Cardinal Francis George, the first Chicago native to serve as the local archbishop and a man who during his 17-year tenure became the intellectual leader of the American church, died Friday after a years long struggle with cancer.
“This was the death of a very private, quiet man with people around him who cared about him,” said longtime friend Colleen Dolan, who was called to the 78-year-old cardinal’s bedside and held his hand as he took his last breaths.
George had been on home care since April 3 after being hospitalized late last month for hydration and pain management difficulties. He had stopped eating and returned to the hospital earlier this week but then left for his home at the archdiocesan residence and died there at 10:45 a.m. Friday. His longtime assistant, the Rev. Dan Flens, retired Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Goedert and a cousin also were at his side.
“He stood apart for his intelligence, his ability to make the church’s proposal in a compelling way to contemporary society, his deep faith, personal holiness and courage,” said Catholic scholar and papal biographer George Weigel.
“I think he would want to be remembered as a good and faithful priest,” Weigel said. “That’s all he ever wanted to be.”
As head of the nation’s third-largest archdiocese, George shepherded the Chicago church through school closings and the priest sexual abuse scandal, striving to reconcile his support for the clergy with the pain of victims.
He also became a point person between the U.S. church and the Vatican on the abuse scandal and matters such as liturgy of the Mass, playing a key role in revisions that brought the English translation closer to the original Latin.
In November 2014, George became the first Chicago archbishop to retire, after his third cancer diagnosis, and was replaced by Archbishop Blase Cupich. On Friday, Cupich remembered George as “always choosing the church over his own comfort, and the people over his own needs.”
“A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord,” Cupich said Friday afternoon. He praised George for visiting every parish in the archdiocese, “talking with the faithful and bringing kindness to every interaction.”
“Let us heed his example and be a little more brave, a little more steadfast and a lot more loving,” he added. “This is the surest way to honor his life and celebrate his return to the presence of God.”
George received his first cancer diagnosis in 2006 and had surgery to remove his bladder and prostate. He was diagnosed with cancer again about six years later and underwent more surgery.
His most recent diagnosis came in March 2014, when doctors found new cancer cells in his right kidney. He underwent chemotherapy, but the archdiocese announced in late 2014 that he had stopped taking an experimental drug because it had not been effective.
From his childhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago, George embarked on a spiritual career that took him around the globe as a missionary, then brought him back home in 1997 when he was appointed as the eighth archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese and spiritual leader of its more than 2 million Catholics.
Born Jan. 16, 1937, George went to St. Pascal School in the Portage Park neighborhood, where he knew early on that he wanted to serve the church.
“The first time I thought about being a priest was my first Holy Communion, when I really came to appreciate the nature of that sacrament as much as a 7-year-old could,” he said in a church documentary in December 2013 commemorating his 50th anniversary as a priest.
George was 13, not even out of grammar school, when polio struck. When he arrived at Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago on crutches, eager to begin his freshman year, George was told he could not stay and likely never would be ordained. His family enrolled him instead in the now-closed St. Henry Preparatory Seminary, a boarding school in Belleville, Ill., just outside of St. Louis. The school was run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate religious order, whose mission is to evangelize the poor and to which he would devote his life.
In 1973 he moved to St. Paul, Minn., to serve as head of the Oblates’ Midwestern province, which covers nine states. After just 18 months, at age 37, he was named the worldwide religious order’s vicar general, its second in command, and moved to Rome.
As vicar general from 1974 to 1986, George traveled widely, visiting many of the 68 countries where the order’s 5,000 members perform their missionary work.
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