Changing of the guard in Chicago

Francis Cardinal George, OMI. Photo by Rich Hein for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI. Photo by Rich Hein for the Chicago Sun-Times.

On Friday, Nov. 14, I attended weekday Mass. The experience was bittersweet.

It was the 12:10 liturgy at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. The main celebrant was Francis Cardinal George, OMI, the retiring archbishop of Chicago.

I sat along the central aisle. I tried and failed to ignore cameramen from local media outlets who had set up for a good shot. As the organ thundered “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” a phalanx of clergy marched within inches of me.

There were deacons and priests in white stoles, most bearing the red-eagled coat of arms of the archdiocese. There were the auxiliary bishops, some familiar to me and some not, all wearing tall white miters. And finally there was the Cardinal, in his red zucchetto and white-and-burgundy chasuble.

He was unsmiling, purse-lipped, and on crutches. George, who is suffering from his third bout with cancer, has a tumor pressing on nerves and veins. It makes it painful for him to walk, on top of the polio-related limp he has endured for more than sixty years anyway. A seminarian altar server, hands veiled in a vimpa, carried the Cardinal’s crosier for him. 

George was celebrating Mass for the repose of the souls of all archdiocesan priests and deacons who had died in the past year. He was also celebrating it for the repose of another man who had not: the by-now legendary Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, in whose shadow Francis George has always ruled. It was Bernardin’s anniversary. He died Nov. 14, 1996.

Cardinal George, his voice scratchy and tired in a way I have not heard before, preached on the need to pray for the dead. The dead are coming into full union with the perfect love and light of God. Because we ourselves are never perfect, and we always leave something unfinished, we need help to embrace this fullness. We need that help from God. We need it also from the prayers of our sisters and brothers.

It was a fine homily. The Cardinal preaches like the former seminary professor he is. But he does it well. Of the issues I have had with him over the years, his preaching has never been one of them. And at least in my hearing, he has stuck close to one topic: God’s love.

After the dismissal, the clergy processed back down the central aisle, again within inches of me. But the Cardinal did not. It was too much for him. He walked directly to the sacristy, with painstaking slowness, accompanied by the seminarians and the master of ceremonies. The thought struck me that not only was I likely seeing him for the last time as the reigning archbishop, but I was likely seeing him for the last time, period.

I had this thought as I watched the sacristy door swing shut.


Chicago’s archbishops, over the past century, have been a long-serving lot. George Mundelein, the first one to be a cardinal, ruled for twenty-four years; Samuel Stritch, eighteen; John Patrick Cody, seventeen. Even Bernardin, who died young, served for fourteen years. Francis George, finishing at seventeen-and-a-half years, is typical.

At seventy-seven, George is the longest-lived archbishop. His nearest competitor, Cody, died at seventy-four. George is also the only one ever to have retired. Early bishops were transients; one went mad; and everybody since has died in office. (Well, all except for Stritch, who with reluctance accepted a Vatican post from Pope Pius XII, but died upon arriving in Rome.)

Cardinal George is the only native Chicagoan ever to have been installed at Holy Name. Perhaps this was one source of his problems. Chicago breeds civic leaders who speak too bluntly, too fast, too scatter-shot. And they expect to get away with it.

Mayor Richard J. Daley was infamous for streams of utterances like: “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all—the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” His son, Mayor Richard M., was known to snap at aldermen who defied him: “That’s why I’m up here and you’re down there.” The current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, reputedly stands on his City Hall desk and shouts profanity.

George, while he is a churchman who is more thoughtful and erudite than any of the foregoing, has seemingly drunk of the local water. He has written that God does not love everyone equally. He has told news anchors that the LGBTQ rights movement reminds him of the Ku Klux Klan. He has sputtered that if the country doesn’t change its secularist course, he might die in bed, but his successors might die in prison and by execution.

It is in part because he knows better, and because you know he knows better, that such remarks have hurt and baffled as many people as they have. The headline of an article by NCR writer Bob McClory captures him well: “Cardinal George shoots from hip, hits foot again.”

From my armchair observation post, the Cardinal struck me as a well-meaning, yet conservative and punctilious professor who never wanted to be a bishop. Once he became a bishop, he was confronted by a turbulent society he did not understand, and by rude and demanding crowds he did not understand either. It grated on him, and it showed.

He would, I think, rather have been something else. He was capable of being something else. I know this, for when I interviewed him for my high school newspaper, he was consummately obliging, insightful, and gracious. I wish Chicago had seen more of it, more of the time.

In any event, the point is now moot. As this blog goes to press, we will have a new archbishop: Blase Cupich, soft-spoken, self-effacing, Nebraskan. And, as Cardinal George recently told local reporter Jay Levine, he himself will recede into the shade.


The Catholic imagination, as per the late Andrew Greeley and others, is sacramental. It provides us with a plethora of sacred objects, sacred spaces, and sacred persons. Persons can be sacred for their inherent qualities, in the way that Jesus had charismatic authority because God, acting without precedent, gave it to him. Persons can also be sacred because of the positions they take up, as is true of priests and other clergy.

I am a progressive Catholic who writes and works within a movement that is leery of hierarchy. So I have to be suspicious of any talk about “grace of office,” and I am. But as a Catholic who is at home with messy paradox, and who participates in the historic Catholic imagination, I still maintain a stable of traditional sacred persons. The departing Chicago archbishop is one of them.

He is the only such sacred person to have been around for all of my adult development. George was installed in the spring of 1997, when I was thirteen. Since then, I have graduated from high school and college; made and lost some of my best friends; fallen in and out of love, and confused variants thereof; had several jobs; discovered myself as a writer; been seemingly abandoned, and then kicked in the pants, by God; and begun to apply to graduate schools.

The constant through it all was my Catholicism, with its peculiar Chicago flavor. And for all those years, one short, intense, and bespectacled man has presided over my Chicago Catholicism: from his office at Rush and Pearson, from his home on North State Parkway, from his cathedral at State and Superior. Now, as I feel myself in important ways finally come of age, that sacred yet flawed man departs the scene.

In the calendar year 2014, I have had a variety of powerful encounters. They have pushed me to recognize that time is fleeting, that security blankets get torn away, that certain things must get done, and that I must become, at last, a true grown-up. Perhaps one of the most poignant of those encounters was on Friday, when I met one last time with the Cardinal to open the Scriptures and break the bread.

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