“He prioritized Christ above all else”: Michael Heinlein on Cardinal George

The life of the late Archbishop of Chicago, who died in 2015, “was marked by a consistent, often heroic Christian discipleship,” says the author of a new biography, titled Glorifying Christ.

Francis Cardinal George OMI, Archbishop of Chicago from 1997 to 2014, died in 2015 after several bouts with cancer. (Image: CNA)

Michael R. Heinlein, editor of Simply Catholic and the former editor of The Catholic Answer magazine, has released a detailed and inspiring of biography of the late Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I. (1937-2015). Titled Glorifying Christ and published by Our Sunday Visitor, the book is the result of years of research by Heinlein, who is also a contributor to Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, The Priest magazine, and Catholic World Report. He has a degree in theology from The Catholic University of America and lives in Indiana with his wife and three children.

Heinlein recently corresponded with CWR about the biography, Cardinal George’s fascinating journey to the priesthood, and George’s years of leadership as a bishop in three very different locations.

CWR: Your path to writing this biography, as you mention at the start, came from growing up in near Chicago while Cardinal George was Archbishop there (1997–2014). What is your first memory of him? What about him caught your attention? And then what led you to pursue writing this biography?

Michael R. Heinlein: I was 11 years old when Cardinal George was named as archbishop of Chicago – but, being a somewhat unusual child, I recall being interested even in who Cardinal Bernardin’s successor might be before then. I still have clippings from the Chicago Tribune with potential candidates that my grandma saved for me. So I remember George’s appointment in the spring of 1997 quite vividly. Being so young, I was not very dialed in to what it meant for the Church, but I remember his charisma, humor and what I came later to know as authenticity.

Growing up in the shadow of Chicago, I would see Cardinal George regularly in the media, and later was more interested in his thought, his clarity in teaching, and his obvious discipleship. As a college student, I was particularly drawn to his biweekly columns in the Chicago archdiocesan newspaper, which always had something original, something to deepen my own faith and give compelling reasons for what I believed. He had vision to see past what divides and guide us toward unity in Christ.

And when he died, like so many others, I really felt the void he left. I wanted to do something to help keep his witness and legacy alive. And through a series of events, it became clear in prayer that the Lord was calling me to help tell the wholeness of his story. I never thought this was something I would do. Who am I to take on such a task about one of the most consequential bishops in American history? But no one else was doing it yet, and so I thought I’d give it a try.

It took a great deal of work and many obstacles had to be overcome. But I hope that, in the end, this book is a gift for the Church, because Cardinal George’s witness and legacy certainly is.

CWR: George grew up in Chicago and at an early age was seriously pondering the priesthood. But then he contracted polio. What did that mean for his aspirations of being a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago? And how did that shape the rest of his life?

Heinlein: Cardinal George often recalled how he first heard the Lord’s call to priesthood on the day of his First Holy Communion when he was eight years old. He was a regular fixture at his home parish in Chicago, St. Pascal’s, and was one of a group of young men who regularly served Mass and helped the parish pastor in a variety of parochial tasks. In his eighth grade year, George was preparing to matriculate to the Chicago high school seminary.

But those plans were changed when, that year, he contracted polio and was left with a slight paralysis of one hand, his legs, especially his right leg, leaving him with a limp. He was told that although it would be difficult, he could attend the high school seminary as a student in Chicago. But he was also told he would not be a priest there. So, his response was, as he put it: “To heck with you guys!”

And he went off to southern Illinois and the high school seminary operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the congregation he would later join. The polio also shaped his life by the physical and psychological effects of pain and suffering. His sister often commented about how George never had a day without pain. But a valuable lesson from that time, of which he often spoke, came from the father of a neighbor girl who had polio. And that advice was that he shouldn’t feel sorry for himself because others were worse off. This was a major lesson for the 13-year-old George, and it shaped the rest of his life in many ways.

And connected to that, as a man who shared George’s hospital room at the time recounted to George’s mother, while they would often talk, whenever George fell silent, he’d be staring at the cross. That combination of seeing his pain as having more meaning than self-pity, and understanding it through the cross, guided George’s life and enabled him to offer his life in service to others so profoundly.

CWR: How did George eventually become a priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate? And having done so, what did the future apparently hold for him?

Heinlein: At 14, George moved to Belleville, Illinois, to attend St. Henry’s Seminary, operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In talking to others, it seemed he hadn’t given up on the idea of becoming a priest in Chicago yet, despite the initial rejection on account of his disability. But, over time, he came to see great value in the life of an Oblate, and decided after six years at St. Henry’s to apply for the novitiate. After first vows in 1958, George was sent to the Oblate seminary in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where he stayed for two years before assignment to the Oblate theologate in Ottawa, Ontario. There he completed his studies for priesthood and, though a unique set of circumstances, ended up being ordained at his home parish in Chicago.

