CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE: MEMORIES OF AN IRREPLACEABLE FRIEND
Since Cardinal George’s death Friday at the age of 78, I have spent hours reading tributes to this man who so blessed my life with his friendship and more hours looking through my photo archives for the many pictures I took over the years during his various visits to Rome.
There was one remaining visit to Rome on Cardinal George’s list of travels: he so wanted to spend some private, one-on-one time with Pope Francis. The cardinal, of course, was one of the electors in the 2013 conclave and had met the new Pope shortly after his election on March 13 when Francis greeted each member of the College of Cardinals. But they had not met since that day.
Cardinal George – whose funeral will be held on Thursday, April 23, the feast of St. George – was a guest ever so many times in my home in Rome and reciprocated whenever I was in Chicago by inviting me to the residence at North State Parkway for a meal. Every time we broke break was memorable, as you can well imagine.
But there was one dinner in Rome we never had.
When the cardinal’s health did not permit him to travel to Rome, we never had the dinner during which I would have asked him about Pope Francis. Some of the questions I had in mind were almost identical to those asked last November by John Allen in an interview in CRUX:
To begin, (Cardinal) George said he’d like to ask Francis if he fully grasps that in some quarters, he’s created the impression Catholic doctrine is up for grabs. Does Francis realize, for example, “what has happened just by that phrase, ‘Who am I to judge?’ ”
Francis’ signature sound-bite, George said, “has been very misused … because he was talking about someone who has already asked for mercy and been given absolution, whom he knows well,” George said.
(Francis uttered the line in 2013, in response to a question about a Vatican cleric accused of gay relationships earlier in his career.)
“That’s entirely different than talking to somebody who demands acceptance rather than asking for forgiveness,” George said.
“Does he not realize the repercussions? Perhaps he doesn’t,” George said. “I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds.”
“The question is why he doesn’t he clarify” these ambiguous statements, George said. “Why is it necessary that apologists have to bear the burden of trying to put the best possible face on it?” He said he also wonders if Francis realizes how his rhetoric has created expectations “he can’t possibly meet.”
You never had to ask Cardinal George to clarify something. He meant what he said and said what he meant, clearly, to the point, and purposefully.
I called him every so often when it became apparent that our paths might not soon cross, either in Chicago or Rome. My intent was always to get an update on his health, to update him on happenings here and to perhaps interject a small dose of cheer and humor. Whatever his bill of health, whatever the pain and suffering he was enduring, I always came away from our conversations feeling that I was the one who had been uplifted!
Whenever Cardinal George was in Rome for more than 48 hours, I arranged to have dinner at my place, always telling him to invite whomever he wished. On many occasions, especially when he was vice-president and then president of the USCCB, the other guests were the other USCCB officials in Rome with him on a working visit to the Holy Father and officials of the Roman Curia.
Many dinners included priest and bishop friends in Rome, either from the Roman Curia or the North American College. Often his longtime director of Communications, Colleen Dolan, was also present. Fr. Dan Flens, his secretary and all around right-hand man – and true blessing as a friend – was always at dinner and it was a joy to host him because, fortunately for me, he was as comfortable in the kitchen as he was at the dining table!
Each occasion was special and memorable and unique, just like Cardinal George.
One very memorable evening was when I invited Archbishops Amel Nona of Mosul, Iraq and Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan, northern Iraq, to join us. They were in Rome for the October 2010 Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, and the conversation was fascinating for countless reasons, one of which was that Cardinal George, as a missionary priest, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, had a keen interest in the Church around the world, having visited so many countries. With this missionary sense, he always asked the right questions and was able to brilliantly synthesize the answers to a question and analyze the whole picture.
Archbishop Nona had been appointed to Mosul by the Chaldean Synod in January 2010 to succeed Bishop Paulos Faraj Rahho who had been kidnapped and killed by extremists.
Aged 42, Abp. Nona (r) was the youngest reigning bishop in the Catholic Church at that time.
Archbishop Warda (l) was appointed to Erbil on May 24, 2010
A cheerleader for my first trip to Iraq in early 2010, Cardinal George had a keen interest in every detail I could recount about that trip during a separate dinner that took place before our evening with the Iraqi bishops.
What did we talk about over my many dinner parties? In general – no surprise! – we spoke about the Church in Rome and around the world and the Roman Curia and the need for reform, but we also looked at the hot topics in world or U.S. news, politics, even sports.
I’ve given scores and scores of dinner parties but never have I written about one, about what was said by whom around the dining table. That table, that space, my home, is sacred to me. My guests all know that, when we meet on the street or in a restaurant or even for an interview, I am a friend but also journalist, writer and vaticanista. However, as guests in my home, they know we are all friends who can enjoy good food and wine, scintillating conversation and lots of laughs, without anything appearing in print.
Needless to say, if something came up that was absolutely newsworthy, I’d ask about reporting it on the record.
Cardinal George was always willing to speak on the record and be interviewed for “Vatican Insider,” and we all learned a great deal from this extraordinarily erudite man, whether he spoke about a synod, an ad limina visit, a conclave (not divulging, however, the inside story of what actually happened inside the Sistine Chapel), the Jubilee Year 2000 or his time in Chicago.
It was always fun to learn something new about the cardinal. When I heard that he liked ice cream, especially chocolate, I made homemade chocolate ice cream for one dinner party. I learned early on that his preferred after-dinner liqueur was Fernet Branca and since that night there was always a bottle in my home with his name on it, so to speak. I also learned that some of my meals became his preferred foods!
One conversation I can write about: One night, we were all discussing cruises. Cardinal George said he had never been on a cruise ship nor was he drawn to the idea of being on a massive ship with thousands of passengers. However, he did offer the idea that, in retirement, he would like to take a freighter cruise where, on a large ship but with only a small number of guests, he could enjoy leisurely travel and visits to different ports and also spend quiet time reading and writing.
Even on a freighter ship, Cardinal George would have been a delightful guest – interesting, interested in others, an avid and brilliant conversationalist and a terrific listener as well.
I will miss all of that. I will miss his towering intellect. I will miss listening to every single word he said because they all counted – not one was wasted. I will miss his brilliant analyses of just about everything – Church issues, political matters, books, people, you name it. And I will really miss his laugh!
What I will miss, however, perhaps pales in comparison to how Cardinal George inspired me. His rock solid faith, his deeply-held convictions, his inspirational and passionate explanation and defense of the Magisterium were his gifts to me every time we met or broke bread together. His courage and humility, his humor and wit, his great empathy – all qualities to be emulated.
I have, of course, just touched the surface of my tales in this look back at the 17 years I shared a friendship with this saintly giant of a man.
All of this and more will be his legacy. Here is one report about his legacy (Chicago ABC Eyewitness news): In his last mass celebrated as Archbishop, Cardinal George spoke about what he hoped would be his legacy. “In short, you are my legacy,” he told those gathered in the pews of Holy Name Cathedral. “The people of the Archdiocese are what I will point to when the Lord asks me, ‘what have you done with my gift to you?'”