A lion of the American Church Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Apr. 30, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

First in a series of reflections by Fr. Robert Barron on the life of Cardinal Francis George.

Cardinal Francis George, who died April 17 at the age of 78, was obviously a man of enormous accomplishment and influence.

He was a cardinal of the Roman Church, a past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the archbishop of one of the largest and most complicated archdioceses in the world, and the intellectual leader of the American Church.

A number of American bishops have told me that when Cardinal George spoke at the bishops' meetings, the entire room would fall silent and everyone would listen.

Kid from Chicago

To understand this great man, we have to go back in imagination to when he was a kid from St. Pascal Parish on the northwest side of Chicago, who liked to ride his bike and run around with his friends and who was an accomplished pianist and painter.

At the age of 13, that young man was stricken with polio, a disease which nearly killed him and left him severely disabled. Running, bike riding, painting, and piano playing were forever behind him.

I'm sure he was tempted to give up and withdraw into himself, but Francis George, despite his handicap, pushed ahead with single-minded determination.

Longing to become a priest

The deepest longing of his heart was to become a priest, and this led him to apply to Quigley Seminary. Convinced that this boy with crutches and a brace couldn’t make the difficult commute every day or keep up with the demands of the school, the officials at Quigley turned him away.

Undeterred, he applied to join the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a missionary congregation. Recognizing his enormous promise and inner strength, they took him in.

I bring us back to this moment of the cardinal's life, for it sheds light on two essential features of his personality.

Never gave up

First, he was a man who never gave up. I had the privilege of living with Cardinal George for six years and thus I was able to see his life close-up. He had an absolutely punishing schedule, which had him going morning, noon, and night, practically every day of the week: administrative meetings, private conversations, banquets, liturgies, social functions, public speeches, etc.

Never once, in all the years I lived with him, did I ever hear Cardinal George complain about what he was obliged to do. He simply went ahead, not grimly but with a sense of purpose.

When he first spoke to the priests of the archdiocese as our archbishop, he said, "Never feel sorry for yourself!" That piece of advice came, you could tell, from the gut.

A man of mission

Second, his identity as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate deeply marked him as a man of mission. The OMIs are a missionary congregation, whose work takes them all over the world, from Africa and Asia to Latin America, the Yukon, and Alaska -- not to mention Texas and Belleville, Ill.

When he was a novice and young OMI seminarian in Belleville, Francis George heard the stories of missioners from the far reaches of the globe, and he imbibed their adventurous spirit.

As the vicar general of his order, he undertook travels to six continents, dozens of countries, visiting with thousands of OMI evangelist priests. I was continually amazed at his detailed knowledge of the politics, culture, and history of almost any country or region you could name. It was born of lots of direct experience.

Contemporary culture

This missionary consciousness is what informed the intellectual and pastoral project that was closest to his heart, namely, the evangelization of contemporary culture. He showed himself a disciple of his great mentor, Karol Wojtyla, St. John Paul II.

What Cardinal George brought uniquely to the table was a particularly clear grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of the Western and especially American cultural matrix.

Cardinal George often signaled his impatience with the term "counter-cultural" in regard to the Church's attitude vis-à-vis the ambient culture. His concern is that this can suggest animosity, whereas the successful evangelist must love the culture he is endeavoring to address.

But he saw a deeper problem as well, namely, that, strictly speaking, it is impossible to be thoroughly counter-cultural, since such an attitude would set one, finally, against oneself. It would be a bit like a fish adamantly insisting that he swims athwart the ocean.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org