ahead of the funeral Mass on Thursday, at which Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will give the homily.

As Chicago Catholics mourn the loss of an archbishop who led the local Church for almost two decades, Catholic leaders across the nation reacted to the news.

“Cardinal George was a friend over many years, from the time I was a young bishop in Rapid City [S.D.]. We talked often. He was a constant source of good counsel and encouragement,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the Register.

“As a fellow religious, he was a model for me of living the beatitudes well, despite the daily crush of leading a large local Church. As a bishop and a scholar, he was the finest intellect the Church in America has seen in many decades. The only consolation in losing him is knowing that he served the Lord well, and the Lord has welcomed him home.”

On April 18, Pope Francis offered condolences to Archbishop Cupich:

“Saddened to learn of the death of Cardinal Francis E. George, archbishop emeritus of Chicago, I offer heartfelt condolences to you and to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the archdiocese,” the Pope said in a telegram.

The Pope also remembered him as a “wise and gentle pastor” and commended his service to the Church.

“To all who mourn the late cardinal in the sure hope of the Resurrection,” the Pope concluded, “I cordially impart my apostolic blessing as a pledge of consolation and peace in the Lord.”

On April 19, ABC 7 Chicago reported about a homily given at Holy Name Cathedral on Sunday about the cardinal's final moments: He requested that Salve Regina be sung, reflecting his love of the Blessed Mother.


Mentor to Other Cardinals

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who succeeded Cardinal George as the president of the bishops’ conference and has celebrated him as a mentor — a “bishop’s bishop” — expressed deep sadness at the news.

“While we have all realized for a while that it was near, the passing of Cardinal Francis George still comes as a jolt and leaves us with a sense of emptiness and loss,” said Cardinal Dolan, in a statement that offered his condolences to Archbishop Cupich and “the Catholic family of Chicago.”

“I will miss him as a pastor, friend and guide and can only thank God for the gift that he was and will ever be.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the USCCB’s current vice president, said that he would be remembered for his "courageous leadership and clarity of teaching" in comments posted on his archdiocesan blog.

“[H]e will also be remembered as a great friend, pastor, mentor and servant. The gift of his astute mind was matched only by the generosity of his heart," wrote Cardinal DiNardo.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who was ordained in Chicago and served under Cardinal George as a pastor, chancellor and auxiliary bishop before his appointment as the bishop of Springfield in 2010, told the Register that it had been a great “privilege to work closely with Cardinal George.”

“He has made a great impact by providing a wonderful example of ecclesial leadership characterized by availability to the people, deep devotion to our Catholic faith and scholarly appreciation for the teachings of the Church,” said Bishop Paprocki.


A Lifetime of Service and Suffering

Cardinal George retired last November, making the end of his extraordinary legacy in the Windy City and as a thought leader who brought both the appealing and inconvenient truths of the Church to the public square.

Named the archbishop of Chicago in 1997, he was the first Chicago native to assume that position, serving the archdiocese’s 2 million-plus Catholics.

It was an unexpected appointment for a brainy scholar who had begun his priestly ministry as a missionary.

In fact, childhood polio had left Francis George in a weakened condition, and he was denied entrance at Chicago’s minor seminary, leading him to join the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate after the rebuff.

Reflecting on the soul-forming impact of that fateful bout with polio, George Weigel recalled that the cardinal’s sister once “told a Chicago priest that, if he wanted to understand her brother, he should remember that ‘he’s always in pain.’”

“A polio survivor from the days of the iron lung, Francis George spent his entire adult life with his legs encased in dozens of pounds of steel. Then he was struck by bladder cancer and lived for years with what he called, ruefully, a ‘neo-bladder.’ He beat that challenge, but then another form of cancer struck, and his last years were filled with new pain,” said Weigel, in a reflection marking Cardinal George’s death on National Review.

“Francis George could live in chronic pain because he conformed his life to Christ and the cross. And now, I firmly believe, he is pain-free. For the Lord he served so long and well has welcomed home his good and faithful servant.”

Archbishop Cupich also noted the cardinal’s long struggle with chronic pain in his statement that celebrated his decision to embark on the unsettled and often uncomfortable life of a Catholic missionary.

“When he joined the priesthood, he did not seek a comfortable position; instead, he joined a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and served the people of God in challenging circumstances — in Africa, Asia and all around the world,” said Archbishop Cupich.

“A proud Chicagoan, he became a leader of his order and again traveled far from home, not letting his physical limitations moderate his zeal for bringing the promise of Christ’s love where it was needed most.”

Before his appointment as the archbishop of Chicago, he also served as archbishop of Portland, Ore., and the bishop of Yakima, Wash.


USCCB Presidency

His tenure as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010 marked an era of increasing challenges to the nation’s Catholic leaders, who struggled to come to grips with the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis and a steady rise in church-state tensions.

As the USCCB president, Cardinal George oversaw the reform of the episcopal conference and played a key role in the often-contentious effort to provide an accurate translation of the Roman Missal.

That campaign began in the mid-1990s and continued until 2010, with the approval of the new translation — the first English translation of the Third Edition of the Missal first published under Blessed Pope Paul VI.