In those days, becoming a religious, especially of a missionary congregation, meant that you would not have any kind of “ecclesiastical career,” since in those days religious were rarely named bishops in the United States. He was very happy and content with whatever or wherever the Oblate vocation might lead him to do. Given his innate intellectual gifts, however, it was clear he would be an asset to the Oblates by taking up teaching and formation work in the community. And he did that for only a few years, after obtaining his first doctorate at Tulane University, until he was named provincial of the Oblates’ Midwest province when he was only 35.

CWR: You emphasize the sacrificial nature of the work of the Oblates and the sacrifices George had to make, writing that he “set out on a path that presented continual opportunities for him to empty himself in ways never imagined for the Church, first as a priest and later as a bishop.” What were some of those sacrifices? How did they shape him?

Heinlein: Cardinal George often remarked that his life was not a self-directed project, but was a continual response in obedience to whatever was asked of him. He very much enjoyed the intellectual and academic pursuits that defined the first decade or so of his priesthood, and he certainly would have preferred to stay in that line of ministry. But at 35, he was drafted into administrative work and stayed doing that, for the most part, until he retired in 2014.

Only a year and a half after his appointment as provincial, George ended up elected in 1974 as the vicar general of his global congregation, which necessitated a move to Rome. He served in that capacity for two six-year terms. So for the good of his congregation, for the good of the Church, he took on the administrative work that he never really wanted to do. And he really threw himself into it completely. He ended up traveling the world, visiting dozens of countries where the Oblates served, never staying in a hotel, and sometimes sleeping on the floor.

Once he was kicked out of a country, once he was detained at an international border, once he missed the only flight out of an island, and once he was shot at. And all the while his physical health still bore the effects of the polio that had attacked him as a boy. Travel wasn’t the easiest. His parents both died during that time. Some opposed him in the congregation. But he persevered, and his steady wisdom and careful leadership helped bring renewal to the Oblates in the post-Vatican II years and set them on a firm foundation for the future.

CWR: In the turmoil and confusion that spread following the Council, how did Fr. George grapple with the meaning and nature of the priesthood? What stands out to you about him during those trying years?

Heinlein: Cardinal George was ordained a priest in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, an event that would both come to shape his entire priesthood but also an event that he would become an interpreter of through his administrative and teaching roles in the Church.

When the nature of priesthood came under question by some in the immediate post-conciliar years, George gave his voice to the conversation in the capacity of a seminary professor and formator. “Along with everything else in the Church, the priesthood too is subject to new scrutiny, to new attempts at a redefinition,” he said in 1966, continuing, “if the meaning of the priesthood is no longer evident, if the priest’s image is blurred and confused, it affects all of us.” He concluded, “If you want to be just like any other man, with the same privileges and rights and responsibilities and opportunities, if you don’t want a life lived in anticipation of an event not yet fully realized and a life, therefore, in some ways incomplete and unfulfilled, then, for God’s sake and your own — don’t become a priest.”

Years later, it’s worth noting, George also wrote his Chicago priests privately about another difficulty plaguing the priesthood, this time much more disturbing. It was in 2006 that he wrote these words encouraging conversion and renewal in the priesthood: “I want to say now that if there is any priest who is leading a double life, who is engaged in dishonest or sinful practices that destroy the Church, he should, for the sake of the Church, come forward. If a priest cannot change and convert anew, he should leave his sacred office in the Church. People rightly have high standards for us, the standards the Church herself gives us and which each of us has freely accepted. All of us are sinners, but there are types of perversion that are completely incompatible with the calling of ordained priesthood.”

CWR: What impact did both studying and teaching philosophy have on Fr. George? What was he like as a teacher?

Heinlein: Cardinal George’s roles as a student and teacher of philosophy shaped his thinking, teaching and ministry in such a way that was clearly set apart from so many of his episcopal contemporaries. He was not possessed by any agendas or ideologies, and he was a fresh, nuanced, clear thinker who was able to articulate the Faith convincingly, in a unifying way. I have no doubt it was his philosophical mind that enabled him to be such an effective leader among his brother bishops.

As many bishops remarked to me: even if they disagreed with him, whenever Cardinal Geroge spoke, everyone listened.

CWR: Racial justice and poverty were two significant concerns for Fr. George. What were his theological, pastoral, and practical approaches to them?

Heinlein: Racism and its effects on persons and society was part of Cardinal George’s consciousness from a young age. As a young priest in Mississippi in the 1960s, George was very much moved by segregation and its consequences, even in the Church at times. Later, as archbishop of Chicago, George dedicated his second of only two pastoral letters to the sin of racism. “Dwell in My Love” contains much of George’s theological, pastoral and practical approach to racism, a sin rooted in violation of our being created in the image and likeness of God.

