Archbishop (Cardinal) Francis George, Archbishop Cornelius Power and Archbishop (Cardinal) William Levada at Archbishop George's installation Mass at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland, 1996.
Archbishop (Cardinal) Francis George, Archbishop Cornelius Power and Archbishop (Cardinal) William Levada at Archbishop George's installation Mass at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland, 1996.

Cardinal Francis George, an intellectual leader in the U.S. Catholic Church for decades, died of cancer April 17 at his Chicago home. The former Archbishop of Portland was 78. A funeral Mass is to be celebrated at noon April 23 at Holy Name Cathedral, followed by a committal service at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines. The cardinal wished to be buried in the George family plot. 

Cardinal George stepped down last year after 17 years as spiritual head of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics. At the time, Eleanor Franczak, a member of St. Michael Parish in Orland Park, summed up the cardinal’s tenure this way: “He was one of us. He wasn’t any better or worse, just a normal person.”

That was an assessment the cardinal probably would appreciate, despite his reputation as a preeminent scholar and defender of the faith.  

“His legacy will be felt for many years to come,” said Archbishop Alexander Sample. “He was an intellectual giant in service to the Church and a man of deep faith – a true believer.”  

Archbishop Sample was saddened to hear of the loss of his predecessor, but noted that his death came during the Easter season. “May he now rejoice with all the angels and saints in the Kingdom of Heaven as we now pray that he sees his Lord face to face,” said Archbishop Sample, who had a long conversation with Cardinal George earlier this year.

“I was able to express to him what an inspiration and example he has been to me as his ‘younger brother’ among the bishops,” Archbishop Sample said. 

Despite being hindered by a polio limp, the young Francis George, a Chicago native, joined the Oblates of Mary and served in Africa and Asia. He became a philosophy professor and regional provincial then vicar general of his religious order.

When he was named Bishop of Yakima in 1990, he learned Spanish to better minister to the people. 

He was appointed Archbishop of Portland in April 1996. He asked Oregon Catholics to teach him how to be a good bishop. In return, he promised to help them become good missionaries.

“His service was his intellect,” says Msgr. Patrick Brennan, pastor of St. Mary Cathedral in Portland and president-rector of Mount Angel Seminary during the 1990s. 

“I remember his vast intelligence and sweeping views of every issue,” Msgr. Brennan says. “He would speak at the drop of a hat on anything and it was like an encyclopedia, so logical, so clear. If you had a question, he would serve you by assisting you in that way.”

Less than a year after the Portland appointment, St. John Paul II named him to fill the position in Chicago, which was left vacant by the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. 

He became an eloquent spokesman for why God and religion should be a respected part of public life. And while the nation’s bishops were struggling with clerical sexual abuse, Cardinal George insisted that zero tolerance was the only course consistent with the church’s beliefs.

As a cardinal, he offered counsel and support to three popes.

In his last years, Cardinal George suffered with cancer and spoke publicly about it. Early this year, he told a group that he was in God’s hands. 

“A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord,” Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich said just hours after the death.  

Cardinal George is fondly remembered in Oregon. 

Archbishop John Vlazny says he was somewhat intimidated when he was appointed as the successor to Cardinal George as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Portland in 1997. “But he quickly and quietly gave me all the support and encouragement I would ever need.”

“He was a true brother in the college of bishops and a dedicated servant leader among God's people,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “I visited him in early February and somehow we both knew it was the last time. He was always kind and understanding in our mutual dealings. He lived and died prayerfully and courageously. A great churchman, a holy priest. Well done, your Eminence. May he rest in peace.”

“He was just about the most inspiring person I ever met,” says Anne Marie Van Dyke, an Archdiocese of Portland pastoral center staff member who worked in the building during Cardinal George’s tenure. “He had an aura about him. The first day I met him, I thought, ‘If ever we have an American pope, it could be this man.’” 

Along with his intelligence came a sense of humor. Once, Van Dyke’s workmates urged her to write a poem asking the archbishop to proclaim a day off on Easter Monday. She had regrets right after sending it. Was that inappropriate for so great a man? But then came his response, also a poem, which ended, “But not this year.” 

"His faithful service and knowledge of the Catholic Church were a welcome addition to our mission,” said John Limb, publisher of Oregon Catholic Press, where Cardinal George served as chairman of the board during his time in Portland. “He will be missed — in Portland, in Chicago and in the Church around the world."

“The impact that Cardinal George had on the Archdiocese of Portland far exceeds the short time he was here,” said Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland. “I was always touched by how attentively he listened to the least of our worries. If it was important to us, it was important to him. From the beginning, we knew that he cared for us. His concern for us followed him to Chicago. Years after he left, he still asked about specific parishes and priests. He inquired about situations that were unresolved when he left. Those of us who worked with the Cardinal prayed for him through his battle with Cancer and today we remember him in our prayers with great affection.”

Ed Langlois, a staff member at the Catholic Sentinel, met Cardinal George at St. André Bessette Parish in late 1996. Langlois introduced his newborn son to the archbishop, and apologized that the infant had more hair than the bald churchman. “Being bald is the only thing that would make your son better looking,” Cardinal George responded without a pause. 

The next year, when Cardinal learned that Pope John Paul II had named him as the successor to Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, he asked in surprise, “Are you sure the Holy Father has considered all the options?”