The Legacy of Cardinal Francis George

As Chicago’s shepherd, Cardinal George formed a new generation of priests, emphasized orthodox catechesis, and defended marriage and life

In his seventeen years as the Archdiocese of Chicago’s chief shepherd, Cardinal George, who retired last September, leaves behind a legacy as pastor, teacher, and defender of the Faith, including on the national stage during his presidency of the USCCB (2007-2010). He died April 17 after a long battle with cancer.

“He was a man of tremendous intellectual power and clarity and strength,” said Dan Cheely, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois and president of the Chicago Church History Forum. “I’d go so far as to say that in the entire history of the American Catholic hierarchy, the only person I know who had the intellectual qualities comparable to Cardinal George was Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I’ve seen him give talks at the drop of a hat to highly sophisticated audiences that were literally breathtaking—and without notes.”

Rather than being a “bricks-and-mortar bishop,” Cheely describes Cardinal George as a “thought, word, and deed bishop” who communicated his “powerful love of Christ and his Church on both a personal level and as philosophical truth” to the people and clergy of the sprawling Archdiocese, which encompasses six vicariates. And Cheely, as others interviewed for this article, identifies Cardinal George’s dedication to the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary as one of his main achievements.

Forming a new generation of priests

Fr. Thomas Baima, vice rector for academic affairs at the seminary and a professor of dogmatic theology, praises Cardinal George’s deep personal engagement with the seminary community.

“He spent a lot of time here, meeting with faculty and getting to know the seminarians very directly,” said Fr. Baima.

Cardinal George’s engagement went beyond the personal level, extending to the seminary’s curriculum. He worked closely with, and fully supported, the man he appointed first as a professor then as rector, Fr. Robert Barron, whom Cardinal George also helped raise to national recognition by supporting his Word on Fire Ministries and his hosting of the PBS series “Catholicism.”

“In recent years we’ve striven to implement Fr. Barron’s integrated logic, which has informed the whole formation scheme at the seminary,” said Fr. Baima. “Fr. Barron talks about this integrating logic as a three-pronged path: finding one’s center in Jesus Christ, knowing that one is a sinner, and knowing that one’s life is not one’s own. I talk about these in the academic program as the Christological, the aesthetical, and the pastoral movement within the curriculum. This has brought a clarity and unity to what we’re doing here at Mundeleien and I think that’s one of the things that’s been appealing to dioceses that have begun sending their men here in recent years.”

With 210 seminarians, one-third hailing from Chicago, Mundelein is the largest American seminary after the Pontifical North American College in Rome. It has grown about nine percent a year for the past three years. “We could grow even more, but we’re at a comfortable point now,” said Fr. Baima.

One addition to the seminary will be future professor Fr. Andrew Liaugminas, a Chicago priest who is working on a doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He considers Cardinal George a true father.

“Cardinal George was a shepherd truly after the heart of Christ, as he helped form us—through his homilies, talks, columns and books—in the mind of Christ. As our Archbishop, Cardinal George carried the needs of the Church and the world very close to his own heart, and helped us understand the challenges facing the Church and society today: from the local and neighborhood levels, to the national and global levels. With the vision of a philosopher who is a missionary, and a missionary who is a pastor, Cardinal George showed us how civic society and God’s society, the Church, are rooted in living networks of ordered relationships, whose structure is ultimately based not in man-made laws, but in the freedom given to us by God and revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ. With that Gospel message and a keen knowledge of our culture, Cardinal George became a leader on the national and international levels, but always made time for his flock and his priests whenever we wanted to talk with him. I have deep gratitude to Cardinal George for his years of service to us as our shepherd in Chicago, and for the relationships he developed with us in the context of living out the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ.”

Fr. Liaugminas’ mother, Sheila, was also a close friend of Cardinal George. She is host and managing editor of “A Closer Look,” a program on Relevant Radio. She applauds Cardinal George for supporting this and many other efforts in the New Evangelization.

Cardinal George made two other signal contributions to the seminary.

First was the formation of the Liturgical Institute 15 years ago, mainly to train lay ministers from around the country, such as directors of divine worship, and those studying for the permanent diaconate. Cardinal George insisted the liturgy be studied through a specifically theological lens. “It’s important to study the liturgy from the perspective of sacramental theology,” said Fr. Douglas Martis, professor of sacramental theology and liturgical studies. He hopes that the work of the Liturgical Institute will help the revival of liturgy in the United States.

Second was Cardinal George founding of the Bishop Abramowicz Seminary for Polish seminarians seeking to serve in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and his support for Casa Jesus, founded in 1987 to serve a similar role for men from Latin America and Mexico. There they receive formation as well as intensive English training before being for further training, mainly at Mundelein.

“One reason he saw the importance of doing this is because Chicago has a very diverse ethnic population, but the priests often didn’t reflect the laity,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who served as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago and an auxiliary bishop there before being appointed bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in downstate Illinois. “Now the percentage of priests from different ethnic groups, from Poles to Indians to Spanish-speakers, has increased. So the profile of the clergy more closely approximates the make up of the laity.”

These priests from abroad do not cater to their own ethnic groups alone, he added, but serve the whole laity.

