Monday, April 27, 2015

Cardinal George

This month, Chicago lost its archbishop emeritus, Francis Cardinal George. Cardinal George served at the helm of the third largest American Roman Catholic archdiocese for seventeen years before stepping down last November due to his declining health.

The last quarter century has been a time of great struggle for the Church. The ongoing problem of declining membership and respect for the institution along with the inevitable church closings that followed were merely the tip of the iceberg of problems Cardinal George faced when he took over the job from his predecessor, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin in 1997.

The issue that has hung like a dark cloud over the Church for several decades now, is the sexual abuse crisis that rocked American Catholicism to its core. It was bad enough that there were priests who abused children, and worse that those acts were covered up by officials in charge. But by far the worst violation of trust was the fact that many known perpetrators were simply transferred by their superiors to other parishes where they could continue their pattern of abuse, rather than being taken out of commission, not to mention prosecuted and punished.

The indignation and outrage that followed every story of a fallen priest and criminally irresponsible bishop was justified. Yet as these things go, righteous, moral indignation has a way of taking on a life of its own. The outcry that followed the Church's sexual abuse crisis is no exception. Once the story was made public, retribution was swift and fierce; all priests, the good and the small handful of bad ones, were lumped together by an all-knowing, cynical body politic. Tragically it came to the point where many priests refused to wear in public the collar, once a symbol of honor, and pride, lest they be mistaken for sexual predators.

Even the widely respected and beloved Cardinal Bernadin fell victim to the general public's assumption of a priest's guilt until proof of innocence, as he was wrongly accused of sexually molesting a young man. When his accuser recanted his story, the Cardinal was magnanimous in forgiveness, but the damage to his reputation was done. This was the climate in the Archdiocese of Chicago when Cardinal George took over its reigns after Bernadin's death.

Cardinal George was himself never implicated with impropriety, but early on in his tenure, he was seen as not acting quickly enough in the pursuit of accused priests. He also made the "mistake" of insisting that even wayward priests were deserving of compassion and forgiveness. As a result, he was lumped together will all the other bishops who were enablers of the criminal behavior of their charges. Ultimately, George who became president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007, spearheaded the zero tolerance policy, which barred men who had credibly been accused of sexual abuse, from serving in the ministry.

A native of Chicago, Cardinal George's personality contrasted with the genial warmth of Cardinal Bernadin. An intensely private man, the new archbishop was reticent to reveal an "inner self", preferring to stick to the business at hand. In his writing and homilies to the faithful, George displayed a brilliant, analytical mind, one deeply influenced by years of the study of literature, theology, and philosophy. Yet many found his style to be lacking a personal touch, leading some to mistakenly assume him to be cold and impersonal.

Cardinal George's unequivocal stance on issues such as gay marriage and birth control, made him a polarizing figure in the Church. Many in the Church's left saw the Cardinal's views as outdated and out of touch with those of his flock. However the Cardinal was no mouthpiece for the conservative right as he was equally adamant in his support of social justice, especially the rights of the poor, of immigrants, and outcasts from society. On holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, the Cardinal could be found ministering to inmates at Cook County Jail.  It was the greater good spelled out in the "truth found in the Gospel" that Cardinal George insisted he followed, rather than current fashion, public opinion, or political ideology.

Despite his devotion to the tenets of his faith, there was a pragmatism in Cardinal George's leadership style, as he was not rigidly bound to a particular cause, if the pursuit of it proved to be impractical or untenable. A good example is his dealings with the Reverend Michael Pflager, the controversial priest who is pastor of St. Sabina Parish on the city's south side. Church rules place a time limit on the tenure of a pastor at a particular parish. Father Pflager's tenure at St. Sabina has nearly tripled that limit and a few years ago, Cardinal George felt it was time for a change. The community at the predominantly African American parish disagreed and in no uncertain terms threatened to leave the Catholic Church if Pfleger was relieved from his duties. Despite a war of words, suspensions and loads of media coverage, Cardinal George agreed to compromise, a victory for Pfleger and his parish, At this writing, Father Pfleger remains in place in his thirty fourth year as pastor at St. Sabina.

Francis Cardinal George was particularly well suited to the call of service and personal sacrifice required of the life of a priest and archbishop. If you never saw him in person, you may not have realized that he walked with a distinct limp. That limp was the result of having being stricken with polio at the age of 13. The disease and its aftermath had a profound impact upon his life.

Francis George lived in constant physical pain. One leg, rendered virtually useless, was strapped to a painful brace which he wore throughout his life. Denied his dream of entering the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago because of his affliction, George became a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a congregation founded in France just after the Revolution, whose primary mission was working with the poor of the world.

From a Catholic point of view, the pain that Francis Gorge endured along with his service to the poor, paved the way for a lifetime of devotion, compassion and empathy for the suffering, as he indeed was one of them. The bladder cancer that would eventually claim his life was diagnosed in 2006, and would introduce him to an entirely new form of pain.  Despite the cancer, he continued his strenuous work schedule barely missing a beat, until he voluntarily stepped down a few months ago, but not before he presided over the seamless transition of the episcopate of Chicago's new archbishop, Blase Cupich.

I last saw the Cardinal in October just before he left his position. He was presiding at a function honoring a friend of mine who received the Catholic Lawyer of the year award, At the function, the Cardinal, describing one of the pitfalls of his job, quipped that there was no group of people whom he both sought the advice, and ran away from as quickly as possible as lawyers. Clearly he would have preferred a life of ministering to the downtrodden, rather than dealing with the quagmire  of running an enormous institution fraught with a myriad of problems. Yet as always, this man of tremendous strength and faith, left it in God's hands.

They say that God works in mysterious ways. If you believe that everything happens for a reason as I do, the pain, suffering, and heartache that Cardinal George endured, led him on the path to accomplish some very important things. We may not all agree with everything the man stood for, but no one can honestly question his integrity or the sincerity in which he pursued those ideals.

He guided the Church through very troubling waters with little regard for his own comfort, security, and most of all popularity. Francis George may not have been the most popular or beloved archbishop of Chicago, but I firmly believe that in the end, God chose the right man for a very difficult job.

His earthly pain and suffering now over, Francis George is perhaps no longer is in need of our prayers. We on the other hand, are desperately in need of his.

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