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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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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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