Friday, April 17, 2015

The Maestro Departs – Cardinal George Dies at 78

The American hierarchy has lost the figure widely seen as its intellectual giant of the last generation.

Francis Eugene George – the first Chicago native to become the Windy City's cardinal-archbishop, then the first to retire from the post late last year – died shortly before noon local time amid his third bout with bladder cancer. An Oblate of Mary Immaculate with twin doctorates in social psychology and theology whose rise from the academy to his order's Roman leadership then through the Stateside ranks arguably made for the most unlikely path ever to result in a US cardinal, George was 78.

After less than a year as archbishop of Portland, the native son was a surprise choice in April 1997 to succeed the iconic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin at the helm of the nation's third-largest diocese, going on to receive the red hat nine months later. As president of the USCCB from 2007-10 – the first cardinal in three decades to hold the post – George's conciliatory abilities and esteem across the bench's polarized divide were able to forge an almost miraculous consensus that carried the body through a host of turbulent moments, most notably the cataclysmic tension felt by many prelates in the wake of Barack Obama's election to the presidency in 2008.

Afflicted with childhood polio – the pronounced limp from which remained throughout his life – George's 17 years in his hometown chair (his ministry's lone assignment in Chicago) were dogged by no shortage of controversies and challenges. Amid an epic shift of the 2.3 million member fold's demographics to the cusp of a Hispanic majority, the prelate who introduced himself at his installation as "Francis, your neighbor" often found himself at loggerheads with the famously independent presbyterate, all while the national eruption of the clergy sex-abuse scandals saw the vaunted Corporation Sole mired in years of lawsuits and settlements. While George's genius and serenity through years of health scares earned him the hard-won respect of the local crowd, the cardinal's constant emphasis on saying "what I think" as opposed to "how I feel" made for a spirited, usually contentious relationship with much of the press corps.

Yet "in the end," as George himself said at the 2013 funeral of his unlikely friend and opera companion – the celebrated novelist and Sun-Times columnist Fr Andrew Greeley – "everyone was forgiven": as they entered Holy Name on the eve of his successor's installation last November, the most prolonged, raucous ovation wasn't at the sight of the incoming archbishop gliding up the aisle, but that of the first-ever emeritus struggling up a ramp to the sanctuary, guided by his ever-faithful longtime secretary, Fr Dan Flens.

The author of a landmark 2001 pastoral letter on racism – a text which drew viscerally from his experiences in the Jim Crow South – having articulated a dire vision of the church's future in American society in later years while seeking to surmount Stateside Catholicism's damaging ideological turf-war, the cardinal was reportedly hard at work on a final book over recent months and said to be "driven" to complete it in the time left to him.

A favorite of St John Paul II – whose Lenten retreat George preached in 2001 – the cardinal's Roman standing rose even further in the reign of Benedict XVI, a fellow theologian (and German speaker) under whom the Chicagoan became the preeminent US-based voice in the Vatican's mind.

Five months after handing over the reins of the Chicago post in unprecedented fashion to Blase Cupich, the Ninth Archbishop is slated to make a formal announcement of his predecessor's death at 2pm Central in the courtyard of Holy Name. (Video posted.)

While the funeral timetable remains to be determined, the archbishopric of Chicago is unique among the US' major posts in that its occupants are entombed not in a Cathedral crypt, but at a towering mausoleum (below) some 20 miles outside the city at Mt Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, after a lengthy cortege from the Near North Side traditionally brings the nation's third-largest city to a halt.

With George's passing, the number of Stateside electors in a hypothetical Conclave falls to ten. This Sunday, the bloc will again diminish to nine as Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali marks his 80th birthday, while in the first half of 2016, the respective age-outs of LA's retired Cardinal Roger Mahony and the former CDF chief Cardinal William Levada will make for a combined loss of four American seats in just over a year, leaving a contingent numbering seven.

Given Pope Francis' drastic makeover of the geographic distribution of the 120 electors in the College of Cardinals, it is expected that at least half of the lost voting slots will not be restored to these shores, ending a seven-decade custom of US cardinals comprising roughly ten percent of the papal electorate, a practice whose roots date to the end of World War II and was successively maintained by the grateful European Popes who've followed until now.

SVILUPPO: After two days of lying in-state, the Funeral Mass has been scheduled for Thursday, 23 April, at Noon. Per his wishes – which only emerged on the release of the arrangements – George will not be laid to rest alongside his predecessors, but with his parents in a simple suburban ground-plot.