Published April 17, 2015
Francis Eugene George was many things: a dedicated missionary priest; a first-rate intellectual; a shrewd observer of the public square; the first native of the Windy City to be named archbishop of Chicago; a great reformer of the Archdiocese of Chicago. But when word of his death came early this afternoon, my first thought was that he was, in the Lord’s mercy, no longer in pain.
His 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, more pain, different pain. Yet not once, since I first met him three decades ago when he was Father Francis George, did I ever hear him complain about the pain — or about the sometimes strange ways God has with those He has blessed in so many other facets of their lives. 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.
Perhaps the most appropriate Gospel passage to ponder at times like this, and when thinking about lives like that of Cardinal George, is the story of the Transfiguration. For in preserving the memory of the transfigured Christ, whose “face shone like the sun” and whose “garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2), the first generation of Christians was bearing witness to its hope for the human future. The transfigured Christ not only prefigured the Risen Christ, in whose Eastertide Francis George died; the transfigured Christ prefigures the life that awaits the friends of the Risen One in his Kingdom, at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. There, there is no polio, and no post-polio syndrome. There, there is no cancer, no gut-wrenching chemotherapy, no diminishment of vigor. There, there is only fullness of life, with palsied limbs made whole in a wholly new way.
That is the future in which Cardinal Francis George believed. That that is the future in which he now shares is the consolation of those who loved and admired him.
The American hierarchy has not, these past two centuries, been noted for scholar-bishops — unlike, say, the Catholic Church in Germany. But in Francis Eugene George, the Catholic Church in the United States found itself with a leader of world-class intellect, with two earned doctorates yet with none of the intellectual deformities associated with the contemporary academy. He was, in the best sense of the term, a free thinker: one who thought independently of the reigning shibboleths, yet within the tradition of the Church and its intellectual heritage. His was a thoroughly modern intellect; yet how appropriate that he died on the day when the Church reads the Johannine account of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, with the Lord’s admonition to “gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost” (John 6:12), for Cardinal George’s fidelity to the tradition was in response to that admonition. He knew that the tradition had something to teach us today; he practiced what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”
That Johannine reference works in other ways, too. For when Francis George became archbishop of Chicago in 1997, there were a lot of fragments to be gathered up. Six months after his appointment, we were together in Rome, and I asked him what he’d learned so far about what had long considered itself the flagship archdiocese of the United States. “I’m 60 years old,” he said, “and in the 15 years I’ve got left I’ve got to get people going back to Mass again and I’ve got to get priests hearing confessions again.” He worked hard to do that, and he did so with effect. And if some of the notoriously difficult Chicago clergy never quite got it, a lot of the people of the Archdiocese of Chicago did — and in the brief months of his retirement, the cardinal often remarked in our conversations on how touched he was by people coming up to him in parishes and thanking him for what he had done for the archdiocese.
We spoke several times since, but what turned out to be our final meeting was last November at Mundelein Seminary, which he had thoroughly reformed. (Something of the flavor of the larger-than-life quality of old Chicago Catholicism can be gleaned from the story about the coat of arms of Cardinal George William Mundelein, founder of the seminary. The motto on his arms read Deus Adjutor Meus [God Is My Help], which local clerical wags translated as “God Is My Auxiliary [Bishop].”) The current rector, Father Robert Barron, had built a new daily-Mass chapel for the growing seminary community. The chapel was to be dedicated to the newly canonized Pope St. John Paul II, and Father Barron had invited me to give a public lecture on the late pope after Cardinal George consecrated the chapel — which he did, walking with difficulty on crutches, rubbing great swaths of holy chrism into the altar and then celebrating the first Mass offered there. It was another example of Cardinal George’s extraordinary physical courage — but he was determined to keep his commitment to consecrate the chapel, in no small part because of his love and esteem for John Paul II.
Like the Polish pope — another man determined to “gather up the fragments” and then re-knead them into a contemporary synthesis of Catholic faith and practice — Cardinal George was a keen observer (and critic) of the Western-civilization project. And his concerns about the trajectory on which that project seemed headed were neatly captured in a sound bite, excerpted from a lengthy discussion with his priests, in which the cardinal said that he expected to die in bed; he expected his successor to die in prison; and he expected the following archbishop of Chicago to be a martyr in the public square.
It was a deliberately provocative formulation, intended to get the priests of Chicago thinking seriously about the challenges posed by what Pope Benedict XVI had called the “dictatorship of relativism.” To some it bespoke resignation, even surrender. That misimpression was due to the fact that the cardinal’s hypothetical was always cut short in the reporting of it. For what he said, in full, was that he expected to die in bed; his successor would die in prison; that man’s successor would be publicly executed; and his successor would “pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”
Like John Paul II, Francis George knew that the Catholic Lite project — the unhappy dumbing down of the vibrant progressive Chicago Catholicism of the 1930s and 1940s — was unfit either to fight the zeitgeist in the name of freedom rightly understood, or to “gather up the fragments” and help rebuild the American experiment after the zeitgeist had done its worst. But it would be a great disservice to his memory to suggest, as some undoubtedly will, that Francis George was at war with “liberal” Catholicism. In the first place, he refused to think of the Church as something that could be defined in terms of “liberal” or “conservative.” As he said at his first Chicago press conference in 1997, the Church is about true and false, not left and right. Moreover, he knew that Catholic Lite was dying of its own implausibility, so why waste energy battling it? Rather, “gather up the fragments” — including the fragments of good in the once-vital reform Catholicism of Chicago — and get on with the task of re-evangelizing both the Church and the Great American City.
That could be done, the cardinal was convinced, only by what you might call All-In Catholicism: a Church that offered both mercy and truth; a Church that was both pro-life and committed to the effective empowerment of the poor; a Church that could make Catholicism compelling in a culture that was too often simply indifferent to what religious communities had to say. That apathy would not be met by surrendering core Catholic understandings of what makes for human happiness to the zeitgeist. But neither would it be met by argument alone. Arguments were important, this man of intellect and culture knew; but so was witness, and that was why he put such energy into defending the Church’s institutions for empowering the poor — its schools, health-care facilities, and social-service centers — against the encroachments of a government trying to use the Church for its own purposes.
When the U.S. bishops elected Cardinal George their president in 2007, they were acknowledging a change in the dynamics of Catholic life in America that is irreversible. The liveliest centers of Catholicism in America — the parishes, the dioceses, the seminaries, the lay renewal movements, the growing orders of consecrated religious life — are those that have embraced what John Paul II called the “New Evangelization” and what Pope Francis has called a “Church permanently in mission.” The old post-conciliar battles are, largely, over, and the course has been set. Francis George helped set that course. And when it comes time to write his story in full, he will be remembered as the most consequential archbishop of Chicago in the modern history of the Church — and a leader in American Catholicism whose intellectual and physical courage was instrumental in making the Church in the United States, for all its challenges and problems, the most vital in the developed world.
He is now where he has always wanted to be. He is without pain, whole and healed. He has met Christ the Lord, and he is living in the presence of the Thrice-Holy God — to whom I give thanks for his life, his witness, and our friendship.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.