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Man of Faith

June 24, 1999

Donna Diermann (N '87)
Michael DeMocker

After an almost 30-year hiatus from the city down South where he received one of his four postgraduate degrees, the Most Rev. Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, finds himself standing behind a podium in Myra Clare Rogers Memorial Chapel, facing a captivated crowd.

As he begins to explicate the poetry, plays and encyclicals of Pope John Paul II before the Tulane audience, it becomes clear, almost immediately, that this newly appointed cardinal is no ordinary man of faith.

His lecture, "Images of God in the Writings of Pope John Paul II: A Spirituality for the New Millennium," is punctuated with references to anthropology, philosophy, phenomenology and ecclesiology, and, consequently, not intended for the weak of intellect. Yet even the unordained are able to walk away from this experience with some level of understanding. Their enlightenment, however, has more to do with the cardinal himself than with his chosen topic.

What lies beneath this scholar's extensive knowledge of church teaching, his clear comprehension of some of the earliest and more obscure writings of Pope John Paul II and his mastery of even the most complex theories in philosophy is a simple, honest faith. His is the kind of abiding, unconditional faith that radiates through the pomp and circumstance linked to the titles of honor and responsibility in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church--the kind of unquestionable faith that even the most superior intellectual, such as he, can reconcile with the principles of pure logic.

Career choices

Born in 1937 to Francis and Julia George, Francis Eugene George attended Saint Pascal Grade School on Chicago's northwest side and Saint Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Ill. He first entertained the idea of becoming a priest, he says, at the time of his first Holy Communion, but then he forgot about it for a few years. "I thought about it again at the end of grade school, and by the end of high school, I had definitely made up my mind."

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), the religious order of priests who had taught him in high school, was the logical choice for his seminary training. The order, which was founded in 1816 in France by Father Eugene Mazenod, was initially started to preach the gospel to the poor working people of southern France. Today, according to OMI documents, more than 5,000 Oblate priests and brothers are working in 68 countries on every continent.

After studying theology at the University of Ottawa, Canada, George was ordained an Oblate priest in December 1963 at the parish church of his grade school, Saint Pascal. Two years later, he earned a master's in philosophy at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His thirst for knowledge still unsatisfied, he came to New Orleans in the latter half of the 1960s to pursue a PhD at Tulane.

As the world was reacting to the war in Vietnam and digesting the directives set forth by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), George was refining his interest in American philosophers such as Josiah Royce, George Herbert Mead and Roy Wood Sellars.

"It was a very unsettled time," he says. "But I don't remember it as being an unsettled time for me. Those were happy years here. The philosophy department at Tulane was heavy on American philosophy, but that's just what I wanted at that time, and I had excellent professors." While he was studying and teaching at Tulane, George served at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Napoleon Avenue and Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church on Basin Street.

Also during that period, he taught philosophy at the Oblate Seminary in Pass Christian, Miss. (1964-69) and at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. (1969-73). He completed his PhD in 1970, and, a year later, received a master's in theology from the University of Ottawa. After serving two years as a provincial superior for the Oblates in St. Paul, Minn., George was elected vicar general of the order, which necessitated his moving to Rome.

For 12 years (1974-1986), he visited Oblates throughout the world, and he began working on yet another degree, a doctorate of sacred theology in ecclesiology--the theology of the church--at the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome.

His thesis--"Inculturation and Ecclesial Communion: Culture and Church in the Teaching of John Paul II"--reflected an enduring respect for and kinship with Pope John Paul II. It was during this long period in Rome that he began to be recognized by the Vatican for his leadership, intellectual prowess and commitment to the Catholic Church.

Upon his return to the United States, George became the coordinator of the Circle of Fellows for the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture in Cambridge, Mass., from 1987 to 1990. This last decade has proven one of great transition and challenge for George as he has ascended the Catholic hierarchical ladder at an unprecedented pace, beginning with his appointment in 1990 by the pope to be the Bishop of Yakima in Washington State, a diocese of nearly 65,000 Catholics, half of whom are Hispanic. Also that year, he began serving as Episcopal moderator and member of the board of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, a position to which he brings personal experience.

