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Portland's George goes back to Chicago


Archbishop Francis Eugene George, who soon is likely to be a prince of the church, a cardinal, is a small, wiry, bald man with lively eyes and a quick smile. He could be your neighborhood pharmacist. But he had just been named the leader of the one of the most influential dioceses in the American church.

The appointment of the Portland, Ore., prelate as the eighth archbishop of Chicago was announced April 8 by Bishop Raymond Goedert, administrator of the Chicago archdiocese since the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on Nov. 14.

"The Holy Father has chosen an outstanding bishop as our new shepherd," Goedert said. "I am confident our new archbishop will guide this local church with great skill and dedication as we face the challenges and opportunities of a new millennium of Christianity."

Goedert's introduction was classic ecclesiastical prose, drawing only polite silence. Then, referring to the weeks during which he dodged literally hundreds of inquiries, he added, "Now, I can get back to telling the truth again." There was much laughter as the press applauded the man they had come to like and respect during the nearly five-month interregnum.

George, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, opened with a paraphrasing of a T.S. Eliot poem about returning to a place from whence one came and seeing it again for the first time. "Now," he said, "I give the rest of my life to Chicago." At age 60, that could work out to 15 years, until the year 2012.

Although rumors of a dark horse candidate began to emerge early Monday afternoon, few took them seriously until church watchers learned that the archbishop was en route to Chicago, following his attendance at the installation of Denver's new archbishop, Charles E. Chaput.

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George arrived about 10 p.m. in Chicago, where he was born on Jan. 16, 1937, and where he spent his early years. His arrival at the archbishop's mansion was delayed several hours in the hope of dodging the city's aggressive media. It was a fruitless effort to keep the appointment secret. In fact, the Chicago Tribune had its edition on the streets before the news conference ended at 11 a.m.

After more than four months of speculation, Chicagoans were stunned by the appointment of this relatively unknown man who had been raised in St. Pascal's parish on Chicago's northwest side. Young Francis George, the son of German-American parents ("with a touch of Irish in there somewhere," according to retired Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Lyne), had considered entering the archdiocese's high school seminary to study for the diocesan priesthood. However, a bout of polio, which left him with a leg brace he still wears, caused him to change his mind because the daily commute to the high school seminary would be too difficult.

Instead, he entered St. Henry's Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Ill., conducted by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, still with the intention of preparing for the diocesan priesthood. At age 20, however, he entered the Oblate novitiate.

George studied at the University of Ottawa, The Catholic University of America, Tulane University and the Urban College in Rome. He holds two master's degrees (theology and philosophy) and two doctorates (an STD in Ecclesiology from the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome and a PhD in American Philosophy from Tulane University in New Orleans). He taught briefly at Tulane and Gonzaga University in Spokane and spent four years as an assistant professor of philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha.

The academic background shows. His responses are carefully phrased -- some sound like well-dressed syllogisms. The new archbishop is glib, articulate and fast. His predecessor, Bernardin, was not nearly as quick on the draw. Bernardin chose his words carefully, as if searching the tree for the best specimen. Further, he always left a little wiggle room. George appears to prefer the declarative to the subjunctive.

Both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune described George as a "conservative intellectual." Several academic observers such as Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, seemed to agree.

George's personal history links him to one of his likely mentors, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who allegedly boosted his candidacy for the seraphim level of the American episcopacy. He told reporters here that he has known Law since the mid-1960s when both were priests in Mississippi. He said at the time he admired Law's application of church teaching in fighting institutional racism and he later spent three years, beginning in 1986, at a Massachusetts think tank founded by Law.

On his resume, one of the most controversial posts he holds is as a member of the six-bishop ad hoc committee to oversee the use of the Catechism (see NCR March 21). One publisher, speaking off the record, described George as "brilliant, philosophically and theologically," but also one of the most rigid on the committee.

George paid tribute to Bernardin with a touching phrase that also revealed his own philosophy. "When Cardinal Bernardin sat down [after answering a question]," he said, "he always left more space than when he got up, even if he couldn't solve the problem in question. I don't know whether or not I can do that." Later in the day, he visited Bernardin's tomb at Mount Carmel Cemetery.

After nearly a full day of scrutiny by dozens of reporters, it became clear that George's church will be the church as John Paul II sees it. George clearly recognizes that his responses will likely be more tightly wrapped than his predecessor's. He maintains that, on substantive issues, he stands with Bernardin and that his only real differences will be those of style. But he continued to use the word "truth" as if both he and the church had all marketing rights.

During one philosophical foray, he tried to make a distinction between relationship and symbol, holding that the church was more symbol than function. Thus, women could function as well as men as priests but the symbolism would be lost. Instead, he lost his media sound bite audience who were only asking his position on the ordination of women.

Clearly, he is utterly opposed to the ordination of women. He sees his obligation as one of trying to persuade those who may be hurt by such teachings of the unwavering truth of the official church teaching.

In 1973, just 10 years after his ordination, George was named provincial of the Central Region of the Oblates. A year later, he was elected vicar general of the 5,100-member congregation, a post he held for 12 years, working out of Rome.

In 1990, he was appointed the fifth bishop of Yakima, Wash., a small diocese of some 70,000 Catholics. Yakima is over 50 percent Latino, and George developed a reputation of being an advocate on Hispanic issues. He served there until April 30, 1996, when he was named archbishop of Portland, Ore.

Officially installed on May 27, 1996, George had been an archbishop of the 278,000 Catholic archdiocese less than 10 months when the appointment to Chicago was announced.

Few people were willing to go on record about the new Chicago bishop. Most simply wished to withhold judgment. "Let's give him a chance," most said, pleading that they barely knew the man who had slipped, almost unnoticed, up the ecclesiastical ladder.

Reports of his appointment were applauded by conservative elements within the Chicago church. One paper suggested that he was a member of Opus Dei. It's not likely, but Opus Dei praised the appointment. If Bernardin was identified with the liberal left, George has already been tethered to the conservative right.

Fr. Michael Place, theologian to the late Cardinal Bernardin, said that George "will be clear but inviting.

"He brings new life to the church," Place added. "And he has laid out the foundation of a positive relationship with his priests."

Fr. David Jones, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish, viewed the new prelate as "very honest, very open."

"He has a clear sense of himself," Jones added. "But he's here to listen."

The new archbishop will be formally installed on May 7. His Chicago-born parents died in the 1980s. His only sibling, a sister, Margaret Cain, lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Tim Unsworth, author and lecturer, writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997