Sneed: Getting to know Cardinal George

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Cardinal Francis George reflects on his illness during an interview with Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed in December 2012 at his residence. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

The cardinal’s story . . .

I never really knew him.

I tried.

Cardinal Francis George was a cerebral man, a good man, but not the kind of person who was easy to interview. A university professor who taught philosophy, he seemed to live in his head.

He’d smile. He was kind and gracious. But no matter how hard I pushed my pen hoping to stumble on a chip of nonpastoral paint, his words never veered into a more personal pastel.

Our new cardinal had already been dubbed “Francis the Corrector” by priests troubled by his conservative edicts shortly after his arrival.

And our first meeting was less than cordial.

We were introduced at a friend’s reception, and the first words out of my mouth were: “So nice to meet you. I think women should be allowed to become priests.”

“When pigs fly,” the cardinal shot back.

Surely he was joking?

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning, and I wouldn’t have blamed my gracious hostess for grabbing the cardinal’s crozier and hitting me over the head with it.

The incident, which caused a few gasps, resulted in at least one guest sending me a flying pig ornament for my Christmas tree.

It also brought a prompt invitation from the cardinal to have breakfast to discuss our unusual meet-and-greet.

At the cardinal’s residence, I was greeted by nuns. Somewhere between the toast and theology I knew I was in over my head.

To me, the cardinal might as well have been speaking in tongues when he tried to explain why women can’t be Catholic priests. A Catholic I was raised. A theologian I was not.

I was also knocked off balance being waited on by the good nuns who devote themselves to service — considering the topic of breakfast conversation involved the role of women in the church.

Since then, over the years, the cardinal has always been kind and considerate in our subsequent cordial chats . . . as was his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, to whom I once posed the same question:

“If you had not been born a Catholic, would you have become a Catholic?”

Both men startled me by the similarity of their answers.

“I’d like to think so,” they both said, give or take a word or two lost in translation.

The last time I interviewed George was in December 2012, when he was undergoing another round of chemotherapy in his second bout with cancer.

Reflecting on his illness, he said: “I am joyful. Living this way introduces you to an alternative universe. There is always more. Christ is always more. Life happens. You just adjust and move on.”

The cardinal, who had never had a day without pain since he was stricken with polio at age 13, told me: “I used to dream about running all the time after that.”

And then briefly, he talked about the time — before polio changed his life — when he first saw the cardinal’s palatial residence.

Goodness! I was beginning to see pastel!

A native Chicagoan, George said he first spotted the mansion while “walking past it as a child to visit the famous gorilla Bushman, at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Seeing Bushman was a highlight of my young life and the cardinal’s residence was just a big house on my way to the zoo,” he said.

Finally, he talked about his dad.

“My father, a devout Catholic, wasn’t happy about me becoming a priest. He was a good man, but he didn’t really like priests as people. He thought priests were lazy. We never had a priest in our home. He didn’t know how hard they worked. He reminded me I’d never be able to marry.

“But then he said, ‘If you’re going to become a priest, become a good one.’ ”

This was obviously a man who had followed his father’s advice.

He became a hardworking priest.

And his devoted flock would agree: He had become a good one.

Sneedlings . . .

Thursday’s birthdays: Valerie Bertinelli, 55; Dev Patel, 25, and John Oliver, 38.

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