Cardinal Francis George by Adam Bielawski

When Cardinal George’s cancer returned in March of last year, I was sitting in the lobby of the Chancery, waiting to speak to him — on the site of my former high school, Quigley North Preparatory Seminary, from which I graduated 44 years earlier.

A troop of students from a Legionaries of Christ school in the suburbs was also on hand. Together we represented the two extremes of the Catholic spectrum, and one could imagine the poor cardinal taking refuge at Loyola Medical Center just to avoid us.

Barbara Fiorito, the cardinal’s appointment secretary and a lovely person (who lives in Elmwood Park), informed me about the postponement, then took me on a tour of my newly cubicled alma mater, a surreal experience.

As she took her leave, she said something about rescheduling, but I didn’t really expect to hear back.

To my surprise, she followed up after the cardinal was back on his feet, and on June 25 I found myself in his office, a space carved out of the former school library, windows looking across Chestnut Street at the building that, when I arrived in 1966, housed the Whiskey a Go-Go nightclub (back when the Rush Street area was a much racier place).

I knew he had seen some of my columns, critical both of him and the Church (I called him “intellectually dishonest” once because he was defending the “Church line” against Obamacare. I believed he was smart enough to know better). 

So I was impressed that he was willing to meet at all. When I told him that, he said, “If I didn’t talk to my critics, I wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

The reason for our conversation was my book, Unfinished Pentecost, which tells the story of future priests and nuns who were studying in Rome during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and whose lives were altered by the experience.

A member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Cardinal George knew several members of the Oblate order who were interviewed for the book. A former seminary classmate of mine, now a priest, offered to give the cardinal a copy of the book, then encouraged me to contact him, which I did. The cardinal responded and the next thing I knew, we had a date.

When I brought up Vatican II, he launched into an academic discourse on its misinterpretations (essentially that those most excited by the Council and most devoted to keeping its legacy alive didn’t really understand what was happening at the time or how it properly fits into the larger context of traditional Church teachings). 

I didn’t want a debate. The man had cancer and was on the verge of retiring after 17 years in a challenging job during a challenging time upholding a challenged institution. I didn’t want to make his life any more difficult — even if I was pretty sure Vatican II would prevail in the long run.

So I told him about my friend, Fr. Jim O’Connor, a 55-year Trappist monk at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa, who, after I mentioned my impending appointment, wrote back: “Cardinal George always seemed like the kind of guy you could have a beer with.”

A Church critic who makes yearly retreats at a Trappist monastery and corresponds with a 90-year-old monk who wants to have a beer with the cardinal is probably not exactly what his eminence was expecting. He laughed and our conversation became less intellectual. 

Which is not to say we didn’t touch on hot topics. At one point, I told him I thought that optional celibacy, ordaining women and overturning the contraception ban were inevitable and that the institution needed to prepare for it.

Not good enough, he challenged me. The Church has to do more than keep up with societal changes. One must go back to the past to find a theological basis for changing church teaching.

I couldn’t help thinking, “The past justifications for not ordaining women are so lame they’re laughable,” but that didn’t seem like a productive tack. So I said, “I think the Church needs to develop new theology.” 

To my surprise, he agreed — though he didn’t specify particular areas where it might be needed.

We talked about Pope Francis and, without saying which way he voted, he observed that Cardinal Bergoglio met his two top priorities: reforming the Vatican and showing concern for the poor. He did try to temper popular enthusiasm about the pope, noting that some Catholics were misinterpreting what he said, reading into his statements what they wanted to hear. I can’t blame him for counseling caution, given his background, but now I think it’s pretty clear which path the pope is taking.

I talked about being a student in that building, the very building to which he was once denied entry as a victim of polio. The Oblates welcomed him, but I learned during my interviews for the book that they decided against sending him to study in Rome because they thought the cobblestone streets would be a problem for him.

Yet he ended up heading the Oblate order in Rome and later led his native archdiocese, the one that initially turned him down. So he overcame long odds. God, they say, works in strange ways. But it’s hard not to wonder how different this brilliant student might have turned out if he had spent those watershed Vatican Council years studying in Rome.

We talked for over an hour, which is a lot of time for a busy prelate to allot a critic. As I left, I noticed one of his support staff hurrying into his office, perhaps fearful that I aggravated the poor man to death. I hope he enjoyed the exchange as much as I did.

Up close, Francis George seemed a decent man who managed (no small feat) to remain decent in spite of the demands and stresses of his office (I met one of his predecessors, Cardinal Cody, so I know the difference). While we didn’t agree on many things, I found him willing to engage, though probably not willing to have his mind changed.

My regret is that this good soldier used his considerable intellect to defend an unhealthy status quo instead of making a case for much-needed change.

He will most likely be remembered as a caretaker prelate during a particularly difficult time in the history of a deeply flawed institution.

I don’t know if Cardinal George will be remembered with special affection, but he’ll likely be regarded in the same way he treated his critics — with respect.

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