Jim Bowman: Curiosity a balm to cardinal in this life and the next

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Days before he died, Cardinal George reportedly told seminary rector Father Robert Barron that his curiosity was awakened, he was “so eager” to see God.

Wow. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who rejoiced when she coughed blood, knowing that the end was near.

The cardinal was in pain all his life, from age 13 with his polio and the heavy leg brace, and then his cancers. He took it like a man, inspired by his faith.

Chronic pain makes people grumpy, which he was not. How’s that for witnessing the faith?

I’ve always had the feeling he had a secret weapon in the struggle. He loved learning and was good at it. Not to make light of the challenge, but there’s joy in that.


That curiosity business is a clincher as to what kind of man he was. Another was his apparent calm and ready smile, what you could see from public appearances, photos, film clips.

He would call up development director Pat Hickey at Leo Catholic now and then to ask about students whom he’d met at the school and “knew to be challenged.” He hosted some of them for tea and crumpets at the big house on State Parkway.

Dead and buried now, he’s having his not idle curiosity satisfied — though never completely, we are told, there being no end to God.

The title “corrector” was hung on him early in Chicago. “Instructor” would have been more like it, to go by his Catholic New World columns, which he considered a way to provide “clear instruction” in the faith.

He wanted to supply “an articulated vision of the faith,” he wrote, the rules and “God’s mercy and love” somehow all mixed together. He had and drew upon such a vision, or amalgamation, and knew what it could do for a person. He wanted to pass it on.

In one of his first columns, in late October, 1998, he urged Catholics to vote for pro-life candidates in the election a week away.

It was Reformation Sunday, and he did it as part of an extended discussion of Martin Luther’s concept of “justification,” what makes us eligible for heaven.

Only at the end did he get to the voting part, arguing from God’s “sharing his life with us” to respect for life as a “defining issue.”

Then he got to the point. “Before we vote,” he wrote, “we will have thought about our own death and judgment,” prayed for the souls in purgatory on All Souls Day, and celebrated the saints on All Saints Day.

We would be reminded “that the Lord will in some sense ask us after we die how we voted on November 3, 1998.” How we vote, he added, “affects our life with God.” Hmm.

It was pretty much an offer we could not refuse, though many did. He closed asking God to bless us as we vote and “make [us] holy in all [we] do.”

It was a case of voting to save one’s soul, an appeal delivered in disarming fashion, coming at the end of a closely argued exposition of a non-“legalistic” vision of what it means to be a Catholic.

Jim Bowman is a former religion editor for the Chicago Daily News and the author of three books on Catholicism. The latest is Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968.

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