The difference God made through Francis Cardinal George

Last Friday, the most impactful American bishop of the last generation, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, died at the age of 78 after a long, courageous, public and serene battle with cancer.

Even though outside of Chicago his name might not have been recognized in every Catholic household, his work made a profound difference in how every English-speaking Catholic prays the Mass, how children are protected in Catholic institutions, how the Church interacts with an increasingly secular culture, how the U.S. Bishops’ Conference functions and chooses its leaders and in scores of other ways.

Although I was never close enough to him to be numbered among his friends, I did know him, and, from the time he used to celebrate Mass at St. Paul’s in Cambridge when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I looked toward him for guidance and example.

Cardinal George was a sincere, bold, and visionary leader who united truth and charity and had a great ability to transcend the simplistic frames that so often straightjacket others in the Church. 

When he asked upon his appointment to Chicago whether he was a conservative response to a liberal predecessor, he replied that the Church is concerned about true and false, good and evil, not left and right. 

When the group Dignity, which believes that Church teaching on chastity and sexual morality are not part of the Good News, claimed that under him the Church in Chicago was becoming unwelcoming to those with same-sex attractions, he said that the Church indeed heartily welcomes everyone but also calls everyone to conversion and seeks to help them live according to the Gospel.

What are aspects of his legacy? Beyond the multitude of things he did to strengthen the Archdiocese of Chicago, I’d like to focus on five things that have had a great impact well beyond the Windy City.

He was the foremost American figure of Liturgical reform. His work at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference and with the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission was pivotal in the decade-long work of the retranslation of the Roman Missal that priests throughout the English-speaking world now use at Mass. It led to a much richer, more humble, more Sacred vocabulary. In the year 2000, he founded the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary to train people across the country in Liturgical studies. He also supported the work of Father Frank Phillips to found the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius to put many aspects of the Liturgical reform into beautiful action.

He was one of the greatest articulators and defenders of the faith within the rapidly secularizing culture and various branches of government. He understood the culture at its roots and was able prophetically to preach to it and model for others how to preach effectively within it.

He was one of the boldest agents of the New Evangelization. In 2000, he took one of the most talented priests in the country, Father Robert Barron, and gave him the permission to develop resources to help all Catholics throughout the United States. Father Barron started Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, an apostolate that has led not only to the “Catholicism” series, but so many other helpful resources. Without Cardinal George’s unselfish magnanimity in placing Father Barron’s talents at the service of the wider Church, we might never have any of them.

Cardinal George’s election as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not only led to a great reform and consolidation of the conference’s central infrastructure, but also to a major change in its mentality. Prior to his election, which was a sign of the esteem his brother bishops had for him, cardinals were not elected to lead the conference because, the idea went, they already had a great deal of influence. But rather than use that influence to strengthen the situation of the Church in the country, many bishops looked at it as an opportunity to give someone else a voice. The election of Cardinal George was a sea-change, making possible the selection of the bishop considered to be their best qualified leader — something that seemed to be replicated in the selection of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan as his successor, and hopefully will be repeated many times over.

Finally, Cardinal George played a pivotal role in formulating and defending the radical response of the U.S. bishops to the clergy sexual abuse scandals, which led to a Copernican shift in the Church law. The Vatican initially resisted the U.S. bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy that mandated that a priest would be irreversibly removed from ministry following the admission, conviction or substantiation of one case of the sexual abuse of a minor. There were many canonical reasons for the Vatican’s hesitancy, but it was Cardinal George who successfully got the Vatican to budge. Now as the sexual abuse problem has been seen in its worldwide context, that zero tolerance policy is gradually being adopted by the Church across the globe.

The cardinal authored two books I’ve read more than once and highly recommend: “The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture” and “God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World.”

God made a great difference in the life of Francis George and through him and his faith-filled response to Divine action also made a great difference in the Church and the world.

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

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