The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.
by michael r. heinlein
our sunday visitor press, 520 pages, $29.95
I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and a good biography is one of my special pleasures. Every life, no matter how invisible, has value and a measure of drama. But some lives leave a mark on their times that’s memorable well beyond an intimate circle of loved ones and friends. Francis George, the late cardinal archbishop of Chicago, was exactly such a person. And Michael Heinlein’s new biography captures the character of this remarkable churchman with exceptional insight and skill.
Heinlein’s book has two great strengths. The first is a matter of craft: He’s a lucid, engaging writer who’s researched George’s life in impressive detail. The second is a matter of substance: The story of Francis George, the man, is thoroughly absorbing. For anyone who knew Cardinal George personally, reading this biography will bring back a flood of memories.
In my case, Cardinal George was a mentor and friend. I first spent time with him more than 30 years ago. We’d both been formed in religious communities when the episcopate was normally closed to religious clergy. Yet we were both ordained as bishops just two years apart—for me, in 1988; for George, in 1990. At the time, I served as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota. The then-Bishop George led the Church in Yakima, Washington, and he invited me to an event for the Native people in his diocese.
The Native population in both of our dioceses was significant. He knew that I was part Native American myself, and we shared a concern that many Native reservations were being poorly served by at least some of those clergy who ministered to them. They’d largely given up evangelizing and were simply present as supporters of the people and their culture, absent any compelling, kerygmatic content. Many seemed to think they had nothing to offer their Native American communities. And yet, along with material services, the Native people needed the gospel.
As time passed, it became clear that we shared a great many views. We had a common theological vision about the nature of the Church and her place in our culture. But Francis George had truly outstanding ability. In 1996, he went on to serve (briefly) as archbishop of Portland, Oregon. When the position of Chicago archbishop became vacant with the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, I was among those who lobbied hard for George’s appointment as his successor. I have no idea whether it had any effect; there were more important voices saying the same thing. But I do remember him vividly on the day I was installed in 1997 as archbishop of Denver. He attended the event as archbishop of Portland, but pulled me aside privately to explain that he would have to leave early—he was on his way to Chicago for the public announcement of his own appointment there. It was a great moment of camaraderie; one that I’ll never forget.
We’d call each other occasionally to test ideas and share experiences, but I was never in his league intellectually. I don’t think anyone was. He was clearly the “best and brightest” among my generation of American bishops, and easily among the finest U.S. Church leaders of the last century. Francis George was brilliant and articulate; a holy and prudent man entirely devoted to his people. Knowing him as a friend was a privilege. His death from cancer was bitter for his friends, and a serious loss for the whole Church. No one in today’s Church leadership—no one—possesses the same combination of fidelity, brilliance, and magnanimity that marked the priestly life of Francis George.
Heinlein captures the human side of Francis George with considerable skill. A native Chicagoan, the young “Frannie,” as he was nicknamed, felt his call to the priesthood very early. But a crippling case of polio left him in discomfort, and often in pain, for the rest of his life. It also effectively barred him from Chicago’s diocesan clergy. His illness left him resentful not only of his disease but also of God—and yet in his own words, “I soon learned that self-pity got me nowhere. Faith was the way out, because in faith I was not alone, and good can come of something that appears bad at [the] time.” Recovering from polio but permanently dogged by its damage, George turned to religious life and was ordained for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He had a passion for missionary work that he later translated into his ministry as a diocesan bishop.
As Heinlein notes, Francis George “thoroughly embraced the Second Vatican Council . . . [and] recognized the need to reimagine much of how the Church operated.” And yet, he “had the astute ability to think outside the box during a time of reform and renewal, while also refusing to be ruled by [any] ideology.” Instinctively uneasy with the political right, he had a keen distrust of “civil religion [as] a type of exaggerated nationalism,” wherein the state “becomes effectively an object of religious worship.” At the same time, he noted that
Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and [is] inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.
The heart of the Heinlein book, at least for this reader, comes in the final three chapters, a chronicle of his ministry as a bishop: “A Missionary to the Culture,” “An Instrument of the Lord,” and “Simply Catholic.” For George, being “simply Catholic” meant a Church neither malleable in her creed and morality, nor locked in conservative sectarianism. Cardinal George never fit, and never accepted, the label of “culture warrior.”
Heinlein, to his credit, never highlights or dwells unduly on the sharp theological conflicts that troubled the Church and divided the episcopate during Cardinal George’s years of service. Instead he focuses on the words of the cardinal that will always define him to those who knew him: For the priest, as well as the everyday Christian, “Personal intimacy with God must be ours if God is to act through us in a meaningful way. Otherwise, we are not living witnesses, but living lies.” And in describing his own ministry, he said “The major task of the bishop is to look for the saints and encourage them.”
In that great work, Francis George was a good and faithful servant. And Michael Heinlein has written a biography worthy of his life.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.