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Archbishop-Emeritus Francis George awarded Medal of Merit

Archbishop-Emeritus Cardinal Francis George joked Wednesday that, when he arrives in heaven, he will have something important to show Saint Peter that might help convince him to open the gates.

“It might be six months from now. It might be six years from now. Who knows? [But] he will display his Chicago Medal of Merit to Saint Peter and say, `Saint Peter, this is who I am,’ ” said Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

The City Council gave the retired Archibishop that calling card Wednesday, making George the first recipient in 15 years of the Medal of Merit, the city’s highest honor.

It came after aldermen heaped adoring praise on the man who led Chicago Catholics for 17 years and achieved, as Burke put it, three firsts: first Chicagoan to be named Archbishop; first to become Archbishop-emeritus and the first Archbishop to receive the city’s Medal of Merit.

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. 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,” Burke said.

“We’re privileged, are we not, to have the opportunity to express to him the gratitude so many feel for the many contributions he has made to the vitality of this great metropolis…. When you returned home as our Archbishop, you humbly referred to yourself as, `Francis, our neighbor.’ Over the years, you have truly become, `Francis, our brother,’ but also father of this community.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked up on the, “Francis, our brother” theme. He called George a “man of the cloth and conviction” who has “earned the admiration of all of us, regardless of faith.”

“You have worked tirelessly in making the life of our city what it needs to be and what it can be,” the mayor said.

“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…. Just as he was this past summer, when he made preparations to welcome and care for hundreds of unaccompanied migrants from Central and South America.”

Emanuel said the city has planted a red maple tree in George’s honor across the street from the retired-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. You will always be Francis, our neighbor,” the mayor said.

Ald. Deb Mell (3rd), the city’s first openly-lesbian alderman, recalled that 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.’ Then, he had a few choice words for me,” Mell recalled, obviously referring to gay marriage.

“We’ve had our differences. But I’ve never doubted your love of this city and your passion for its people. I just want to thank you for your service.”

Other aldermen recalled that George had the guts to lead the fight against Emanuel’s plan to turn off the free water spigot to churches and non-profits.

When it was his turn to speak, the Archbishop-emeritus said he was “deeply touched” by the rare honor and kind words.

He said he never thought he would be Archbishop of Chicago, let alone address the City Council and he was determined to make it short because, “You have your work to do.”

But George could not resist the temptation to talk about 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 dreads opening the 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 must get those letters, too…. 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. That’s what lasts.”

Wednesday’s tribute ended the way it should — with a joke and a standing ovation.

“I want to thank you with all my heart. I ask you to continue to work with Archbishop Cupich, who is eager to work with you for the good of all,” George said.

“Unfortunately, because of Archbishop Cupich, I’m going to probably have to identify with the homeless in ways that I didn’t quite anticipate. That was a joke, in case anybody” didn’t get it.