May 1, 2015

Reflection / Daniel Conway

Remembering Cardinal George

Nearly 12 years ago, I had the privilege of introducing Cardinal Francis E. George, then Archbishop of Chicago, to a group of colleagues gathered for a conference in Chicago. When I was finished with my introduction, Cardinal George said, with his customary humility and wit, “Thank you for that very kind introduction. Save it for my obituary.” I did as the cardinal requested. Here, edited slightly for the purposes of this column, is my “obituary” for my dear friend and mentor, Francis George, who returned to the Lord on April 17, 2015.

I have the distinct privilege of introducing our special guest Cardinal Francis George. This is no easy task. The cardinal’s curriculum vitae is pages long, and I run the terrible risk of embarrassing him—and boring you—with all the details of his life and ministry.

To keep this simple, I would like to introduce Cardinal George in three words that I believe are essential to understanding this gifted man and his very special ministry in the Church. The three words are oblate, bishop and steward.

An oblate is someone whose life is dedicated to the Lord. The word “oblate” comes from the same Latin root as the word “oblation,” which we know from Sacred Scripture means an offering to God, a sacrificial gift returned to the Lord with increase.

Cardinal George is a native of Chicago. Early in his life, he made the decision to dedicate his considerable gifts and talents to the Lord. He joined a religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which was founded in France in 1826 to preach the Gospel to the working poor and which rapidly spread throughout the world as a teaching and missionary society.

Cardinal George served his community as a teacher and scholar, earning doctorates in philosophy and sacred theology, and teaching in prestigious Catholic universities in the Midwest and southern United States. He also served for many years as a major religious superior responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of his order.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate are present in 68 countries and five continents throughout the world. They are often referred to as “specialists in difficult missions” because they are willing to go places where missionary work is especially difficult, and where preaching the Gospel seems hopeless. Perhaps this is one reason why Pope John Paul II chose an oblate to serve as Bishop of Yakima, Wash., Archbishop of Portland, Ore., and Archbishop of Chicago. Cardinal George would be the first to say that the ministry of a bishop today qualifies as a difficult mission!

Cardinal George takes his special responsibilities as a metropolitan archbishop and a cardinal very seriously, but if you spend any time with him at all you quickly learn that it is his ministry as a bishop that occupies most of his time and attention.

The Catholic Church is quite clear in its teaching about the role of a bishop in the Church. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a bishop exercises his ministry “in persona Christi Capitis” (#1548), in the person of Christ, the head of the Church. A bishop is called to be the chief pastor in his diocese, the shepherd of his flock, the primary sacramental minister and the principal teacher of eternal truth. In the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop is an icon, the living image of God.

The catechism makes it very clear that this awesome responsibility should not be misunderstood. The bishop is not some superhuman figure. Still less is he a celebrity or person of privilege who is exempt from human weakness, including the temptation to abuse his authority, to make serious mistakes or to sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the bishop is effective in his ministry to the extent that he empties himself and is filled with the grace of Christ. In other words, it is not the bishop who is the head of the Church, who shepherds the flock, who presides at the Eucharist and the other sacraments, or who teaches us the truth. It is Christ acting in and through the bishop.

I was privileged to work closely with Cardinal George for two years. During that time, I saw his human weakness (as he certainly saw mine), but I also experienced personally the power of his ministry as a bishop. I can tell you without exaggeration that as a result of Cardinal George’s ministry, I grew in my understanding and practice of the Catholic faith. I developed a deeper devotion to the Eucharist, and I came to appreciate more fully the profound relationship between stewardship as an expression of Christian discipleship and the call to share my faith with others through evangelization.

I experienced Christ working through Cardinal George, and I believe the 2 million Catholics in the archdiocese of Chicago have also been touched by the cardinal’s ministry whether they recognize it or not. Cardinal George has taught me, and many others, about the importance of Christian stewardship. His commitment to stewardship as a way of living the Gospel has made it possible for me to share in his ministry as an oblate, a bishop and a steward of all God’s gifts.

A Christian steward is a disciple of Jesus Christ who is grateful, accountable, generous and willing to give back to the Lord with increase. I personally witnessed these stewardship values in the life and ministry of Cardinal Francis George.

Requiescat in pace!

(Daniel Conway, who serves as senior vice president at Marian University in Indianapolis, is a member of The Criterion’s editorial board.)

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