Kosher catechesis

Cardinal George’s interest in strengthening the teaching of the Faith extended down from the seminary to the archdiocesan Catholic schools. Superintendent Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey noted that Cardinal George called the parochial schools “centers of learning and communities of love. He made a tremendous investment in the religious formation in the schools, requiring all catechists—anyone teaching religion—to be certified through St. Mary of the Lake University and other diocesan centers.”

Some schools have had to be closed and others consolidated due to changing demographics, she noted. “It’s something we’ve been reluctant to do, but it’s been necessary to maintain schools with enrollments with sufficient vibrancy.” A significant percentage of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s new $350 million capital campaign, “To Teach Who Christ Is,” will go to support Catholic education and faith formation.

Cardinal George’s emphasis on orthodoxy extended to catechetical books. Fr. James Socias is an Opus Dei priest who serves as vice president of the Catholic publisher Midwest Theological Forum (MTF). Fr. Socias attributes Cardinal George’s encouragement to the MTF’s production of the Didache high-school and parish-series of books examining various aspects of the Faith.

“He had a piercing vision of what was necessary to be taught in Catholic schools,” said Fr. Socias. All of the Didache books have been developed in strict conformity with the USCCB’s catechetical protocols. “Cardinal George was a man with a very clear philosophical mind who could understand a person in two minutes and give you the right approach to the catechetical and liturgical books we make. He helped me a lot to develop the potential I didn’t know I had to serve the Church through publishing books.”

A friend for life

Eric Scheidler is executive director of the Pro-Life Action League and descrbied Cardinal George as “a very good friend of the pro-life movement.” Cardinal George often spoke at their conferences and helped the Pro-Life Action League coordinate its efforts with the Archdiocesan Respect Life Office in hosting programs as 40 Days for Life.

“This is all in the context of his very public pro-life position and eloquent defense of the Church throughout his episcopate,” said Sheidler. “He had a real pastor’s voice on the abortion issue, speaking to the humanity of the unborn child and abortion’s harm not only to women and families, but the whole of society.”

On a personal level, Scheidler credits Cardinal George with helping him return to the Faith after a spell of atheism. “I found his defenses of the Church so compelling that he inspired in me the desire to have the faith he has. He will be missed.”

Defense of marriage

During his episcopate, Cardinal George led the fight in Illinois to defend marriage during two crises. First a lame-duck legislature in 2011 passed a civil union act that ended Catholic Charities’ adoption ministry because the Church would not allow children to be adopted by same-sex couples. Then same-sex marriage was passed into law in 2013 and took effect in 2014.

“Cardinal George was a leader in so many ways,” said Sheila Liaugminas, crediting him with mobilizing Illinois bishops to clarify Church teaching on marriage and engage the politicians who acted against it. Those efforts failed politically. So did his efforts as president of the USCCB in regard to Obamacare’s HHS Mandate requiring employers to provide insurance covering contraceptives and abortifacients.

“Despite the clarity of his teaching, Cardinal George was not very effective in getting politicians to change their views,” noted Bishop Paprocki. “But as Mother Teresa said, we’re not called to be successful, but faithful. I think that what was important was that even though those laws passed, Cardinal George articulated strong reasons why the Church stands against those laws. We find ourselves today in an environment hostile to many values about marriage and family life. It’s our duty, and Cardinal George did his best, to give clear teachings why redefining marriage is morally objectionable.”

Nominally Catholic politicians

Most of Illinois’ top legislators, from former Governor Pat Quinn on down, identify themselves as Catholics but nonetheless support positions contrary to the Church, particularly in regard to abortion and same-sex marriage. Cardinal George endured criticism from many of the faithful, who would have liked him to excommunicate or deny Communion to these wayward Catholic politicians. Instead he chose to confront them on a personal level in conversations not made public.

“It’s easy to say, ‘throw the bums out,’ and Cardinal George realized that the days of a bishop being a dictator or martinet are long over,” said Dan Cheely. “The problem is that he might have made the situation even worse. If all of a sudden you destroy any relationship with such politicians, rather than being ambivalent toward Church teaching, they may have become totally hostile. That was his judgment call, and it’s easy to second-guess from the sidelines.”

Rather than telling poorly catechized Catholic politicians what to do, Cheely continued, priests must vigorously teach Catholic doctrine from the pulpit. “No doubt people in the pews, including some politicians, would adhere to Catholic teaching more.”

Cheely is hopeful that the situation will improve as Mundelein continues forming priests who will serve not only the Archdiocese of Chicago but the entire country for generations. “The seeds have been planted, and they will bear fruit for decades to come.”

Postscript: On a personal note, this writer interviewed Cardinal George in his residence back in 2011 about his book God In Action. Kind and pastoral in the truest sense of the word, he genuinely laughed at my quip after a tour of his residence: Quoting the Errol Flynn character, speaking to Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, I said, “If this is poverty, I’ll gladly share it with you.” He might have taken a vow of poverty, but had a wonderful richness of spirit.

[Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article was originally published by National Catholic Register as a profile of Cardinal George prior to his death on April 17th.]

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About Matthew A. Rarey 10 Articles
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.