CHICAGO -- For five decades he was a priest, and for 17 years he led Chicago’s Catholics as Archbishop. After devoting his life to serving God and the church, Francis Cardinal George has left this earth and is home with his Father.
After a valiant battle with cancer and a seemingly miraculous remission, bladder cancer that spread to the kidneys has taken the life of Chicago’s beloved cardinal.
He was 78 years old when he died Friday; however, it was at the tender age of 8 that Francis Eugene George began the path to priesthood.
"My first communion was a moment of spiritual transformation for me. Where I felt a kind of intimacy with the Lord that I wanted to follow up on," he said.
At age 13, polio left young Francis weak with a crippling walk. Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary wouldn’t even accept him due to his disability. And despite the fact that his father was not completely on board with his decision to become a priest, both parents supported their son.
"Especially after I had polio they were very insistent 'Don’t let it capture you.' So I’ve always cherished freedom," he said.
The quest for freedom meant a search for knowledge and ultimately an education in what it meant to be a priest as the leader of our country, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated just before his ordination in 1963, the mission for Francis came into clear focus.
"That stayed with me for a long time. It was a shadow but also a light on what priestly ministry should be. You have to not just take care of individuals but think about the place of the church in society. How do we help people mourn in such a way that they don’t lose hope?" he said.
There was not a mission to rise in the hierarchy of the church, he simply wanted to serve.
"I never thought about being a bishop, and when suddenly the call comes, that took me by surprise. But finally, all my life I’ve tried to be an obedient son of the church and obedience unto death is Christ’s central message," he said.
As he pondered his 50 years, celebrating his Jubilee, the cardinal was happy and, he thought, healthy. With love, trust, a cancer survivor, who knew the disease that was seemingly sleeping in his body could awake again, Cardinal George looked to St. Joseph for guidance.
When the cardinal was first diagnosed with bladder cancer, the prognosis was grave. Even his doctors were surprised at the way he bounced back after radical surgery and treatment, and that his cancer at first had grown less, not more aggressive. In an interview he reflected on that gift but knew it might not last.
“It’s dormant, as they say right now. I used to put books aside and say I’ll read that when I have time or when I retire, now I get it and say I’d really like to read that but I’ll never have time,” he said. “Your horizons are different and that creates something of a sense of urgency. I’d like to get this done or this out before I move on,” he said.
Despite the fact that he handed in his official resignation in January 2012, Chicago’s archbishop was still actively leading the archdiocese years later, always believing there was much to be done in Chicago. When he accepted the post back in 1997, he knew it was a big job. WGN’ s Dina Bair spoke with the bishop in Portland before the move.
“Chicago is very daunting. The more I learn about it, the more nervous I get,” he said at the time.
But it was his hometown, and the young man who was ordained in his home parish at St. Pascal’s would preach from Holy Name Cathedral.
“I was very proud of having been from Chicago with the full expectation I would never return. So to come back now and see the landmarks and see the places I knew when I was much younger, yeah, I like that. I’m happy,” he said.
Not all times have been happy. Admitting he is a man who liked to talk about what he thought rather than how he felt, he did feel pain. “Most of all I regret not just the way something was handled, but I regret that children were harmed. With all my heart, I regret that,” he said.
Regret was a theme in his statement to investigators in a 2008 deposition regarding sexual abuse allegations. The cardinal admitted he was slow to act and not always quick to believe accusers.
“The biggest regret, in many ways was the way the McCormack case was badly handled, the way in which we didn’t share information. I didn’t know anything about it really. I discovered after he was accused the second time. I suddenly discovered a lot of things that were responded to at the time at a different level. But now you look back and you say, well we had shared information we would have been more alert,” he said.
In addition to the torment and conflict of dealing with the sexual abuse scandal, there were other challenges. Financial struggles forced schools and churches to close. But the cardinal wanted desperately to build faith even while buildings were shut down. At the end of his reign there were 200,000 fewer Catholics in Chicago than when the cardinal arrived. Still he forged on.
“I am most pleased when I hear that peoples’ lives have been transformed in some small way or they’ve been helped a lot, and I’m humbled by that. I just have come to realize that with new force because of the letters I’ve been receiving. I’m deeply touched and very grateful,” he said.
And he was extremely grateful for the opportunity to meet his successor Archbishop Blase Cupich. Passing the torch was his desire, seeing that the archdiocese was in capable hands. But he got another bonus in that transfer of power – a proper goodbye. At the Rite of Reception for Archbishop Cupic, there was a standing ovation for Cardinal George and a 6-minute tribute to their 17-year leader.
And yet another gift at the installation Mass: A declaration that the Eucharistic prayer would include his name every day during mass until his death. Catholics would continue praying for Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus Francis George. Pope John Paul II elevated Bishop George to cardinal after just one year in Chicago. When the pope died, Cardinal George’s name was even mentioned as a possible successor. But for Francis Cardinal George success was measured in just one way.
"I would just like people to say, ‘Well, no matter what happened, he tried to be a good priest,’" he said.