The day after the 88th birthday of Pope Emeritus Benedict, Francis Cardinal George, the retired archbishop of Chicago whom John Allen, Jr. dubbed “the American Ratzinger,” passed away after a long battle with cancer. The Cardinal’s peaceful death at home fulfilled the first part of a rather famous statement he had made some years before, which many took to be a prophecy of sorts:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
Cardinal George himself did not intend this as prophecy; rather, he contextualized it thus in an interview with Allen:
I was talking to a couple of troubled priests who are worried about the secularization of our culture. I was telling them they should take the long view, step back, and renew their confidence in the providence of God. I was saying that even if the worst possible case scenario happens, we’ll be okay.
The point of Cardinal George’s statement was not that Archbishop Cupich should watch his back, nor even that a society that has set God aside can become dangerous and unpredictable (so much is plainly obvious from the experience of the twentieth century), but that the Church can proceed confidently in her mission and offer a consistent witness to every generation despite the tumult of history.
Cardinal George’s vision was of a Church that actively reaches out to society, that constantly, consistently, and courageously puts Herself forward to share her wisdom, even at the cost of persecution. As the titles of two of his published books—The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture and God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World—make clear, Cardinal George saw faith in God as having tremendous significance for society. Faith ought to be something that fundamentally transforms, and the Church should make a continual effort to demonstrate how fruitful that transformation can be.
This is the understanding of the Church’s mission advanced by the Second Vatican Council and witnessed to by both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI with respect to reading and responding to the signs of the times; that is, the Church responds to the signs of the times with neither mindless conformity nor uncompromising opposition, but with creative engagement with society. This engagement both allows what the Second Vatican Council called “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age” to raise an echo in the hearts of Catholics and maintains the hope that the Gospel as it has been passed on to us through the Church’s Tradition might strike a chord in the hearts of our contemporaries as well.
Cardinal George’s commitment to this creative engagement is particularly clear in two initiatives that he supported and spurred on over the course of his episcopate. Early in his tenure as Archbishop of Chicago, he was instrumental in the founding of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, whose model of bringing the wealth of the Catholic intellectual tradition into conversation with secular university life is inspiring imitators on college campuses across the country. In the last few years, Cardinal George enabled the work of Fr. Robert Barron to reach an even broader audience through both the “Catholicism” documentary series and the Word on Fire website.
It is at once odd and fitting to think of Cardinal George’s legacy in terms of programs or institutions such as these, in which he was more patron than protagonist: Odd because he was, as many other encomiums have pointed out, the most formidable intellect and a uniquely influential figure among the American bishops, but fitting because of his remarkable humility. It is certainly true that Cardinal George’s keen insight and deep learning made him an influential leader among the American bishops, and that his knowledge of and bona fides with the Vatican helped to secure the institution of the zero tolerance policy in the wake of the sex abuse crisis. But he was no more eager to take credit for these achievements than he was to embrace the epithet, “the American Ratzinger,” a title of which George felt unworthy but upon which Allen has insisted.
Cardinal George may not have been Joseph Ratzinger’s equal in terms of academic accomplishment, but that is not the only dimension in which they can be compared. On the most cursory level, both helped spearhead the Church’s internal reforms following the revelations of sexual abuse, both demonstrated a love for the liturgy, both brought keen insight and tremendous erudition into their work as leaders of the Church, and, despite speaking out on many issues in ways that, taken together, defy conventional political categories, were unfairly pigeonholed as conservative because of their critiques of secularism. Finally, both retired into relative silence to make room for a successor who is perceived as more liberal and charismatic.
On an even deeper level, both Pope Benedict and Cardinal George accomplished as much as they did, in terms of both internal reform and external engagement, not for the sake of their own career advancement or in order to improve the Church’s public image, but out of love for Christ and His Church. This love was fortified by their nuanced understanding of the mandate given them by the Second Vatican Council, at which a young Ratzinger was present as a theological advisor.
That the theology of the Second Vatican Council had some effect on Cardinal George as well can be discerned in the homily of his final Sunday Mass as Archbishop, in which he spoke about his own legacy as bishop not in terms of his visible accomplishments, but in terms of the extent to which he helped the people of Chicago realize the universal call to holiness. When asked after the Mass what gifts precisely he had given to the people of Chicago, he insisted:
No, it is rather what God has given to them, and the use that they have made of them over the course of my ministry [… their] increase in holiness, their increase in charity, their concern for the poor. If those gifts — which have come from Christ, they’re not mine — have grown because I have been able to be part of their lives, then that’s my legacy, that growth in Christ’s love, in the people themselves.
Cardinal George knew that, whatever terrifying twists and turns history might take, and however the Church adapts herself to the times, the mission of the Church remains the same, and the bishops of the Church must be true leaders and examples for their people. Whatever intellectual gifts Cardinal George possessed ultimately served to sharpen his focus on his ministry to the people whom God had entrusted to His care. Institutions, policies, and methods of cultural engagement come and go—it is souls that live forever. May his rest in peace.