The cardinal maintains a slight limp, the result of a five-month battle with polio when he was 13. Six years later, in 1996, George was selected to serve as the ninth archbishop of Portland, Ore., where he was responsible for propagating the faith to nearly 287,000 Catholics in 125 parishes and overseeing the education of almost 15,000 elementary and high school students in Portland's Catholic school system. Less than one year later, on April 8, 1997, the pope named him the eighth archbishop of Chicago.

He was carefully chosen to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who died in November 1996. Within seven months, Pope John Paul II elevated the new archbishop to the Sacred College of Cardinals, which is the chief ecclesiastical body of the Roman Catholic Church entrusted with electing and advising the pope. Upon his selection, Cardinal George became one of nine living U.S. cardinals and the sixth cardinal in succession to serve as archbishop of Chicago.

Shepherding a diverse flock

Upon introduction, George, 62, is warm, gracious and soft-spoken. As the conversation turns to the challenges he confronts as archbishop of America's third-largest city, he becomes slightly more animated. Get him on the subject of church doctrine and canon law, however, and his tone is absolute and uncompromising.

"What would I like to accomplish as archbishop of Chicago? The same things I would like to accomplish if I were archbishop of any city," the cardinal says. "Quite simply, it's what the canons of the church tell me I'm supposed to do: To see that the faith is handed down, well-taught and preached correctly; to see that the seven sacraments are available; and to see that the members of the archdiocese are pastored according to canon law and in union with the other pastors of the Catholic church."

While that's easily enough said, it's not as easily done, the cardinal admits, as Chicago is not just any city. Now into his third year as archbishop of the Windy City, George is the shepherd of 2.3 million Catholics, more than half of whom are African-American, Hispanic, Irish, Polish, Italian, German, Lithuanian and Croat. As a result of this diversity, mass throughout the more than 375 parishes in his two-county archdiocese is celebrated in 20 different languages.

Beyond the obvious challenge of pastoring to the faithful in what he dubs Chicago's "ethnic stew," George also is responsible for overseeing the largest Catholic school system in the United States, claiming more than 135,000 students in elementary and high schools. As if its sheer size were not daunting enough, Chicago's Catholic school system, much like many of the Catholic school systems in large U.S. cities, is in the midst of a significant transition, as the number of religious teachers--nuns, brothers, priests--taking volunteer salaries has declined and the number of lay educators has risen.

"For the first time, with religious men and women making up less than 10 percent of teachers, we're trying to run a school system that pays professional salaries," George says. "We've never done that, and we can't do it with the financial resources we have. So, we either have to become much, much smaller, or there will have to be some kind of aid to parents" to help them afford tuition.

One such option recently passed by the Illinois State Assembly is a tax credit for parents--a solution that would conceivably help Catholic schools by giving more parents financial incentives to send their children to these schools. Though less controversial than school vouchers, which have already been adopted in a few states, school tax credits are still a source of anxiety for some people, the cardinal says.

Another urban trend, which is adding to the financial woes of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is the preponderance of non-Catholic students in some of the city's parochial schools.

"In Chicago, there are many schools where the overwhelming majority of students are not Catholic," George says. "That creates a problem because the school families are not members of the parish church." A parish church ordinarily subsidizes a parochial school by about 20 to 25 percent of the cost of the school, he says. That presupposes, however, that the parish community is the same as the school, and very often that is not the case.

"So, the archdiocese has to step in financially because this very small parish can't support its school. It's this kind of subsidization by the archdiocese that's debilitating." To combat this financial dilemma, the cardinal has empowered his staff to begin implementing the suggestions of a special task force on Catholic schools that was originally convened by Bernardin in 1996. Education was one of three priorities highlighted by the late cardinal as part of the mission of the church in Chicago.

