The day after Cardinal Francis George stepped down as leader of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics was a Sunday, and Eleanor Franczak, a parishioner at St. Michael’s Church in Orland Park, summed the cardinal’s tenure this way: “He was one of us. He wasn’t any better or worse, just a normal person.”
It was an assessment that Cardinal George, who died Friday morning at home after a nine-year struggle with cancer, would have wholeheartedly endorsed. When he learned that Pope John Paul II had named him as the successor to Chicago’s popular Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the unassuming priest asked in surprise, “Are you sure the Holy Father has considered all the options?”
But that modesty concealed a man who was an accomplished scholar, a skilled writer, and an unyielding defender of the faith.
“A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord,” the cardinal’s successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich, said in a news release Friday afternoon.
Raised on the Northwest Side, Cardinal George, 78, was the city’s eighth archbishop and the first priest born in the Chicago Archdiocese who rose to lead it.
Cupich, who was the bishop of Spokane, came to Chicago in September to assume the role as George’s successor, while George’s title became archbishop emeritus.
At the time of his appointment, in April 1997, George initially set an inclusive tone.
“The bishop is to be the source of unity in any archdiocese,” he said the day he was introduced to the city. “The faith isn’t liberal or conservative.”
He stepped into the void left by the beloved Bernardin — who also succumbed to cancer, in November 1996—and the memory of Bernardin’s soft-spoken and gentle demeanor underscored Cardinal George’s more austere style.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George speaks during a news conference in Chicago on April 11, 2014. | M. Spencer Green/APGeorge presided over the archdiocese during a difficult period for the church, marked by church closings and the never-ending sex abuse scandal, leading with dignity and efficiency and an emphasis on core Catholic values.
“The ‘price of citizenship’ is high when it means one must approve as human rights the killing of the unborn, the creation of false marriages between two men or two women, the universal availability of free contraceptives” he told the National Catholic Review last year, expressing frustration that “We will not be permitted to enter into the public conversation unless we approve of what our faith knows to be morally wrong.”
He was born Francis Eugene George on Jan. 16, 1937, in St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, the second child of Francis and Julia George. His father was a janitor for the Chicago Public Schools and his mother worked in an ad agency and was pious to the degree that she considered the saints her personal friends. He attended St. Pascal Elementary on North Melvina, and then St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in downstate Belleville.
He entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary but quickly had to drop out when he contracted polio at age 13. He spent three months in St. Francis Hospital, used crutches for a long time, and for the rest of his life wore a brace on his right leg and walked with a limp.
In 1957, he entered the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an apostolic order within the church that focuses on spreading the gospel to the “poorest and most abandoned.” He was ordained a priest in 1963 at St. Pascal Church, the same parish where he had attended grade school.
The young priest studied theology at the University of Ottawa and earned a master’s degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He earned his doctorate in American philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1970, and a second doctorate, in ecclesiology, from Pontifical Urban University in Rome.
Cardinal George taught philosophy at Tulane, as well as at Creighton and Gonzaga universities. He was sincere enough in his intellectual inquiry that the realm of philosophy sometimes posed a challenge to his faith.
“To go back and forth between those two worlds, one of which sometimes leads to agnosticism or even atheism, the other that is firmly planted in living with God, that too was another moment in my development that could have gone either way,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “In some ways you can imagine yourself living a life without faith if you do philosophy seriously, at least modern philosophy. So that was another moment when I had to reassert for myself that yes, I do believe.”
From 1974 to 1986, he was vicar general of the oblates in Rome (“oblation” is a term for blessing). He was fluent in Italian and also spoke some Spanish. Then he served for six years as bishop of Yakima, a mid-sized city in central Washington State.
He could be caustic, quick to upbraid those he considered wrongheaded, earning himself the nickname “Francis the Corrector.” It was a tendency he recognized.
“That’s one of the biggest difficulties,” he told the Sun-Times. “I get impatient at times. I try not to, but when you’re faced with something that you know just isn’t so, and you say, ‘Well, that’s not so!’ You try to be polite, but people should know better.”
He briefly served in Portland, Oregon, immediately before being named archbishop of Chicago in April 1997.
His personal experience, he said when he was introduced to the city in 1997, made the disabled of particular interest to him.
“The gift they bring is to make vulnerability very visible,” he said.
He was ordained as the city’s cardinal on Jan. 18, 1998.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, he visited patients at Children’s Memorial Hospital.
“There’s a myth that perfect people are the best people or don’t need help,” he said. “Therefore, if you lose independence, health or the ability to think, somehow you are less than human, and then it’s just one step to saying, ‘Let’s get rid of those who are less than human.’ ”
Such intolerance, Cardinal George said, is something “we have seen in this century already, and that’s what should make us all pause.”
While the first Chicagoan to become Chicago’s cardinal, he was not the first Chicagoan to become a cardinal — New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan was baptized at St. Giles Catholic Church in Oak Park.
In 2002, Cardinal George was part of the Vatican commission revising the official policy for U.S. bishops when responding to the sex abuse crisis, scrapping its “zero-tolerance policy.”
“The goal of protecting all children is intact,” the cardinal said in October 2002, trying to assuage the concerns of critics. “But the process has to be looked at again. There is a huge penalty here, permanent removal from all ministry.”
Cardinal George consistently blocked the release of church records related to accusations of abuse. When forced to do so by a lawsuit in 2014, and 6,000 pages of church documents revealed how his predecessors had moved around priests accused of shocking molestation, Cardinal George apologized, in a letter.
“I apologize to all those who have been harmed by these crimes and this scandal,” he wrote.
In 2005, Cardinal George participated in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal George was diagnosed with a cancerous bladder and prostate and had them removed in 2006. In 2012, cancer returned, in his kidney. He participated in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug, but it failed to work, and he halted treatment in December.
As a critical thinker, he said having doubts about the church is part of being Catholic.
“Who hasn’t?” he told the Sun-Times in 2005, chuckling. “I can’t imagine being married sometimes and not wondering, ‘Did I marry the right woman? This is it?’ It’s the same thing. Especially doing philosophy where you are trained to be extremely critical.”
But foremost, Catholicism was a call to moral duty to the cardinal, one that must be used to improve the world. He was the author of two books, “The Difference God Makes ” and “God in Action,” both published in 2001. The latter is a call to Catholics to use their religion to help people.
“To live from a Catholic vision is not just the fruit of our human effort,” he wrote. “It is a gift from God and the result of profound and daily contemplation, of prayerful discernment in the cultural signs of the times of the gracious and always surprising presence of God.”