The Missionary Returns

In the eight years that he has headed the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George has navigated a range of crises and addressed a groundswell of dissent. Some in his flock remain uncertain about where he will lead them. But now this scholarly and personable man says the way has cleared for his main agenda: bringing people into his church.

On his first day back in his hometown, the missionary awoke in a grandiose Gold Coast mansion. He said Mass in the small chapel with the red and blue stained glass windows on the house’s first floor; it was April 8, 1997, nine days after Easter. After a simple breakfast, Francis Eugene George, a child of the Northwest Side and the man designated by Pope John Paul II to lead Chicago’s Catholics, went out to meet his flock.

Forty-five years earlier, George had left Chicago behind, a 15-year-old boy on crutches (the aftereffects of polio) bound for a seminary outside St. Louis. He had gone on to win academic distinction, live in Rome, serve as bishop of Yakima, Washington, and as archbishop of Portland, Oregon. That last position ended after only 11 months, and his assignment to Chicago came as a surprise. “My leaving was a big shock, because I expected to spend the rest of my life there,” he said during a wide-ranging conversation with Chicago at his residence this past June. “It isn’t good to change bishops. It’s not healthy, either for the bishop or for the local church-and I said that to the papal nuncio.” But when the pope commands, a good archbishop gracefully complies.

From the archbishop’s residence at North Avenue and State Parkway, George made his way to Holy Name Cathedral, where he prayed at a side altar before the Blessed Sacrament. Word had leaked out about his appointment, and several dozen people applauded their new archbishop. His official introduction followed shortly, at a press conference in the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center at 155 East Superior Street.

The gathering was crowded, but the largest presence was that of someone who wasn’t there. Five months earlier, George’s predecessor, the beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had died from cancer. Now everyone wanted to know whether George would guide the archdiocese with the same moderation as Bernardin, or whether he would adopt a conservative stance, one more in step with the doctrinal aesthetic lately emanating from the Vatican.

Eight years later, Chicagoans are to some extent still debating George’s direction. For Donald Senior, a Passionist priest and president of the Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, it comes down to a matter of methods. “I’m not sure that Cardinal George is all that different from Cardinal Bernardin in theology,” says Senior. “It’s a matter of the style of leadership. Bernardin was very mild mannered and interested in reconciliation. Cardinal George is straightforward: ‘Let’s solve this; let’s get this fixed.’ He does call people to accountability, and that doesn’t always win you friends. But that’s his role as bishop: ‘If this is the policy of the church, we should be following it.’”

Senior attended the crowded April 1997 press conference, and one remark made by the new archbishop stands out in his memory. “The cardinal,” said George, referring to Bernardin, “was a consummate gentleman, a Southern gentleman really. I was born here, so there may be some difference in reaction time. But there’ll be no difference in substance.”

George ended that cold and blustery April day with a visit to Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Hillside, where he prayed at the Bishops’ Mausoleum, final resting place of Bernardin and six other Chicago bishops. Another crowd of well-wishers awaited him there, and George happily embraced a few of them, longtime friends who still thought of him as Father Frannie.

Branching out from the intersection of Austin Avenue and Irving Park Road, Chicago’s Dunning neighborhood is a peaceful, well-ordered place. Sandwiched between Cumberland Avenue on the west and Portage Park on the east, shady streets lined with neat brick bungalows follow one after the other. The hub of this white ethnic, working-class area is St. Pascal’s Church and School at Irving Park Road and Melvina Avenue.

Over the decades, membership in the 91-year-old parish has held steady between 2,000 and 2,500 families, including the George family, which in 1939 moved from Chicago’s South Side to a red-brick bungalow at 6121 West Byron, just three blocks from the church. The head of the family, Francis, was an operating engineer for the Chicago Public Schools and superintendent of buildings and grounds at Northeastern Illinois University. His wife, Julia, had worked for an advertising agency, but she gave that up when the couple’s first child, Margaret Mary, was born in 1931. Their son, Francis Eugene George, Chicago’s future cardinal, was born January 16, 1937.

