Looking up “courage” in my thesaurus, synonyms appeared such as tenacious, endurance, fortitude, grit and boldness. If the definition had included a photograph, the image could fittingly have been of a courageous young man from Chicago who took first vows as a missionary with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1957. That man is the late Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.
Much can be said about Cardinal George — more than I will say here. He had a superior intellect and was a model pastor. He was prophetic — a man of great faith, truth and holiness. And his life was marked by a certain and rare amount of courage.
Cardinal George’s courage showed itself in a variety of ways — perhaps most notably in the perseverance he exhibited when answering God’s call for him to serve the Church as a priest, despite the suffering and difficulties he encountered all his life.
Though rejected for priesthood in the Archdiocese of Chicago because of the effects polio had left on his young body, Cardinal George so wanted to be a priest that he applied to a high school seminary operated by the Oblates near St. Louis.
The Oblates were founded in 1816 by French priest (later bishop) St. Eugene de Mazenod in order to form missionaries, especially to the poor. By the 1930s, Pope Pius XI had defined the missionary Oblates as “specialists in the most difficult missions of the Church.” And in addition to the ordinary religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Oblates take a unique, fourth vow of perseverance. It seemed the young Francis George had found himself in the right place.
Within a decade after ordination as an Oblate priest, Father George was elected Oblate vicar general. With the position came frequent, extensive travel for more than a decade — even to some of the most remote missions in Africa and Asia. This was no small irony, given that he had been believed by some to be unfit for priesthood because of his disability.
Pope St. John Paul II — a man of great courage himself — appointed Father George a bishop in 1990. In 1997, St. John Paul sent Bishop George back home, naming him the first native-born archbishop of Chicago. He was created a cardinal the following year, and he rose to positions of prominence within the Church in the following years. By the time he died in 2015, Cardinal George arguably was among the most respected American bishops in the country’s history.
Cardinal George never took himself too seriously, and he is remembered for telling people regularly to “never feel sorry for yourself.” That lack of self-pity itself allowed him to live for others. Though he could be mischaracterized, particularly by media soundbites, as someone too cerebral and aloof, that was far from who he really was. Cardinal George always made himself available for any priest who wanted to see him, even and often with little notice. He was often the last to leave a parish gathering, never afraid to have a cup of coffee with or take a phone call from anyone. He was always on the move from one event or meeting to another. Those who lived with him have often remarked at how, despite the nonstop nature of his position, he never complained about the workload or exhaustion.
Cardinal George wasn’t perfect, nor would he ever have pretended to be. But those who knew him best recognize that Christ defined everything about his life. Cardinal George had a single-minded desire to prioritize the proclamation of Christ at all times.
Cardinal George’s witness seems even more notable today. We see courage lacking in so many ways, especially in the Church. But Cardinal George had it in spades, especially when it came to practicing what he preached, or to pursuing and speaking the truth, especially when no one wanted to hear it. Perhaps most of all, however, Cardinal George’s story reminds us to live in the faith that God’s ways are always better than ours and that his providence is beyond our imagining. That is courageous living; that’s Christian living. And it’s an important witness for us all.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic and author of Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.