And as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate have the special mission of proclaiming the gospel to the poor, George was always close to the poor as a bishop. In Yakima, he was an advocate for the migrant families who felt taken advantage of. In Chicago, he wanted to sell the historic Archbishop’s Residence, planning himself to live in closer proximity to the poor. He had hoped in retirement to help out in soup kitchens. Also in Chicago he was particularly devoted to the large, sophisticated Catholic Charities of the archdiocese. While his ministry to the poor was certainly a ministry of presence and friendship, George also made caring for the poor’s material needs to be a top priority. during George’s time in Chicago, Catholic Charities built 18 residences for low-income seniors, two assisted living facilities, a nursing home, a priest’s retirement home, and a home for homeless veterans — the first of its kind in the US.

CWR: How did Fr. George first react to being appointed bishop of Yakima, Washington, in 1990? What were those years like for him?

Heinlein: George was not much interested in becoming a bishop. His own vocation as a religious, practically speaking, meant he didn’t consider himself among those who were likely candidates for episcopal office in the United States. His appointment as a bishop in 1990 came as a surprise, and he even made a trip to the apostolic nunciature in Washington, D.C. to ask that the nomination be reconsidered.

But in the end he obediently accepted the call. He fell in love with the Diocese of Yakima, though, and it was mutual. He put an emphasis on the Church’s teaching office during his time there, attentive to his priests, and also build unity within a very diverse population. He is still remembered there as a man of great pastoral availability. By the time George left Yakima for Portland in 1996, the local newspaper’s front page title remembered him as “The Good Bishop.”

CWR: After a brief time in Portland, Oregon, George spent the rest of his life, nearly two decades, in Chicago. What do you think were his most significant challenges and work there?

Heinlein: Returning home to Chicago was an irony of God’s providence. It was certainly a surprise, since he had only been in Portland ten months. Having been gone from Chicago for nearly 50 years, George hit the ground running, intent on getting to know his hometown now as its shepherd. Chicago’s initial rejection of him was reprised when a group of priests protested his assignment to the apostolic nuncio and claimed he was too controlling and conservative.

A unique, often difficult, sometimes independent presbyterate certainly made his life as Chicago’s archbishop, shall we say, complicated. He also very must detested the political life of the city. He put a focus on catechesis, and formation of those who minister to others (priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers). He was more often than not the last to leave an event, the first archbishop to visit all of the archdiocese’s parishes. He knew all too well that ecclesial institutions would need reorganized but he was hesitant to close them, especially schools. He was drawn into many national and international initiatives and roles, and was a much sought-after speaker — but always put Chicago first.

His fingerprints are on many of the major ecclesiastical actions that happened at a national level during his years as archbishop of Chicago. He was one of the most vocal proponents of zero tolerance in the wake of 2002. He was instrumental in overseeing the current translation of the Roman Missal. He served as vice president and then president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, providing much needed clarity to the threats on religious liberty posed by the Obama administration at the time.

And throughout all this he was a man living with disability and battling bladder cancer in three iterations. Being archbishop of Chicago was without question a cross to bear, but he did it without considering the cost and continually gave of himself to the tasks that lay before him.

CWR: Finally, what information or story surprised you the most in the course of researching this biography?

Heinlein: I’m not sure that anything surprised me so much. I guess it was quite enlightening, yet fitting, to see how much he suffered while serving as archbishop of Chicago. But that certainly illustrates and underscores a certain holiness that many have identified. I have to say that it was a gift to see what a man of integrity and authenticity he was, that he always put God and others first, that he prioritized Christ above all else.

We can look at past administrative decisions, for example — as he himself often did — and see how certain situations might have required a different response. Hindsight is 20/20 and we all make mistakes. But, in the end, his life was marked by a consistent, often heroic Christian discipleship that can only inspire and shape those who get to know him.

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  1. ’ Glorifying Christ’ Via the Holy Spirit

    This post is a continuation of my last “Post Let there be Light”. Please consider Seeing the link before continuing.


    “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you, but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

    Without the Holy Spirit, we can do nothing

    But today we not do look for Him, the Holy Spirit the greatest gift the human heart can aspire to as today we do not ‘seek’ Him. Why is this? Is it because a hierarchical Church cannot live to the demand the Holy Spirit makes upon them (And us), that is to act as true brothers in Christ in which no lie can be tolerated between Christ’s disciples (Brothers). And walk while proclaiming/living The teaching of His Way. The Holy Spirit cannot abide in a deceitful/lying heart as He can only abide in a vulnerable/honest heart one that is prepared to show its vulnerability before his brothers and sisters in Christ and our Father in heaven.