While at the helm of the USCCB, the cardinal was often depicted in media reports as a culture warrior, but he rejected that term, and his closest collaborators offered a more nuanced description.

“Like St. John Paul II, he is not a warrior fighting the culture, but a prophet offering revealed truths,” Cardinal Dolan told the Register last November, as the Chicago archbishop prepared to retire.

Father Robert Barron, the director of the Word on Fire apostolate and the rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, emphasized that Cardinal George was passionately committed to evangelizing a culture that has drifted away from its Christian roots, and this desire was born out of love for souls, not from any hatred of American society.

“Cardinal George has said, ‘You can’t evangelize a culture you don’t love,’ so the Church can’t hunker down behind its walls,” Father Barron told the Register last November.


Local Legacy

Local pastors echoed that judgment, noting that Cardinal George was both an inspiring and challenging archbishop who kept them on their toes.

Indeed, a keen interest in the interaction of faith and culture that began while he was a doctoral student continued to shape his message to his priests.

“He challenged us to have a deeper awareness of how our cultural milieu shapes our faith and the challenges posed to it,” Msgr. Robert Dempsey, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle in Northfield, Ill., told the Register.

He noted that Cardinal George placed a great emphasis on seminary formation and the ongoing education of clergy, lay ministers and Catholic teachers, and he established institutes to provide that critical support.

Msgr. Dempsey is on the faculty of the Liturgical Institute, and he recalled Cardinal George’s probing efforts “to make sure the quality of academic instruction was top-notch.” 

“He also wanted a more structured community life, fixed times for community and individual prayer, more house discipline and a closer concern for lifestyle choices of seminarians,” he said.

With a chuckle, Msgr. Dempsey remembered Cardinal George as “a stickler when it came to the correctness of the liturgy or theological expression.

“Having been a teacher, he was quite quick to correct you. You would hear ‘Francis the corrector’ from some of the priests.”

Over time, he said, the cardinal “began to choose his battles more carefully. And as priests got to know him, they realized how genuine he was. There was no subterfuge: What you saw was what you got.”

The cardinal ordained 222 priests during his tenure, according to Mundelein Seminary.

As Father C. John McCloskey, research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, shared with the Register, “Cardinal Francis George leaves behind him a wonderful legacy. His greatest legacy, in my opinion, is his handling of the very important seminary — which now has many more vocations from Chicago and basically throughout the Midwest — that most certainly is strong, encouraging teaching the seminarians, who in turn will be faithful to their vocation as priests, so they are ready to evangelize and [know they] cannot bend to the culture.”

Sharing with the Register today about his own memories of the cardinal who guided his ministry for nearly two decades, Father Barron said, “Cardinal George was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever known. He was a man of extraordinary intellectual cultivation and spiritual depth. He was, first and last, a missionary, who wanted to announce Jesus Christ to the world.”

Added Father Barron, “He was a real spiritual father to me.” (Read more of his remembrances here.)


Wide Impact

The impact of Cardinal George extended outside of clergy as well.

“Once, after a pro-life banquet held in Chicago’s western suburbs, a local pro-lifer was giving the cardinal a long list of jobs he should do to promote the pro-life cause,” recalled Pro-Life Action League’s founder and national director, Joe Scheidler, in an April 17 statement. “Looking somewhat exasperated, he responded, ‘Why don’t you do these things yourself?’ Then, nodding to me added, ‘Like he does.’ I will greatly miss this outstanding ‘Leader of the Flock.’”

Sheila Liaugminas, host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio and author of Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture, was another longtime friend.

“Countless times on radio and in personal speaking engagements, I have referred to Cardinal George as ‘the pre-eminent American prelate’: He has always been a brilliant scholar, philosopher, a true thought leader in civil society, as well as the Church, and a ‘priest’s priest’ and ‘bishop’s bishop’ at core,” she shared with the Register.

“Cardinal George has always taught, incisively, how to apply the truths of our faith to the matters of civil life, society and governance of the nation and what that application meant to our shared civic life and the common good,” she added. “What he taught most clearly is that actions have consequences, we must apply critical-thinking skills to what our actions may cause, for better or worse, and realize that our actions will also have eternal consequences.

“He was indeed a good shepherd of the archdiocese.”

And as Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote, “He was not given to bending or simpering or appeasement on matters of theology. And because he refused to bend, on gay marriage, on women in the priesthood, there were many political types who despised him. Yet what could they expect from the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago? Did they expect him to be a Santa Claus and give them what they wanted? … Cardinal George was not a good politician. He was not a compromiser. He was a faithful priest, and he guarded his faith, unbending in his Roman Catholicism, understanding why it was difficult, why it couldn’t please everyone, and he wasn’t afraid to explain the reasons.”


‘The Gift of the People’

On Nov. 16, 2014, when he celebrated his final Mass as archbishop before Archbishop Cupich was installed, Cardinal George said, “Every priest and bishop is given the gift of the people that he is called to care for and to love in Christ’s name.”

“At some point, Christ will question me: ‘What have you done with my people? Are they holier because of your ministry? Are they more generous, more loving toward others?’” he told the congregation at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral as he bid them farewell.

“In short, you are my legacy.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.