December 15: The late Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., left behind an impressive intellectual legacy for the American Catholic Church. Without exaggeration, he could even be called “the most intellectually astute prelate that we’ve ever had in the history of American Catholicism,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. But Dolan shared another side to his friend’s personality that most people did not always hear about. “We already knew about Cardinal George’s towering intellect, but Cardinal Dolan pointed out the depth of his heart and soul,” said David Christian, principal and founder of David Christian Attorneys LLC in downtown Chicago, who attended the event in Times Square that commemorated his city’s Cardinal.
Dolan said it is only natural that we should admire George for his intellectual prowess. For he indeed inspired everyone around him with his harmonious embodiment of fides et ratio (faith and reason). Fides et ratio, it could be said, guided the pontificate of Saint John Paul II (who wrote an encyclical with that title) as well as Benedict XVI . It was not only apparent in George’s writing, but also in his spontaneous thinking that reflected a mind of remarkable depth and precision. “I have never seen a man who could write a sterling speech on the back of a cocktail napkin,” said Dolan. He could make a speech that was prepared in five minutes sound like it took him months to prepare it, he added.
While George was noted for his sharp mind, Dolan wanted to remind us of the immense tenderness of his heart and soul.
One time, after Cardinal George had visited the Pontifical North American College in Rome where Dolan was Rector, he placed a worried phone call to his friend. “I left something that was very dear to me in my room at the College,” he said, explaining that he sent one of his students to search for the item but it wasn’t there.
What could he have forgotten, Dolan wondered. Was it a breviary, a rosary?
“It’s my green laundry bag,” replied Cardinal George. “I know it sounds funny but I’m a religious. I don’t own many things.” George went on to share that the bag was given to him when he entered the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at the age of 14. “I’ve carried it to every assignment. When I was in the Missions, I used to cram it full of medicine and clothes as we visited the homes in the villages where the Oblates served. It’s been with me now my whole life. I don’t want to lose it. Could you please try to find it?”
His endearing treatment of a simple object, a mere laundry bag, reflected something incredibly profound about this man gifted with a great mind. His humble request was “a plea of simplicity from a man with a heart,” said Dolan.
Finally, as with his beloved John Paul II, Cardinal George showed everyone around him how to suffer gracefully and how to confront death with utter trust in the Lord.
Cardinal George’s sister had shared that for every single day since he was 18, he had not been without intense pain. But George never allowed people to feel sorry for him. He never once complained. “He was a radiant soul in his suffering,” said Dolan. George expected the same fortitude from his fellow priests and bishops. When appointed Cardinal, he had said to the priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago, “I will take anything from you: criticism, complaints, disagreement. The only thing I can’t stand is somebody feeling sorry for himself.”
This man who never wallowed in self-pity knew how to abandon himself entirely to God’s will. “I would propose to you,” said Dolan, “that he was a model of the redemptive suffering that Pope Saint John Paul II spoke about.”
Like John Paul II, he allowed the world to watch him suffer and die. “That was perhaps one of his greatest legacies,” concluded Dolan. “That explains, I think, his great devotion to the Cross, that explains his great devotion to the woman who stood at the foot of the Cross, and that explains his great devotion to the Holy Eucharist which is a daily renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary.”