The task force recommends "some form of reimbursement or public financial aid to parents who choose to send their children to non-government schools (such as the tax credit), a major gifts campaign of perhaps $100 million for all the schools, more aggressive marketing, central purchasing, selective tuition increases and some consolidation of facilities." While the archdiocese shores up its development program, it already has begun closing some schools that were marked by low enrollment and escalating tuition.

According to the archdiocese, at the end of this academic year (1998-99), three schools were to be closed completely and four others were to be consolidated to form one school with two campuses. In recent years, the archdiocese says, an average of five schools per year have closed for the same reasons. What energy he has left after tackling the problems of the Catholic school system, George says he's devoting to his predecessor's other two goals: "evangelizing, which is of course a goal of the universal church at the turn of the century, and leading the people in preparing priests and lay ministers."

As for the latter, George says, the future is looking somewhat brighter. "Vocations are on the upswing in the United States, overall," he says. "We've gotten a little more serious in the past year, but God's grace is always out there. God will always see that there are vocations to become pastors just as there are vocations to Christian marriage, which, in a sense, is in more of a crisis. We just have to identify the individuals and encourage them."

Intellectual Inspiration While the appointment to cardinal is an honor, with it comes more than just new vestments. In addition to their responsibility for electing new popes, the members of the College of Cardinals each have various committee appointments to help advise the pope on matters of the church. Francis Cardinal George serves on three committees: the Holy See's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life; and the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum."

None of these committees meets with any regularity, George says, so his trips to Rome since his appointment have been limited to his consistory, when the pope and the College of Cardinals formally celebrated his appointment, and one other brief trip last May. "Maybe as I get more acquainted with Chicago, I'll have more time to go to Rome," he says. "But at this point, I'm not at liberty to be gone very often."

Despite his physical distance from the Vatican, George maintains very close philosophical ties with Pope John Paul II. As he talks of the pope, he speaks almost from the vantage of a student who has studied the works of a great philosopher. "Objectively, whether you like him or not--and some don't like him--he will have an enormous legacy," George says. "His 20 years so far have been a great gift to the church." The pope's legacy can be looked at in three major areas, the cardinal says.

"The first area is his teaching. He has recast the Magisterium of the Church in an anthropological framework. The conclusions are the same, but the mode of argument is different, so he has shed new light on the whole deposit of faith. "Secondly, he has shown enormous pastoral courage that has restored confidence in the mission of the church," George says. "He's used to having the church in a hostile environment from his days in Marxist Poland, so he's not intimidated by anyone. "Finally, he's proclaimed respectfully who Jesus Christ is by reaching out to everyone through a universal mission carried out by traveling and writing."

Pope John Paul II is also an intellectual of the first order, the cardinal says, "and with that he's reshaped a lot of the teaching and has taken it as his role to implement the Second Vatican Council, where he was a young bishop. The pope is totally dedicated to the council, so he's set up the framework and the structures for seeing that the council will continue to change the church, because in many ways the council has not yet been heard, certainly not in this country."

Perhaps most effectively, though, "the pope is a phenomenologist," George says. "He creates iconic moments--such as the planned pilgrimages to the Vatican in celebration of the Jubilee next year--and they attract people. Even if they don't understand them, they are willing to enter into the mysteries. He creates these pilgrimages and other moments, which are then shaped by his own words. As people enter them, they have a sense of doing something in Christ which strengthens our faith."

For his part, the cardinal says, keeping up with the writings of the pope and meeting his responsibilities as archbishop of Chicago are enough to keep his personal studies at bay. "I used to be able to study more than I am able to now. Most of my work in theology was in ecclesiology, and I'm still trying to pursue that. I try to put the Catholic sense of the church in dialogue with the social philosophy of American philosophers." But for now, he says, "I buy the books. I just don't have time to read them."

Donna Diermann Soper (N '87) is a freelance writer, and also works as the development director at St. Andrew the Apostle School in New Orleans.


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