Remembering Francis Cardinal George
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
These words in memoriam of the late Cardinal Francis George are a couple of months past but, like with all other deaths of loved ones, the mourning process never really ends. If we follow the Filipino custom of counting off forty days after the passing of a loved one, the fortieth day of Cardinal George was approximately May 26th. In that regard, these words in memory of him come at an opportune time. Either way, when we bade farewell to the Cardinal this past April, the impact was felt throughout the entire Archdiocese of Chicago. To this day, Catholics and even non-Catholics in the Chicago area still find ourselves mourning and remembering.
It was 18 years ago when I first heard the news that announced the name of the eighth Archbishop of Chicago. It was April 1997 when the news came that Francis George had been appointed as the one to replace Joseph Cardinal Bernardin who had ordained me eleven months prior. I was associate pastor of St. Pascal’s on the northwest side of Chicago which was the Cardinal’s home parish.
The announcement made life at the parish a little hectic. The Cardinal’s childhood home was just around the corner from the rectory. Reporters from every channel were present for several days straight wanting to find out any information they could on the “hometown boy.” In fact, I remember waking up the morning after his name had been announced, turning on the television curious about the reaction to the appointment, and to my surprise reporters had already been outside of St. Pascal’s since before dawn commenting that they were hoping to speak to someone at the parish soon. Since I was just waking up, I thought to myself, “They better not ring the rectory doorbell at this early hour!” Needless to say, there was much excitement.
Months after he was appointed, Francis George made a visit to his “home” and celebrated a Mass at St. Pascal’s. It was the first time I was able to meet him in person. And to mark the occasion, the parish was able to have the street where he grew up dedicated to his honor. Again, there was much enthusiasm and anticipation to meet the boy who became the cardinal. At that time, there were still parishioners around who had lived in the neighborhood during the Cardinal’s childhood years.
Francis George was a man who stood by the Church he loved and had been called to serve as a priest and as a bishop. He may have been called conservative but he did have a sense of humor that gave the clear message that he did not come to be an enemy or adversary. I remember the day that he visited St. Pascal’s. As the street was being dedicated to his honor, he noticed that he had been standing under a sign with an arrow pointing toward his left. He looked at it and joked with the people saying that it was pointing in the wrong direction. Meaning, as a conservative, the arrow should have been pointing toward his right. Everyone laughed and enjoyed the Cardinal’s ability to poke fun at himself.
In the years he was the Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George continued to love the Catholic Church with all his heart, soul, mind, and body. For this, he definitely is a man to be admired. He knew that not everyone agreed with him but it was clearly his love for God’s Church and a desire to preserve and defend the faith community that Jesus had established 2,000 years ago that motivated the Cardinal’s every action. As we during his last days of life, Francis Cardinal George continued to be criticized for his position on various issues. But, at the same time, he became very endeared in the hearts of many, many people throughout the world.
The late Cardinal’s life reminds us that it is the people of conviction that people end up admiring the most even though many others may try to knock that person down. Hardly anyone will give second thought to people who easily give up on their principles. But, people who remain strong in their faith and convictions are those that end up commanding the respect and honor of others even while, at the same time, he or she may receive criticism. We saw this in the late Cardinal Francis George. For that and other reasons, we continue to remember him for his faith and we will miss him for the love he gave to God’s Church.
Yet, we must not forget that the ministry of the Catholic Church in Chicago continues because there is a new shepherd who has shown himself to be just as much a person of faith and passion just as much as the late Cardinal Francis George. In remembering the life of the late Cardinal, we are assured that God’s providence still watches over His people both living and dead.
To this day, we simply pray: Eternal rest grant unto Cardinal Francis George, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.