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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.

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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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