Photo: Cardinal Francis E. George, who retired as archbishop of Chicago in 2014, died April 17 after a long battle with cancer. He is pictured in a 2013 photo. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
This Thursday, April 23, I will fly to Chicago for the funeral of Cardinal Francis George, a friend of 40 years. The media will tell you that he was the intellectual and theological leader of the Catholic Church in our country. They are correct. They will tell you of the many books he wrote and the stimulating conferences he gave. And it is all true. They will point out that he was a bishop in three dioceses — Yakima, his first “love” with a large Hispanic population; The Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon and then Chicago where, as archbishop of the second largest Church in the United States, he brought a new pastoral sensitivity and an extraordinary style of humble leadership. All this is history and on target.
He loved his years in the missions serving in the many places where his Congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, brought the faith and implanted the Church, from Canada to Africa, from Australia to south Asia. Despite his famous limp, the result of a boyhood bout with polio, he traveled as Vicar General of his Congregation to every place where his confreres were serving the People of God. He loved that. Back in Rome we became friends when I needed to find a consultant for the work I was doing in the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. He was always available to me to offer counsel and advice. Meantime he managed, with all these other tasks, to pick up a second doctorate, this one in Theology from the Angelicum to match his doctorate in Philosophy from Louisiana State University.
When the Archbishop of Boston wanted to set up a freestanding Center for Faith and Culture, he turned first to Father Francis George to be the key figure in gathering and directing a small but impressive group of Catholic theologians and thinkers who made a very particular impact on the retrieval of the theological enterprise in the spirit of the Pope, now Saint, John Paul II. Back in Boston myself, I had the joy of continuing our friendship with my friend who lived and worked two streets over from my office in the Archdiocese.
When he became president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we all as a Conference knew we had a leader who gave us prestige but who saw himself as called to guide rather than govern, present ideas rather than impose policies, a priest, bishop and cardinal who listened to everyone with respect and openness and an authentic desire to learn from you and to encourage others by questions that were often searching but always committed to seeking the truth in love.
As President of the Bishops Conference, he opened every meeting with a pastoral/theological reflection on some aspect of the current life of the Church. Every time he captured our imaginations and opened up our minds by a trenchant and at times blunt, but always well informed and pastoral, analysis of what was good and should be promoted along with what was not good and needed to be corrected or even opposed.
Of his many books and essays, I liked best The Difference God Makes. It should be required reading for every American leader from the President to the local parish priest and all the rest of us as well.
For 40 years we carried on a conversation about any and all issues that concerned us both. I cannot tell you how much I learned from him. I doubt he learned much of anything from me. But that is the nature of friendship: we both grew because we both respected and, yes, loved each other. Three weeks before his death he told me that it was only a matter of time, that he was ready but also curious to discover how God would welcome him. He added that he had two more chapters to write of a book he was hoping to complete.
Our last conversation he didn’t mention the book but we talked about suffering, about God (his favorite topic) and that he had had a bad week but that day, a Saturday, he was feeling pretty good. He added, “Bill, it seems every time you call me I feel better.” I said “shall I try to call you more often?” And he said, “How about twice a day?”
It won’t be twice a day but I know I can reach him any time I want. And I am grateful to God that so many people are closer to the God he loved passionately because he showed them the love God has for us all.