Thursday, April 23, 2015

Saying Good-Bye (for now) to Cardinal George

I saw the news on Twitter, surely a sign of the times. The first archbishop-Emeritus in the history of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, had died, just months after seeing his successor take possession of the See. Now, as the images appear of the faithful waiting in lines that stretch down Chicago Avenue to pay their respects, I wish I could be back in Chicago for a day to offer mine there at the Cathedral.

I have many great memories of Cardinal George from my 13 years in the Windy City. He was as available as a Cardinal could be (when we invited him to Evening Prayer and supper with us, we had to schedule it six months in advance!), but despite being so busy, with back to back meetings, appointments, visits (and the occasional trip to Rome), he paid attention to the little things.

I had seen the Cardinal and shaken his hand at a few church-y events when, one evening, I ran into him in the lobby of the Union League Club after yet another church-y event. I re-introduced myself as "Sister Anne Flanagan of the Daughters of St Paul." "Yes," the Cardinal said, "I recognized you."

The same thing happened years down the road when I was appointed to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, a post that involved monthly day-long meetings (yuck!) with the Cardinal (wow!). At my first meeting, the Cardinal came over to welcome me to the Council. He asked a few questions about our Michigan Avenue bookstore's prospects (challenging!) and told me his hopes for retirement: "What I'd like to do when I retire is go down to the bookstore a couple of times a week and just sit there and be available for people's questions." "We're going to hold you to that, Your Eminence," I told him with a serious nod. When I brought a tiny video camera to one meeting, hoping to get a little input for NunBlog readers, the Cardinal stayed a few minutes extra for my sake. (Too bad the batteries didn't last longer than a few seconds.)

Signing those books for us.
I used to bring reams of paper to those APC meetings so that I could jot down the Cardinal's observations and his answers to Council member's questions, even though we were not free to make these public. Many of his comments later appeared in his article for the Catholic New World; for example, the observation that if the Church is supposed to catch up with the world, that means that something other than the Gospel is setting the criteria. He spoke of political matters affecting the life and freedom of the Church, presenting the issues in the light of American history and his own experiences (for example, of ministering in an area where the KKK is still a force to be reckoned with); he gave his own reactions to things in the news; he told us what it was like standing on the balcony of St Peter's after the conclaves of 2005 and 2013; he told us, in all frankness, that he prayed daily for a good death (a concept which some members of the Council had never encountered).

Right after the Cardinal's book "The Difference God Makes" was published, we were asked to make it available at an Archdiocesan event. The Cardinal arranged to come to our booth at a certain time to autograph copies for those who had purchased it. As the last eager buyer turned away, the Cardinal offered to sign some extra copies for the bookstore. Little did he know. The superior had already called. She wanted him to sign thirty copies. Francis Cardinal George looked at me under deeply, ironically arched eyebrows. "You're going to pay for this!" All I could do was plead holy obedience...

Gratifyingly, he even appreciated my cooking. (For that Evening Prayer and supper arrangement, we had asked his personal assistant if he had any dietary restrictions, and she said no, but he gets served chicken all the time; would it be possible to prepare something different?) The Cardinal had three helpings of my tangerine-rosemary salmon.

There were people who avoided Cardinal George, who felt he grated them the wrong way, who didn't appreciate that, as pastoral as his heart was, he was always a professor (with two PhD's how could he even help it?). Their loss, I'm afraid. I always left the Cardinal feeling challenged to think more broadly and more deeply, and to bring my perspective more and more in line with the Gospel.

You were a good pastor to me, Cardinal George. May you rest in the peace of Jesus.

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