CHICAGO — Cardinal Francis E. George, the retired archbishop of Chicago who was the first native Chicagoan to head the archdiocese, died April 17 at his residence after nearly 10 years battling cancer. He was 78.
His successor in Chicago, Archbishop Blase J. Cupich, called Cardinal George “a man of peace, tenacity and courage” in a statement he read at a news conference held outside Holy Name Cathedral to announce the death.
Archbishop Cupich singled out Cardinal George for overcoming many obstacles to become a priest, and “not letting his physical limitations moderate his zeal for bringing the promise of Christ’s love where it was needed most.”
A childhood bout with polio had left the prelate with a weakened leg and a pronounced limp throughout his life.
With the cardinal’s death, the College of Cardinals has 223 members, of whom 121 are under 80 and thus eligible to vote for a pope.
Cardinal George was a philosophy professor and regional provincial then vicar general of his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, before being named a bishop in 1990.
He was named bishop of Yakima, Washington, in 1990, then was appointed archbishop of Portland, Oregon, in April 1996. Less than a year later, St. John Paul II named him to fill the position in Chicago, which was left vacant by the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in November 1996.
By retiring in 2014, Cardinal George accomplished what he often joked was his aspiration, to be the first cardinal-archbishop of Chicago to step down from the job, rather than dying in office, as his predecessors had. In the last few months the archdiocese had issued a series of press releases about changes in Cardinal George’s health status as it declined.
At an event Jan. 30 where he received an award from the Knights of Columbus, Cardinal George spoke frankly about living with terminal illness, saying that his doctors had exhausted the options for treating his disease and that he was receiving palliative care.
“They’ve run out of tricks in the bag, if you like,” he said. “Basically, I’m in the hands of God, as we all are in some fashion.”
In a catechesis session during World Youth Day in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 2005, Cardinal George told the youths that having polio at the age of 13 left him, “a captive in my own body. I soon learned that self-pity got me nowhere. Faith was the way out, because in faith I was not alone, and good can come of something that appears bad at that time.”
Archbishop Cupich in his statement also noted that when the U.S. church “struggled with the grave sin of clerical sexual abuse, (Cardinal George) stood strong among his fellow bishops and insisted that zero tolerance was the only course consistent with our beliefs.”
He observed that Cardinal George had offered his counsel and support to three popes, serving the worldwide church. In Chicago, Archbishop Cupich noted, the cardinal “visited every corner of the archdiocese, talking with the faithful and bringing kindness to every interaction.”
Funeral arrangements for the cardinal were pending.
Cardinal George was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for three years, from 2007 to 2010, which made him the public face of the bishops’ efforts to help shape what became the Affordable Care Act. In his final address to the body of bishops as their president in November 2010, he criticized those who define the church’s usefulness by whether it provides “foot soldiers for a political commitment, whether of the left or the right.”
He recalled at length the public debate over what the legislation should include and referred to the “wound to the church’s unity” caused by disagreements over the final bill.
The USCCB opposed the final version of the bill, saying it would permit federal funding of abortion, inadequately protect the conscience rights of health care providers and leave out immigrants. Other Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association and many groups of women religious disagreed and supported the bill. The bishops’ also objected to the federal contraceptive mandate that is part of the health care law, requiring most employers, including religious employers, to cover contraceptives over their moral objections.
In that same speech, Cardinal George also touched on worries about Christians in the Middle East, his voice catching as he related the story of a child who was murdered during a massacre at a Baghdad Catholic church.
The future cardinal was born in Chicago Jan. 16, 1937, to Francis J. and Julia R. (McCarthy) George. He attended St. Pascal elementary school on Chicago’s northwest side, the parish where he would be ordained a priest Dec. 21, 1963.
After being rejected by the archdiocesan seminary because of his disability, he instead attended the Oblate-run St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois. He entered the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Aug. 14, 1957.
His formal education continued through a string of academic degrees including: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology from the University of Ottawa in Canada, a master’s in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington; a doctorate in philosophy from Tulane University, New Orleans; and a doctorate of sacred theology in ecclesiology from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.
After his ordination, much of Cardinal George’s work was in academia, teaching at the Oblate Seminary in Pass Christian, Mississippi, at Tulane University and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1973, he became provincial superior of the Midwestern province of the Oblates, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following year he was elected vicar general for the order, and served in that post in Rome from 1974 to 1986.
When he returned to the United States, he became coordinator of the Circle of Fellows for the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture in Massachusetts from 1987-1990.
His term as bishop of Yakima lasted five and a half years before he was named to the Portland Archdiocese and soon after to Chicago. A year later, in 1998, St. John Paul elevated him to the College of Cardinals. As a cardinal, he served in the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum.” He also served in the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church; and the Pontifical Council for the Study of the Organizational and Economic Problems of the Holy See.
Cardinal George participated in two conclaves. The first was in 2005 to elect a successor to St. John Paul II in 2005 — Pope Benedict XVI — and the second in 2013 in which Pope Francis was elected.
Besides his term as president of the USCCB, Cardinal George served on its committees on Divine Worship, Evangelization and Catechesis, Doctrine, Latin America, Missions, Religious Life and Ministry, Hispanic Affairs, Science and Values, African-American Catholics and was the USCCB representative to the International Committee on English in the Liturgy from 1997 to 2006.
Among other activities, Cardinal George served as chancellor for the Catholic Church Extension Society and the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein; as a member of the board of trustees of The Catholic University of America, the Papal Foundation, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities and numerous other organizations.
In addition to English, he spoke French, Italian, Spanish and German.
Cardinal George is survived by one sister, Margaret Cain of Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as nieces and nephews.