By all accounts, young Francis-called “Fran” or “Frannie” by his friends-enjoyed a typical boyhood. “We had the run of the city,” he recalls today. “As long as your mother knew where you were going and that you were together with other kids, you were very free. We rode our bikes everywhere.”

In a 2001 pastoral letter, George remembered riding the bus with his friends. “We always rushed to sit in the very last seat,” he wrote, “the long seat that permitted us to look through the back window of the bus as we moved forward. Although we would not have been able to explain it, we created our own space and had the feeling of surveying the bus and the street from a privileged vantage point.”

That experience was turned on its head when young Fran spent a summer staying with a Franciscan priest in Tennessee. Though white, the Franciscan served as pastor to a group of African American Catholics, and George made friends with black kids his own age. On a trip to Memphis, they all climbed aboard a local bus, and as usual, George headed for the back seat. The conductor told him he could not sit there, nor could he sit with his friends, who were relegated to the back of the bus.

“Thoroughly embarrassed,” George wrote in his 2001 pastoral letter, “I did not much enjoy that afternoon in downtown Memphis and never afterwards got on a bus there.” The Franciscan and his black friends shrugged off the incident, but young George was perplexed. “The teaching in my home and in my parish [had been] good,” he wrote. “The experience just didn’t match the teaching. That gap is called ‘sin.’”

As he grew up, says George, his family was not overly religious. His father served as an usher at St. Pascal’s, his mom worked with the Altar and Rosary Society, and Fran was an altar boy who exhibited an early attraction to the priesthood. “I guess I first thought of being a priest at the time I made my first Communion in second grade,” he says. “It was an important spiritual moment for me, and I played with it on and off. My pastor thought I should go to Quigley [the archdiocese’s preparatory seminary that readied high-school boys for the priesthood]. What changed that whole thing and what would change my life was that I got polio in the eighth grade.”

Today George still walks with a slight limp and wears a brace on his right leg. He acknowledges that the illness created, “to some extent,” a crisis of faith. “If something like that happened,” he says, “anybody would ask, ‘Why me?’ But I took some good advice from a number of people who said you can’t get caught in that trap, because it will paralyze you literally. For a young kid to be inoculated that early against self-pity was a great thing.”

 

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George tried to attend Quigley, but the trip downtown by bus proved too much for a boy on crutches, and after one day, he says, he called it quits. Instead he attended St. Henry’s Preparatory Seminary, a boarding school (now closed) in Belleville, Illinois, that was run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order of missionary priests with an avowed obligation to evangelize the poor. Ultimately, George decided to stick it out with the Oblates. “As I started to sort it through, I liked what I saw,” he says. “But the thing that gave me pause was the fact that they were a missionary order working under very difficult circumstances"-a challenging prospect for a young man still battling the ravages of polio.

The Oblates needed teachers to train those priests, however, and George was put on the teaching track. On August 14, 1957, he officially entered the order, and went on to collect a handful of degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in American philosophy from Tulane in New Orleans, and a sacred theology doctorate in ecclesiology from Pontifical Urban University in Rome. He took his first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1961, and on December 21, 1963, with his parents in attendance, he was ordained a priest and took his final vows at St. Pascal’s. As he pursued his studies, he advanced rapidly within the order, and in 1974, when he was 37, the Oblates elevated him to vicar general, the number two post in the order.

Though based in Rome, George spent considerable time traveling to the order’s missions. “The Oblates are all over the globe, and they get very close to the people, especially the poor, so I saw a lot of things from their viewpoint,” he says. The experience was “formative of my sense of what the Catholic Church is about,” he says, a catalyst for faith and for hope.

