Hearing that Cardinal Francis George had succumbed to his nine-year battle with cancer, my 87-year-old mother caught her breath, moaned, then sighed heavily — a reaction typical of when an endeared one dies.
After minutes lamenting, with watery eyes, she began praying for him.
I’d covered George and the Archdiocese of Chicago many times over his 17 years at its helm. Each time, I viewed him through the bi-focal lens of news reporter and child of devoutly Catholic parents.
I joke with friends that I was raised not in the church, but under the church. We seemed to live there while growing up. I attended Catholic elementary school on the Near South Side where my parents were intimately involved in every aspect of St. James parish life; then moved to suburbia, where my late father and my mother claimed an entire front pew of St. Scholastica in Woodridge for their seven children.
Like any good Catholic, freed of my parents’ rigidity in college, I ran from the church and a religion at times confusing for those who practice it, much less those looking in; sparking anger and, alternately, intense devotion.
But by the time I started raising my own children, I returned, first wandering in and out of St. Ignatius parish on the North Side; then singed by life crises and maturity, wading fully back in at Evanston’s St. Nicholas parish — with children who, like me when I was young, were none too happy with our unbreakable Sunday tradition.
As such, George was more than a newsmaker. He was a fellow Catholic, a priest, leader of the Chicago Archdiocese that had burnished my faith, transformed from that of my parents’ to my own 21st century perspective.
I first met George in December 2003, covering him at a Christmas Day mass for inmates at Cook County Jail. “Today, we are united in our faith, our hope and our joy,” he told the sea of black, brown and white faces softened for the moment by prayer. “It’s important for me to come because this is a population that is overlooked. . . . We thank God for forgiveness of our sins, and the promise of eternal life.”
In the years following, I never passed up an opportunity to speak to George of spiritual things when our paths crossed — in the cardinal’s visits to parishes I called home, or in interviews on whatever the mundane or controversial Archdiocese news topic of the day.
Two interactions impacted me, and I have thought of them many times since his April 17 passing.
Cardinal Francis George in a reflective moment at the October 2, 2014 annual meeting of Catholic Charities at the Chicago Hilton. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times
The first was an intimate conversation shared with George a decade ago, when he visited Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University. My children were then preteens, and when I worked too late on a Saturday to get to St. Nicholas in the morning, I’d drag kids who thought they were home free to Sheil’s evening mass.
It was just before he was first diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006, and it was a pleasant surprise to see the Cardinal, who was visiting to say mass and share in a spaghetti dinner. I was wrestling with tenets of the faith, exploring what Catholics believe and why, and found myself riveted by his obvious spiritual transformation during mass. At dinner, I approached and asked for counsel. He was more than gracious.
We stepped off to the side, and I posed my dilemma. I wish I could tell you he was kind and compassionate during our conversation. He was not. He seemed irritated by my failure to understand a particular tenet, after several minutes of conversation. I left the interaction still confused.
Over the years, I’d run into him, at church situations, work situations, situations in church while working. As the parent of a special needs child, I always appreciated he held a special place in his heart for the disabled, having contracted polio at age 13 and walked with a limp since. So my mother and I were saddened when his cancer returned in August 2012 — the year he submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican. We prayed for him at home and in church during intercessions.
The second memorable conversation with him was this time in a work situation, in September 2012. Despite preparing to begin chemotherapy that week for the reoccurring cancer, George kept his commitment to lead the 125th anniversary celebration at St. Joseph Church in the maligned Back of the Yards neighborhood.
He walked with a much slower gait and quite visible effort, but told me he was ready for the next leg of his journey. “I didn’t have chemo when I had bladder cancer the first time, so I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “It’s different for everybody, and so with the help of God, and a lot of prayers of an awful lot of people, I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
He said he intended to try to keep as many of his commitments as possible during treatment, as he drew personal strength from his flock. I switched to lay Catholic mode, and we spoke of spiritual things. We spoke of how one finds the strength to persevere through adversity, and one of the things he told me I shared, for others suffering from chronic illness.
“Faith tells us that we are never alone. Illness isolates you, because you have to kind of live inside the pain of your skin,” George said. “But the faith tells you that no matter how difficult it becomes, you’re never alone. So that’s my message: Rely upon the presence of those who are seen and those who aren’t seen. Faith unites us with those who aren’t seen, so know we are never alone.”
The last time I covered him was October, just before he halted his participation in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug that failed to work. George kept his appointment to address the annual meeting of Catholic Charities at the Chicago Hilton. Suffering from a cellulitis infection in his foot that made walking painful, George arrived in a wheelchair, using crutches to walk. In a brief address, he pointedly did not mention his illness.
“God wants to transform us. He wants to transform society. He must use us to do that,” he told the faithful. As I watched him closely, contemplating questions of death and the hereafter, I could swear there was something tangible surrounding him, the peace of one who was rock solid in his faith and for whom death was imminent. George, to me, was more than a newsmaker. He was a shepherd. He was human. R.I.P.
Maudlyne Ihejirika is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.