Catholic University students were treated last night to a screening of a remarkable new documentary on the life and witness of Cardinal Francis George, OMI. The former Archbishop of Chicago is remembered for raising the intellectual standard of the episcopate, and insisting upon the importance of intelligent evangelization in a secularizing culture. His sharp warnings against a “nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making ‘laws’ beyond its competence,” came to a prophetic head when the 2012 HHS contraceptive mandate made those threats real with the Obama administration’s overt attack on the Church’s liberty. Even while Cardinal George was battling cancer, he was also leading the bishops in their defense of freedom.
Even before the long battle over the contraceptive mandate, Cardinal George had warned a group of priests that as secularization of society increases, so will the suffering of the Church. He told those priests these famous words: “I expect to die in bed, my success for will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” Those words became emblazoned on the minds of many American Catholics, as they faced new hostilities, the idea that they may have to suffer for their faith.
Cardinal George’s hard realism about the trials and tribulations set before the church today, from within and without, were always matched with joyful perseverance and the witness of hope. This documentary doesn’t focus on Cardinal George’s famous words so much as the gift of faith that gave us his most elevated and prophetic words.
Born Francis Eugene George in Chicago on January 16, 1937 as the world was setting to war, he was stricken with polio as a child. The great pain and physical suffering was matched by the difficulties of being told by his own diocese that he could not pursue the priesthood due to his limitations. As the film makes clear, even the young Francis knew how to look at suffering squarely in the face and trust God to find a way through it. He became a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, became a priest, then Vicar General for his religious community, before becoming bishop of Yakima, Portland, and finally Chicago. As Pope Pius XI once said of the missionary fortitude of the Oblates, could certainly be said of Cardinal George, he was a “specialist in the most difficult missions of the Church.”
Cardinal George would sometimes collapse at Mass due to post-polio weakness. But then he’d pick himself back up as Christ did with his cross. He never treated his suffering as a burden, though he had every external reason to do so. Why? At the heart of Cardinal George’s faith as an Oblate was oblation. An oblation is an offering to God, but an offering that you are really willing to lose, to have it destroyed in hopes that God will make something holy out of it. In the Old Testament, one gives “first fruits” as an oblation. Yet Christ makes the perfect offering, the total gift of himself, body, blood, soul, and divinity. In conformity to Christ, faithful are also called to make an offering of themselves, most of all, at Mass — to give oneself completely to God in Christ means to give yourself in a way that you are willing to lose your life, to have something holy made out of it.
Watching the inspiring documentary of his life, I saw something new in the man I once met, and admired from afar. I saw more clearly the secret of his life. I saw the secret of his joyful perseverance. Facing suffering in himself with realism, intelligence and joy was possible because this was his oblation, his offering to God through Jesus Christ, meant a suffering life could be transfigured into something holy that heals and elevates a person.
Cardinal George’s non-liberal defense of human dignity inspired me. He once said “The Church’s social teaching doesn’t begin with the individual, it begins with the family.” He would stress that society is more than politics, and that the Catholic can stress commonality and the common good so powerfully because we have a clear vision that the human person is made for communion. I deeply resonated with his defense of the unborn as integral to our common good. “When the we took the protection of law away from the unborn,” Cardinal George would say, “we destroyed our constitutional order.” That is precisely right, it seems to me. Yet Cardinal George also had a reputation for praying for women during difficult pregnancies. He did not simply make arguments, he made oblations, offerings, prayers, sacrifices for his flock that bore holy fruit and benefits both temporal and eternal.
Today I think about Cardinal George, and how much we still need his help. The Church is going through great suffering. How must we respond to suffering in our lives as Catholics? How should we respond to suffering in the Church? How are we to respond to the suffering of our neighbors, those in the outer courts, even the suffering of those who would like to inflict suffering upon us? As secularization advances, the Cardinal warned, so will the suffering of the Church. The thought itself can become for us a great burden which causes us to despair, to lose hope, to scatter, and be crushed without being made holy. Yet Cardinal George would point us to a better hope, an oblative hope, and an intelligent evangelical zeal. He would point us to the blood of the martyrs which becomes the seed of the Church in every age. He would point us to those sacrifices we can make for the love of God and neighbor, the love which picks up the ruined shards of civilization.
Francis Cardinal George suffered greatly throughout his life. Nearing the end, dying of cancer, he said “The lord strips things away from us, sometimes even good things, until there is nothing left but the love of God.” This is the Christian who can teach us how to offer ourselves completely to God, even our suffering, so that we can truly bear joyful witness to Jesus Christ who makes holy our oblations. At the center is always Jesus, the only one who truly gives strength to the weak, who raises up the broken hearted, who gives evangelical hope to the hopeless — and who can set our world on fire with divine charity. I believe Francis George was purified, and made holy, by Jesus Christ — and that he shows that the path of holiness is possible for all of us. I pray his cause advances, and that we ask for his intercession, both for ourselves, and for all the pilgrim Church in her present suffering, especially for our bishops. May the Lord strip away the things which distract us from the love of God, without which nothing endures forever.
Cardinal George, pray for us.
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