Cardinal George is not only the spiritual leader of Chicago’s Catholics, but as “corporation sole,” he is also the equivalent of the archdiocese’s CEO and board of directors. Though he claims not to have been overwhelmed, George today recalls the enormous scale of the tasks that confronted him as he took the reins as Chicago’s archbishop in May 1997 (the pope would elevate him to the College of Cardinals in January 1998). “In a place this large,” he says, “you have to be careful you’re not captured by crisis, because there’s always something.”

Those crises loomed immediately. In the first few weeks he received a report that emphasized the necessity of closing dozens of Chicago’s Catholic schools. (He refused to close all of the schools in the initial recommendation.) He also had to deal with the growing scandal over sexual abuse by priests-what the cardinal calls his “biggest blockbuster.” “That was a shock to me,” he says today, visibly sagging. “I certainly hadn’t anticipated [the extent of the scandal], and expended a lot of time and energy on it. It’s a huge factor in the life of the church. The moral gravity of the situation, as well as the psychological and spiritual effects, wounds so many people.”

Complicating matters were George’s interactions with some of the diocese’s priests, relationships that seemed to get off on the wrong foot. Sometimes, following a parish visit, he would send a letter to the pastor insisting that he more closely follow the procedural details of church life. “Cardinal George is very much up-front about the necessity of priests’ being responsible for and conforming to church policy,” says Don Senior. “He is insistent about that, whereas Cardinal Bernardin was more lenient. But Cardinal George speaks like a missionary, and he looks on his work as missionary work.”

Some priests quietly began referring to their new archbishop as Francis the Corrector. “That name was raised a week into his administration,” says the Rev. William Kenneally, the 70-year-old pastor of St. Gertude’s Church in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. “It stemmed from little things, like whether the ministers of communion had been properly trained. He felt the name was unfair. It stung him deeply.”

Two years ago, after George sent a letter to all diocesan parishes asking them to conform to some minor changes in how worshipers received Holy Communion, Kenneally used his pulpit to speak against the edict (which originated with the Vatican). “Thinking you can govern by proclamation is very odd,” Kenneally says today. “It is an interesting spirituality that makes obedience the primary virtue.”

George calmly but firmly deflects such criticism. “I have a clear idea of the role of the bishop in the church,” he says, “and a clear idea of the Catholic Church-perhaps too clear for some folks. My role is to keep the people united around Christ, and visibly that’s where I come in as the disciplinary head of the church here.”

But what troubled some folks was not so much George’s disciplinary inclinations, but the fact that they might be a symptom of a larger philosophical shift within the church, particularly in the United States. Evidence of that change had come in July 2001, when George dismissed Gabe Huck, the longtime director of Liturgy Training Publications, a publishing house answerable to the archdiocese. Founded during Vatican II, the company had gone from turning out liturgical manuals to publishing a wide range of religious books and videos. In 2001, annual sales had reached about $7 million, but Catholics on the right considered the place too “far out” and demonized Huck for such sins as his use of inclusive, non-gender-based language.

“I hadn’t talked to the cardinal in a while, and then one day [in 2001] he called me in to the chancery office and said that there was a new day in the liturgy and we needed different leadership,” said Huck in June from New York City, where he and his wife were preparing for a yearlong stay in Damascus to study Arabic. “And in a sense, he was right. There was a new day. The mindset of people in power had changed.”

For Huck-who inhabits what might be called the liberal wing of the church-it comes down to a battle over the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. Huck thinks that conservative Catholics, dismayed at the dwindling numbers in the ranks and the perceived lack of discipline in the church, want to sweep Vatican II under the rug.

Cardinal George has insisted that he would prefer to get rid of labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” regarding them as merely an offshoot of the nation’s rancorous political discourse. Nevertheless, George stepped into the middle of that discussion with some unplanned remarks from the pulpit at Old St. Patrick’s Church less than a year into his term as archbishop. Acknowledging that the U.S. church was at a “turning point,” George went on to state that “liberal Catholicism [was] an exhausted project.”

