Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Illinois License Plate "1"

Eighty-two years ago this summer, the "Red Special" left New York's Grand Central Station en route to American Catholicism's new frontier.

A septet of crimson-painted, specially-appointed cars, the "Scarlet Train" bore Europe's princes of the church for the final leg of their journey to Chicago, which had been chosen to host the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. On their arrival, the seven visiting cardinals were joined by an eighth -- the city's archbishop, 54 year-old George Mundelein, who two years prior had been given the first red hat west of the Alleghenies.

The eventual convergence of eleven cardinals merely headlined what was, to that time, the greatest spectacle the US church had ever known. And the natives celebrated as best they knew how; by the close of the Congress' opening weekend, Mundelein secured the offering of a million receptions of Communion as a spiritual bouquet for Pope Pius XI -- all in one day (a task which, it was reported, took the celebration of 6,000 Masses to accomplish).

He built the nation's largest seminary in a town that bore his name and -- in a tradition his successors kept for six decades -- was driven in a car bearing Illinois license plate "1" (a trapping usually reserved to the governor). But for all that, the rise of Chicago's empire-builder was, in truth, an accident of history.

A young Brooklyn auxiliary of German stock, Mundelein had been slated for promotion to the vacant bishopric of Buffalo in 1915. The initial throes of World War I, however, led the British government to protest the appointment of a prelate of "adversarial ancestry" to a see on its Canadian border, so Rome sent the Brooklynite to the rapidly growing "Second City" instead.

"American on the outside but Roman to the core," the first Stateside cardinal based away from the East Coast nevertheless brought its penchant for businesslike management (and triumphalism) to the governance of his charge. To this day, it could be well argued that the "Catholic Bishop of Chicago, A Corporation Sole" -- its prerogatives once specifically safeguarded in the state constitution -- is still the most ironclad concentration of an American diocese's temporal affairs, as Mundelein's successors in turn rose (at least, in name only) into the top tier of the nation's wealthiest landowners.

The famous multi-chimneyed manse at 1555 N. State Parkway might remain the Cardinal's Residence, the seminary's neo-classical splendor untouched, but the halcyon age of pride and order presided over by Mundelein and his first three successors now lies consigned to the grandeur of memory. And so, a colorful exhibit opening this weekend at the city's History Museum tells the story of "Catholic Chicago":
Warmly nostalgic -- though it includes a filmed interview with a victim of clergy sex abuse -- the exhibit will be a hit, museum officials believe, drawing on the estimated 2.9 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Joliet.

But the opening of the exhibit -- a cornucopia of all things Catholic, from school uniforms to vestments to Mother Cabrini's shoes -- also illustrates that, while the Catholic church is in the DNA of Chicago, it is not the dominant gene it once was....

In 1965, there were about 450 Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, with an enrollment of 304,000; for the 2006-2007 school year, there were 217 schools, with 98,000 students.

No longer raised on first Friday masses and monthly confessions, and removed from the religious influence that informed school subjects from science to history, more and more Catholic kids assimilated into the larger world populated by "publics."

"It's a very different world,'' Powers observes. "Neighborhoods, in general, have lost their impact. People are proud now to say they don't know their neighbors."

The archdiocese, bolstered by Hispanics, counts 2.3 million Catholics today -- about the same as in 1965. But it acknowledges that, on a typical Sunday, only about 490,000 attend mass. And among Illinois residents who say they were raised Catholic as children, a quarter no longer consider themselves members of the faith, according to a recent Pew Forum study....

Around the nation, the Chicago church still has an activist reputation, says Robert J. McClory, professor emeritus at Northwestern University and a longtime writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

Chicago Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand, who died in 1978, exhorted countless priests, first as rector of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, "to get out of the rectories and stop just saving souls and start saving neighborhoods and people,'" says McClory.

"There was an obligation to become active in things like race relations and poverty and the unjust treatment of people in any situation."

A few of those activist groups, planted by the church and populated with people from the pews, still exist today, but "they don't make headlines," McClory says.
* * *
Eleven years ago next month, Pope John Paul II shocked most observers by naming an obscure, almost-unmentioned prelate as the first native son to occupy the archbishop's chair of Holy Name Cathedral.

