I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Francis Cardinal George because, but for him, I would not be here serving as a priest in the archdiocese. I met Cardinal George for the first time in April 1998 and I was still teaching at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. I had been going through a process of discernment regarding my priestly ministry and at the suggestion of Fr Ron Lewinski I was considering applying for incardination into the Archdiocese of Chicago. Cardinal George made me feel welcome and even assured me that he would speak to my religious superiors if necessary. Encouraged by his openness, I finally decided to make my move and started the process in February 2000 as an associate at St Anne’s in Barrington.
The cardinal continued to follow my progress. Over the years I have had several one-on-one meetings with him. He was always cordial and personable. When I was ministering at a difficult assignment, he talked to me at length on two different occasions. He took the time to listen to my complaints and concerns. He was very encouraging. I always felt that his public persona was not the real Cardinal George.
I am not the only one who owes his ministry here to Cardinal George’s welcome. I know for sure that Fr Peter is grateful for the same reason. It is during Cardinal George’s tenure that several priests from other parts of the world – Poland, Mexico or other countries – were brought into the Chicago presbyterate. Even though some in the archdiocese are not in agreement with the Cardinal’s decision, the acute shortage of native-born priests screamed for a solution. Since Cardinal George was at heart a missionary, he felt that a missionary Church should welcome missionaries from all over.
In my personal opinion, there are two things that stand out about Cardinal George. First of all, he was a people person even though in public appearances he seemed rather serious and official. In all my personal conversations with him I sensed his sincere interest in me and his warmth. When priests came together for meetings or social gatherings, the cardinal made it a priority to talk to as many as possible. He remembered not only our names but also some personal details. Just the other day Deacon Bob was telling me how after meeting him before his ordination, Cardinal George would inquire about Kathy every time the cardinal saw him. Most of us also recall how after the opening Mass for our centennial he stayed around to take pictures with everyone. He did not leave until he talked with the last person who wanted to greet him.
Second, he gave us a personal witness of how to live our faith while grappling with opposing views and questions. Everyone knows that he was a man of great intellectual acumen. I know how hard it is to get one Ph.D. He had two Ph.D.’s – one in philosophy and the other in theology (ecclesiology). Even though he embraced enthusiastically and defended vigorously the teachings of the Church, he did it after a lot of personal thought and reflection. He did not give easy answers. His Catholic faith formed the basis of his worldview and his responses to the pressing problems of today emerged from those fundamental principles. Often he would say that some Catholics try to solve the problems of today from a political approach rather than from a philosophical-theological foundation. If we depart from the vantage point of rights and equality then we end up with the same solutions that our society clamors for.
During my previous assignment at another parish there was a vocal group of dissenting Catholics who made no bones about espousing views contrary to Church teaching. The cardinal told me that he would come to my parish to celebrate Mass and then hold a town-hall meeting. More than a hundred people were gathered in our parish hall and the audience was far from friendly. The tough questions and the negative attitude of the group did not faze him. He presented the official Church’s position with regard to several social questions and defended them with his nuanced insights. Even though he did not agree with his listeners, he was compassionate and personally reached out to some of them after the meeting.
That day the cardinal taught me that responding to the questions of dissenting Catholics is not easy. We need to struggle with our responses and should come to them only after much questioning. Pressured by the secular world, we may be tempted to go with the crowd and offer the politically-acceptable, easy answers. To be a Catholic will often mean suffering and standing alone, apart from the crowd. Cardinal George was never afraid to embrace the unpopular stance – not because he liked being unpopular, but because it is the truth. He knew that standing for what we believe will cost us just as it cost millions of Christians down the ages. Did not the Master tell us, “You will suffer for the sake of my name”?
In the final column he penned as archbishop, the cardinal wrote:
I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” What I said is not “prophetic” but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.
May Cardinal George rest in peace! Let us continue to pray for him and for the archdiocese!
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...