Four months ago, the Chicago City Council gave retired Cardinal Francis George a calling card to show when he arrived at heaven’s pearly gates.
It was the Medal of Merit, the city’s highest honor. The cardinal, who died Friday after a long battle with cancer, was the first to be given the honor in 15 years. He joked that he would show the medal to Saint Peter when the time came to persuade him to let him in.
“It might be six months from now. It might be six years from now. Who knows? ” Ald. Edward Burke (14th), a devout Catholic, said then. “He will display his Chicago Medal of Merit to Saint Peter and say, ‘Saint Peter, this is who I am.’ ”
It would turn out to be one of the cardinal’s final public appearances.
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Chicago aldermen heaped adoring praise on the man who led Chicago Catholics for 17 years and was the first Chicagoan named archbishop.
Burke credited George with upholding Chicago’s “history and legacy of Catholicism” — a heritage so rich that it is “not uncommon for people of other faiths to refer to their neighborhoods by the name of the local parish church.”
“Cardinal George has been a powerful force in preserving that landscape,” Burke said. “But he’s also focused on entering into a public discourse on critical issues facing all Chicagoans with the utmost respect, sense of fairness and, of course, faith.
“When you returned home as our archbishop, you humbly referred to yourself as ‘Francis, our neighbor,’ ” the alderman told the cardinal. “Over the years, you have truly become ‘Francis, our brother,’ but also father of this community.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel called George a “man of the cloth and conviction” who has “earned the admiration of all of us, regardless of faith.
“Whether in service to the poorest in our city or providing shelter to the homeless and victims of domestic abuse or speaking out against violence on our streets, Cardinal George could always be relied on to more than lend his voice.”
Emanuel said the city had planted a red maple tree in George’s honor across from the cardinal’s home in Lincoln Park.
“You can see it from your window. That way, your roots will forever remain in the city of Chicago,” the mayor said.
Ald. Deb Mell (3rd), the city’s first openly lesbian alderman, recalled she first met George on the floor of the Illinois House, where Mell got married.
“I went up and introduced myself, and he’s, like, ‘Oh, you’re Deb Mell,’ ” she said. “Then, he had a few choice words for me.
“We’ve had our differences, but I’ve never doubted your love of this city and your passion for its people,” she told him at the council meeting.
George said he was “deeply touched” by the rare honor and kind words.
He said he never thought he would be Chicago’s archbishop nor address the City Council.
He spoke of Chicago’s “unique, peculiar and good” identity, once you get past “all the stories about gangsterism” and the boosterism that makes Chicagoans demand to be No. 1. He also likened his old job to the work that aldermen and the mayor do — and said he no longer dreaded opening his mail.
“In your office and mine, many of the letters that you receive are letters of complaint or discontent for something you’ve done or someone else has done that they don’t like,” he said.
“What I’m getting now — and what has truly transformed my own judgment on my time here — is letters from people who say, ‘You don’t know me, but you helped me.’ . . . You say something occasionally. You reach out in some gesture of kindness. You do something that you’re not even aware of . . . and you transform someone’s life. That is what is eternal.”