A product of St Pascal's Parish on the city's Northwest Side, Francis George had only served a matter of months as archbishop of Portland in Oregon before his appointment to the US' second-largest local church. A Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate with degrees in theology and American philosophy and a lifetime spent in teaching, he had never served in his hometown before the morning when, quoting TS Eliot before a packed press conference, he would "arrive where [he] started, and know the place for the first time." Nine months after introducing himself as "Francis, your neighbor," the Polish Pope made George the American church's first professed cardinal since a former Notre Dame president received the red hat four decades earlier.

While his immediate predecessor dominated the nation's ecclesiastical scene for close to three decades, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin served as the American hierarchy's elected head in his prior post as archbishop of Cincinnati. So it was another moment for the history books when, last November, the bishops chose George -- the resident prelate closest to Pope Benedict -- as the first Chicagoan to hold the presidency, and the first cardinal elevated to the office since 1971.

Now 71 and having successfully rallied from a 2006 bout with bladder cancer, the cardinal-president gave the Chicago Tribune all access to a day in the life... chock full o'photos.
Spend a day with Cardinal George and you'll see him smile a lot. That's not the cardinal the wider public generally sees. At news conferences, George has a no-nonsense, professorial demeanor. Perhaps that's why, after more than a decade of watching him, Chicagoans still don't know the prelate well.

As the head of the local Catholic Church, George plays a major role in the life of Chicago and the suburbs of Cook and Lake Counties. His decisions on the opening and closing of schools and churches shape neighborhoods. The Catholic institutions he oversees — ranging from universities to Catholic Charities to cemeteries — serve millions of believers and non-believers alike.

As the Chicago region's most visible ecclesiastical figure, he's important in setting its moral agenda, commenting on issues of social justice and public policy....

During a preparatory meeting, the cardinal described his day as "a constructed life." The needs of his ecclesiastical position determine how he spends his time. "It never ends," his communications director Colleen Dolan said later. "He is seldom tired, and always in good humor. I get tired just keeping track of him."

Tagging along with the cardinal for a day, even a day that stretched for more than 15 hours, doesn't furnish insights into the depths of his soul. But it does provide a glimpse of the man behind the title.

One thing is clear: Cardinal George is a CEO who likes his job — and who isn't afraid to express a blithe spirit....
Once the cardinal walks in front of the cameras, though, his smile disappears. Here he carries the full weight of his lofty position as head of the local Catholic church. He is the representative of millions of church members and for a 2,000-year-old faith.
Many public leaders in such settings take pleasure in the game of give-and-take with journalists. For George, the process seems to be, if not exactly a trial, certainly a test of some sort.

When answering a reporter's question on this Friday, he usually doesn't make eye contact. Instead, his gaze is inward, as if he is reading his answer in his mind to make sure he doesn't misspeak.

The news conference is the one occasion in the day when George is interacting with the broader world — a world filled with people holding different beliefs about God, or no beliefs at all. And it is an opportunity to preach, in a way, to that wider audience.

Twenty-four hours earlier, five students at Northern Illinois University had been fatally shot in a classroom, and a reporter asks George about his thoughts.

In his answer, the cardinal notes that American individualism "leaves many people isolated." At the root of the shootings, he suggests, was a breakdown of the sense of community. "What is the basis of our being together?" he says. "It has to be something more than individual rights or individual dreams or individual desires."
He's no stranger to the spotlight, of course, but the coming weeks will see George taking an even more visible role.

Though the Volo Papale won't be touching down at O'Hare come mid-April, as president of the USCCB George will be one of the few mainstays of the "inner bubble" traveling within inches of B16 for the duration of his East Coast trek.

SVILUPPO: As an added bonus to the "day in the life," ChiTrib religion reporter Manya Brachear's put out an open call for questions which George has promised to answer.... So have at 'im.

PHOTOS: Chicago History Museum (1); TIME File (2); Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune (3,4)