A reporter from Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, happened to be in the audience, and news of George’s remarks quickly spread. But Commonweal had also noted George’s dismissal of a conservative Catholicism “obsessed with particular practices and . . . sectarian in its outlook.”

So in which direction should the church turn? “The answer,” George told the St. Pat’s audience, “is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any culture and yet able to engage and transform them all.”

The word “angel” comes from the Greek word for “messenger,” and so an evangelist is someone who is spreading the news-the good news. Cardinal George considers himself an evangelist, and his first pastoral letter to the faithful of Chicago explained his methods. “[Evangelism] doesn’t mean beating people over the head with a Bible,” he wrote. Rather, the evangelist introduces people to Jesus and encourages them to share in Christ’s gifts: the Gospels, the sacraments, and the church. True believers need to act as “God’s agents.”

In 2002, he reaffirmed his position. “Our society has become a place where many do not know how to be truly human and where great numbers are overwhelmed by the pain, loneliness, and helplessness of lives without God,” he wrote in an introduction to a guide to evangelization for Chicago Catholics. “All around us people are starving for faith and love, for hope and meaning in their lives. More than ever we are called to evangelize.”

As Cardinal George contemplates his agenda for the upcoming years, evangelization remains at the top of his list. “The true message of Vatican II was never understood here,” he says. “In the United States, we got caught up in these liberal and conservative dichotomies. It was as if the mission of the council was to have the church catch up with the modern world. It wasn’t a game of catch-up at all. Its message was to convert the world. It’s taken us all this time to understand that in this country. The purpose of the church is to make people holy.”

Cardinals should be formally addressed as “Cardinal” or “Your Eminence,” but from the moment I began preparing to interview Cardinal George, one of my chief concerns was that I would slip and call him “Father.” It didn’t help that when we did meet in late June, he was dressed like a priest, the only symbol of his rank a large gold ring, a gift from Pope John Paul II.

We decided to converse in the cardinal’s residence, which has been home to the diocese’s bishops since it was built in 1880. Before we begin our discussion-in a sitting room dominated by a painting of Cardinal Bernardin-a diminutive nun, clad in a full-blown, black-and-white pre–Vatican II habit, brings us coffee on a tray.

We spend nearly 90 minutes together-a long time for this extremely busy man-discussing his spiritual journey and the serious issues confronting him today. True to his reputation, the cardinal doesn’t dissemble but provides straightforward answers to each question. His only equivocation, if it can be called that, comes when I ask him whether there was any truth to the rumors that he had been a serious candidate to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the important Vatican job vacated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he became Pope Benedict XVI. George neither confirms nor denies the reports.

One-on-one, it’s hard not to warm up to the man. He makes the occasional joke, sometimes at his own expense, and punctuates his remarks with genuine laughter. Of course, I’m not a disgruntled priest or unhappy layperson at loggerheads with Francis the Corrector over some divisive issue-or the state of my eternal soul.

For at heart, the cardinal is a serious man who deeply feels the burden of running a fragmented, 21st-century church while tending to the salvation of millions of souls, Catholic or otherwise. Clearly, the spiritual condition of his flock troubles him. “When I grew up,” he says, “85 percent of the Catholics here, at least, were practicing Catholics. Now maybe 25 percent are. Is there something we can do to address that? We are a poorer church, we are a weakened church, and yet the basic strength is there. God has revealed who he is in Jesus, and in faith, and that’s what we hang on to.”

As we wrap up the interview, I have a last question: Does he miss being called “Father"? He says that he does sometimes think of himself as a father whether people call him that or not. As we head for the door, the cardinal detours to show me the small main-floor chapel where he says Mass most mornings when he is at the house. That’s when I slip and call him “Father.”

I can’t believe I’ve goofed just seconds from the conclusion of our meeting, and I apologize. The man in black gives me an affectionate pat on the shoulder and tells me not to worry. And then Father Frannie heads out the door, a missionary and evangelist bent on God’s work.
 

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