Late in the evening of February 2, 2008, I was fitfully resting in a room at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. The evening prior, I had given birth by emergency Csection to a baby girl, delivered six weeks early because of a fluid leak in one of her lungs. On a ventilator and in the NICU, she was being carefully monitored while I was recovering from the surgery.
At 10 p.m., a nurse appeared and told me I had a visitor coming up to see me. “What on earth,” I thought. It was a bitterly cold Chicago winter night, with two feet of snow on the ground. “Who would be coming out this late, and in this weather?”
Francis Cardinal George, that’s who. Looking a bit tired from the long day that I knew he’d had, he appeared with a smile and a look of concern. “How are you doing?” he asked, in that familiar, gentle way I had come to know. “How is the baby?”
He then went down to the neonatal intensive care unit to bless her. When she was discharged from the hospital two weeks later, her attending nurse told me it was “pretty rare” to see a baby with her condition go home so quickly, and without having to have surgery.
Many have already offered comment on the cardinal’s legacy: his brilliance as an intellectual and scholar (he holds two doctorates, one in American philosophy from Tulane University and an S.T.D. in ecclesiology from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome), a man of languages (he speaks five) and culture (his columns in the Catholic New World often tackled issues of the day) and a popular author (“The Difference God Makes” and “God in Action”), a sought-after lecturer and public speaker.
He loved to engage in debate and discussion, and his Q & A sessions on college campuses always received rave reviews from students, even when they disagreed with him.
While his presence and his prayers that evening almost seven years ago now gave me incredible comfort, those of us who have had the privilege of working with Cardinal George closely know that, as much as we’d like to think he had gone out of his way specially for us, he showed the same kind of genuine concern and care for those whom he did not know or whom he’d never met as he did for the members of his personal staff.
There’s an old “Chicagoanism” often used to describe our political patronage system here, sometimes attributed to the late Mayor Richard J. Daley: “We don’t want to talk to nobody that nobody sent.” Despite being a born-and-bred Chicago Northwest sider and Cubs fan, Cardinal George talked to virtually anybody that anybody “sent,” viewing each person as a unique gift from God.
He was the same engaging, kind person, whether on camera or off camera, and to everyone he met. Having served as his vice-chancellor and then his executive assistant, I saw him perform hundreds of acts of kindness for people, some of whom he knew, but many he didn’t. Helping an elderly widow pay her rent when she wrote him a letter about her financial struggles and, while on vacation, taking the time to call a young couple whose baby had just been diagnosed with Down syndrome.
When he attended a public event at a hotel, he spent just as much time conversing (often in Spanish) with those on the wait staff who were serving him as he did with the guests who had paid to dine with him. Over the years, he attended countless wakes and presided at hundreds of funerals, comforting those who were grieving.
Speaking on behalf of those who had no voice in the public square, he prayed in front of both an abortion clinic and in front of a government deportation center. As the member of a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he had traveled to many of the places where the poorest of the poor call home.
Although he called the archbishop’s formal residence his home, he lived quite simply, and gave away much of what he earned and was known to share even the gifts given to him.
I recall that when he first saw what was to be his office space, he was asked if he wanted it redecorated. “No,” he replied. “I’m a missionary, and when you’re a missionary, you live with what you inherit.”
When he arrived in Chicago in May 1997, he met a people still mourning the death of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. At his own installation, Cardinal Bernardin had introduced himself as, “Joseph, your brother,” echoing the Old Testament figure who saved the people of Israel from famine.
When Cardinal George was installed, he paid tribute to Chicago, the city where he was born, and where he would now serve as its archbishop, the first native son of the City of Chicago to do so. He noted that Chicago is very much a city of neighborhoods, one in which many people still identify themselves by the parish boundaries they live in.
(It’s still not uncommon for even non-Catholics to reply, when asked where they live, “I’m from St. Pascal’s” or “I live in St. Barnabas.” I once had a Jewish friend who told me he figured out the parish he would attend if he were Catholic, just so he could participate in conversations at work and elsewhere. “I’m Jewish, but I live right near St. Gertrude,” he would proudly, if ironically, say when asked where he lived).
That day in May 1997, Cardinal George asked us to think of him as, “Francis, your neighbor.”
And in the past 17 and a half years, the cardinal has truly shown himself a neighbor, offering help in times of need, advice when asked, a friendly smile when greeting you, an encouraging word if you appeared down.
At the cardinal’s funeral Mass at Holy Name Cathedral April 23, his friend, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, noted in his homily that Cardinal George believed that “you and I are his legacy, because everything he gave us was not his at all, but the living truth of Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.” May each of us live up to that challenge and calling.
Thank you, Cardinal George, good and faithful servant.
By Mary Hallan-FioRito
Hallan-FioRito was the longtime executive assistant to Cardinal George. A version of this reflection first appeared at www.aleteia.org.