    This is reflected in these words “ “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”

    Mankind unknowingly is crying out for authentic Christianity instead they see the elite within the church act in collusion with the two-fingered prince of this world, while playing footsie with the vulnerable, downtrodden, broken distorted hearts of cultural Catholics and suffering humanity whom our Lord came to save. While keeping for themselves the privileges the prince of this world has conferred upon them as now, they live in shuttered houses where the light of the Holy Spirit cannot enter, (See the links with responsive posts before continuing)



    rather they divert the power of the Holy Spirit (God) in giving the laity dubious imagery such as that emanating from Medjugorje the Shroud of Turin etc while ignoring our most fundamental belief

    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”

    They encourage the laity to look for signs and wonders while knowing what we need is to trust in God Alone

    “They honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” These are most unfortunate of all men as these are the words awaiting them “I do not know you depart from me you lawless men” (Incapable of serving/seeing/knowing the Holy Spirit (God) as they refuse to look upon each other and themselves honestly) They are “Blind guides.

    Guides who appear to think that they own (the judgment of) God, similar to the Pharisee who had the authority of the Law and sees himself as a reflection of that law, he sees this because he makes sacrifices in almsgiving and regular fasting, a sign of penance, but it was not true repentance. We can discern that it was not sincere repentance because if it were, he would now possess a humble heart, creating true compassion for his fellow man, fully understanding that we His creatures are ‘all’ sinners in ‘continual’ need of His Divine Mercy.

    On the worldly stage, they think they know how to lead but do they know how to serve? The serving of the Truth units us to God Himself, nothing else, the Holy Spirit lives within our hearts, while He leads us into all understanding (Truth) but sadly we have an unaccountable leadership that is incapable of serving the Holy Spirit (Truth) and healing broken mankind (It is not possible to bless sin, we can only stand before God (Truth) in our brokenness and we do this when we embrace our human frailty/sin in humility before Him while trustingthat our hearts will be made anew through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all goodness comes from God alone, no other, and the foundation of that goodness is based upon trusting in God alone no other.

    They have broken and perverted God’s, Divine Will

    “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (Jn 4:34). 4) That his Father be glorified – “Father, glorify your name!”

    In sodality, we say “Our Father who art in heaven Hallowed (sacrosanct, worshipped, divine, inviolable) be thy Name” which reiterates our most fundamental belief that God’s Word (Will) is Inviolate and sits at the base of all the Sacraments. He cannot contradict Himself; this belief is vital to the intelligibility of faith and life. Without it, the concept of truth loses all meaning. Sadly, the elite have held God’s Word (Will) in contempt (Via the present DM Images) and in doing so collude with the ongoing breaking of the Second Commandment

    “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”

    This ongoing collusion with the breaking of the Second Commandment defines the reality of the Church today. As our hearts have become coarsened in forgetting the reality of the One God whom we are meant to serve.
    The present blasphemous Images of divine Mercy must be destroyed as they are an affront to God born of Nationalist Pride and those who would pacify the powerful and replaced by the true image which is one of broken man an image that reflects the hierarchy of the church today while been accompanied by these words

    Jesus I Trust in thee

    We trust in Jesus’s teaching. If we do not walk, in Trust with the Holy Spirit, who do you walk with? The saints include Jesus’ esteemed mother, all of whom are God’s creatures and are always the container never the substance (Holy Spirit God Himself). Not to walk in trust with the Holy Spirit is to walk (The ‘Way) in your own ego (Self-will). We cannot bow down before any of His creatures as all glory belongs to the Holy of Holies God Himself no other.

    Broken humanity can only be healed by a Church that is true to the teachings of Jesus Christ and to do this we have to individually seek out and draw close to God’s Holy Spirit whereas the HOLY SPIRIT CANNOT ABIDE IN THE HEART OF ANY WHO COLLUDE WITH TWO FINGERED ..V.. EVIL PRINCE OF THIS WORLD.

    Father! send your Spirit to restore breaking down each manmade door with tongue and flame give us unity again

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Dear brother Kevin;

      Was thinking of you the other day and hoping you would turn up on these pages. God answers prayers. Your points are well emphasized. Courageous leadership seems to be on vacation today. Faithful laity with God’s word i hand is the way the way to reclaim the church.

      Blessings upon blessings,


      Matthew 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

      Revelation 2:11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

      1 Peter 1:7 So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

      Hebrews 10:23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

      2 Timothy 2:13 If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.

      1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.

      • Thank you, Brian, my brother for your encouraging blessings they are always welcomed. I am very ill and it is difficult to participate regularly on the site.

        Those who give blessings, as you do also receive them.

        Proverbs 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

  2. Oh, love divine send forth the gift of thine as your love is all revealing
    Come closer, come closer I beg you
    Come closer, come closer, and stay,
    Stay with me all the day
    Come closer, come closer and so that I may know the gifts of His Way
    Yes, you will stay now because I know/love you
    Never turning away as now I know the teaching, the teaching of the love of His Way
    And they shall be taught by God
    As He will take what is mine and reveal it to you

    kevin you brother
    In Christ

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