The world must have seemed upside down when the disciples left the holy city Jerusalem. Jerusalem was believed to be the “true pole of the earth, the great king’s city” (Ps. 47:2). It was supposed to be God’s dwelling on earth, the city of David, where the Messiah was expected to reign and restore Israel. And yet, the one who they believed to be Messiah and Redeemer had come into Jerusalem, only to die. Now everything was in question. Their disappointment rings through to this day with startling clarity: “We were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 14:21). We were hoping. . . .
A similar lament can be discerned in modern society, in which Christendom gives way to a “post-Christian” world. Perhaps not surprisingly, these words also speak to a profoundly disintegrating experience for any individual: angst. Reflecting on the mental world of the disciples, Cardinal George once commented: “Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can feel that we are victims of time, fate, circumstances and external factors. We might even feel that our world is caving in on us…[The disciples] were caught in expectations they thought were now doomed…But [they] were wrong to give up on their hope.”
Listen closely and you hear the voice of the Pastor who was deeply concerned for the needs of his flock. Listen closely and you hear the Scholar who engaged modern thought on themes of human nature, history, and freedom. Listen closely and you can hear the Missionary who spread the Gospel of Christ’s hope literally to the ends of the world. And if you listen very closely, you might just also hear the voice of one whose life was permanently altered at age thirteen by polio, who was turned down by our high school seminary because of that condition, and who later in life fought one type of cancer, and then another. And yet, hope remained the hallmark of his life. So central was hope for Cardinal George that when he was elevated to the episcopate, he placed at the very center of his coat of arms an anchor, the symbol of Christian hope. Wrapped around the anchor he placed a red cord, the blood of Christ by which we take hold of hope. Under this reads his episcopal motto: “Cristo gloria in ecclesia.” Glory to Christ in the Church. These words and symbols have greeted visitors to this Basilica for seventeen years.
Let us return for a moment to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, now bearing in mind these elements Cardinal George offered for our consideration: Christ’s suffering, our hope, and glory. The disciples were hoping that Christ would enter into his glory. But since suffering and death had no place in their vision, their hope effectively died on Calvary. So erroneous was their vision of Christ’s glory that when the Resurrected Christ does appears to them, they mistake the glorified Christ for a Stranger. The Lord re-orients their understanding starting with one simple, yet direct question: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer all these things and so enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). Yes—Christ, like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Is. 52-53), justifies many by his suffering, and thereby is glorified. Yet also precisely because of who he is, Christ’s sufferings and his glory can open up to include everyone incorporated in his Body, the Church. From the waters of Baptism on, the Christian shares in Christ’s suffering with the hope that he might share in Christ’s Resurrection, as Paul tells us in the Second Reading. Hence, giving glory to Christ in the Church entails offering to Christ the totality of one’s life—one’s life, one’s gifts, joys and sufferings—and to do so precisely through the Church: through liturgical praise, through the fulfillment of one’s vocation, through works of mercy and evangelization.
This missionary, and indeed Oblate, vision of the Church was at the core of Cardinal George’s pastoral life, writings, and the spiritual conferences he used to form his flock. He would tell us how “Christ’s resurrection from the dead makes a private faith impossible; of its nature, our faith is public.” He often reminded us that “Evangelization is a communal, an ecclesial work. . . .[it] begins in community and has as its goal the creation of new fraternity, a living body in Christ,” and that “Evangelizing means not only announcing who Christ is but explaining also what it means to follow him. Being the Body of Christ is to practice a way of life, built on self-sacrifice for others. . . .This is to give glory to Christ in the Church and for the world.”
Yet, precisely because this call is to go out into the world—the public square—a space already occupied by competing claims to totality, it is a call that will often involve resistance from the world. More and more did Cardinal George point out how individual moral autonomy was supplanting the Judeo-Christian ethic as the new high ground in society, and how participation in civic life meant withholding one’s Catholic beliefs about what constitutes a just moral and political order. He prophetically saw the pitfalls of a Liberalism that would let the world set the agenda for the Church, and of a Rationalism that would admit only empirical claims to Truth. He never approached these as purely political battles because he understood the crucial supernatural principles at stake: retreat to a private sector of society, and we frustrate the nature and mission of the Church; agree to bracket revelation and its claims, and we renounce the evangelical imperative given to us by Christ; back down from our claim to see reality as it is created by God and redeemed in Christ, and the very life of the Church is at risk. If, however, taking a prophetic stance involves suffering, Cardinal George would point out, a “true prophet’s life is always marked by suffering.” What was ultimately important, he insisted, is that the Church “remain true to herself and her Lord in the years to come, for only in being authentically herself will the church serve society and its members, in time and in eternity.”
Cardinal George did precisely that in many roles throughout his lifetime: in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which brought him into close contact with the Church across the world; in his episcopal ministry in multiple dioceses; in his Presidency of the USCCB; in his meetings here in Rome; in the halls of Universities; and in meeting the poor. To each role he brought the fullness of his intellectual gifts, the fruit of his prayer, and an ever-growing accumulation of experience in the Church’s cura animarum.
Yet, the role in which I related to him for seventeen years was as my Bishop—first as a member of his flock, then as a seminarian, finally as one of his priests. I was a freshman at our high school seminary in downtown Chicago when Cardinal George returned for his first Mass at that same school which, when he was a freshman, rejected him. Now he was back as our Shepherd (Jn. 10) and Corner Stone (Mt. 21:42). Perhaps it was the proximity to the Cathedral, but he visited our seminary rather regularly; and as one of the few in our school who was comfortable with the thurible, I was almost always assigned to serve. After Mass, he would always take time to talk with us, to discuss our classes, our thoughts. It did not matter that you were fourteen and just beginning theology—Cardinal George was interested to hear your thoughts. And I was interested to hear his thoughts.
Naturally, as I progressed in seminary, Cardinal George exercised an increasing role in my discernment and formation for priesthood in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Not only would I hear his homilies, but would also read his regular column, as well as benefit from the opportunities that arose for one-to-one conversations. There is a real formation that happens when you are shaped by a vision like his for so many years, at the culmination of which he ordained me to the Diaconate, and then to the Priesthood—gifts for which I remain grateful.
A few months ago, I had the chance to meet with Cardinal George for what I think we both knew would be our last conversation. As always, he inquired about my priestly ministry and the progress of my studies—but this time the conversation was marked by his awareness of the end. He brought up an article he read recently in a theological journal about the Beatific Vision in St. Thomas Aquinas, and since I am studying a related topic for the doctorate, he wanted to exchange some thoughts on it. At the end of our conversation, he said, “while I have been thinking about the Last Things all my life, I have never felt it all to be so imminent as now.” He was preparing, spiritually and intellectually, to see the Redeemer, in words akin to Job in our First Reading: “I myself shall see [my Redeemer]: my own eyes, not another’s, shall behold [him]…my inmost being is consumed with longing” (Job 19:26-27). By suffering with Christ and others in the Church throughout his life, Francis George had prepared himself to recognize the glorified Suffering Servant, whose image he had already discerned in the Church. The hope that had governed his entire life was coming to fruition.
The Gospel concludes with Christ revealing his glory in the reading of Scripture and the Breaking of the Bread (Lk. 24:25-35). As we gather to do the same sacramental action, remembering the sacrifice of Christ that conquered death and opened for us the light of glory, let us pray for the soul of our brother, Francis, who passes from this life to the next, but—he would be the first to remind us—always within the Church. As he offered up his whole self to God to give “Glory to Christ in the Church” here in via, may God now grant him, at last in patria, to behold his face in glory.
Father Andrew Liaugminas is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a doctoral student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.