Until this past November, I had served my entire monastic life under one bishop. We Chicagoans have been blessed with unusual stability in our leadership. The careers of Cody, Bernadin and George spanned the half century since the closing of Vatican II, and their three careers, in some ways, illustrate how the Church has gradually come to grips with the challenges issued by the Council Fathers.
Cardinal George won me over when, in his first interview with the Chicago press, he said (I paraphrase), “The faith isn’t liberal or conservative, it’s true.” And he continued to generate a wealth of penetrating insights throughout his time as Archbishop. He may best be remembered for his ‘martyrdom’ quote:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
Behind the many bon mots was someone who did not set out to be a wordsmith or copy writer. I had the pleasure of spending time with him in various contexts, usually big meetings, but occasionally just visiting, catching up on things, discussing the needs of the Church and especially religious life (it is often forgotten that he was a religious). Cardinal George was a man of deep faith, and this faith informed all of his thinking and gave it a marvelous consistency, a thoroughness that was quite rare. His sayings had solidity because they were deeply rooted in the conviction that the Faith is True. There were few ‘loose ends’ to the weave of his wide ranging thoughts. His homilies were frequently short, diving directly into the heart of the matter, connecting the gospel and current events. At the annual Archdiocesan meetings with religious leadership, he always set aside the last ninety minutes for a free-form question and answer period. He was not afraid of tough questions and in this forum at least, he never gave the ‘political’ answer (he learned from hard experience that this dodginess was unfortunately needed when dealing with a hostile media). He was amazingly well informed and prepared. Almost no questions took him by surprise. There was again no fear or defensiveness in this preparation: he paid attention to developments at all levels of the Church because he cared about her members.
This is the aspect of his life that will almost certainly arise in the media coverage and the reminiscences that we will be able to read in the coming days. He was a genuine pastor, who laid down his life for his sheep in imitation of the Lord Whom he served. He made a point of reaching out to our community when we went through some difficult times. He agreed to celebrate Mass here when I was installed as Prior three years ago, and he gave a fantastic homily in which he used the readings and the Rule of Saint Benedict to connect the monastic life and evangelization (when did he have time to read through the Rule in preparation?). One of my favorite memories of him came about quite accidentally. We happened to be in an elevator together leaving some kind of fund raising event. Thinking like the introvert that I am, I asked him if he ever got worn down by having to visit with big groups of people. “No,” he said thoughtfully, “I love being with the people. It’s the two hours of paperwork I have to finish before going to bed that tires me out.” This was at about ten at night.
Time and again, though, I saw the truth in his claim that he loved to be with the people. This was especially impressive because standing for long periods of time could be painful for him, and one rarely saw evidence of this as he smiled and asked questions. He frequently made a point of thanking others for their service to the Church, however humble that service might appear. And he was genuine in this gratitude.
A final part of his legacy that has received a bit more attention of late is his love of the liturgy, and the steps he took to make sure that the style of celebration was congruent with the realities celebrated. In this, our community felt very close to him. Our founders spent several years in the missions, during which time they recognized the necessity of a well-celebrated liturgy to the goal of evangelization. Had he had a similar experience in his years as a missionary? However it came about, one of his first big decisions upon arriving back in Chicago was to found the Liturgical Institute. He was also instrumental in seeing through the new English translation of the Roman Missal. He was criticized for making his preferences known to individual priests, but this is part of the job description of a bishop–he is the high priest of the diocese, and the presbyters are merely his assistants, authorized to celebrate the sacraments in his absence. His own presidential style was consistent with his character: reverent, understated, but confident. This confidence derived not from his famous intellectual gifts, but from the conviction that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that He loved us and gave His life for us, and continues to transform our lives and be with us through the sacraments.
May our God be praised for the gift of the Cardinal’s time with us, for his many sacrifices on our behalf, and for always raising up shepherds for His Church! And may our departed shepherd enter into the joy of his loving Master.