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After one year in Windy City: He learns fast

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Not long ago, St. Clement’s 80-year-old Byzantine church on Chicago’s near north side was filled to capacity for a Mass presided over by the archdiocese’s eighth archbishop and sixth cardinal, Oblate Francis George. According to a sampling of the over 600 active priests in the 378-parish archdiocese, the energetic new bishop likes to get around.

“He ought to spend more time in his office,” one priest grumbled just a little. “He isn’t even answering his mail.” But Francis George appears to prefer meeting some of his nearly 2.4 million parishioners and 19,000 employees.

It was a stirring liturgy. St. Clement’s has a powerful organ and a magnificent choir. Cardinal George really got caught up in it. He spoke too long and, in common with other congenitally prudent bishops, he is not a burning bush. However, there were no traces of the earlier “Francis the Corrector” who had stung other pastors with his penchant for reaching into a complex situation, citing one of its least important rubrics and watering the spark that the carefully planned liturgy was intended to ignite.

Francis George has still not mastered the art of pearl-casting. But he’s improving.

The liturgy lasted a full 90 minutes, but then he remained for another 90, greeting everyone in sight. George plunged into the crowd as if he were running for sheriff. It seemed to one observer that he could have found a way to shake hands with the Venus de Milo. He is unaffected, gracious, unfiltered and unvarnished. He is straight Chicago water in a designer bottle.

St. Clement’s is a parish filled with young singles, young parents, a gaggle of gays and lesbians and a belief system that puts most of them across the Vatican’s Jordan from the conservative new cardinal. It is a parish community largely at odds with church teaching on birth control, abortion, divorce and remarriage, celibacy, women priests -- virtually every pelvic issue. However, the normally shoot-from-the-cincture prelate kept his theology in check. His Dow Jones soared.

Francis George, PhD, STL, has been in office since May 1997. At the time of his installation, he had been a bishop slightly under seven years, nearly six of them in Yakima, Wash., a diocese of only 41 parishes and less than 70,000 Catholics. During the interregnum following Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s death in November 1996, George’s name wasn’t even mentioned as a possible successor. Even now, few can speculate on how an obscure religious priest could ascend to a red hat see, the second largest in the country. Some ecclesiastical bloodhounds point to Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law as his clout. George has served on a Law-founded think tank in Cambridge, Mass. Others cite his 12 years in Rome.

Utterly nonpolitical

However, George confirms nothing and, indeed, seems utterly nonpolitical. “I wish he were more political,” one of his aides said recently. “He might be more sensitive to his own staff.”

Observers claim that George can be a micro-manager. He is slow to delegate or make appointments, sometimes rejecting candidates that have been carefully vetted. He has seven talented auxiliary bishops, six of whom are vicars of diocese-sized pieces of the vast archdiocese. Reportedly, there is some impatience among them.

“You get the feeling that he’s under orders to clean up the place,” one observer said. But there’s no hard evidence of that, and after 12 months he hasn’t cracked down.

At 61, Cardinal George is the youngest of the 12 U.S. cardinals. Five of the 11 active cardinals are in their 70s; four others are over 65. New York’s John O’Connor and Washington’s James Hickey are over 75, the mandatory retirement age. And Philadelphia’s Anthony Bevilacqua will be 75 in June. Three of the Yankee cardinals are working at the Vatican, and one, Cardinal William Baum, 71, is in poor health. Only Los Angeles’ Roger Mahony, at 62, is close to George in age. If George can get out from under his responsibilities, he could become the genuine heir to Joseph Louis Bernardin, whose life and writings continue to be more influential than all the living cardinals combined.

George watchers thought that he would write. He did one brief devotional pastoral that virtually died in the telling. But as yet he has not even claimed the bishop’s traditional space in the archdiocesan paper. Conservative bishops are timid about writing much of anything, lest the Vatican take exception.

“George is intelligent,” one pastor said. “But he’s not an intellectual.” His thinking is vacuum-packed. If his listeners don’t agree with him, in his mind it is only because he has failed to explain it adequately.

When he met Patty Crowley, the cofounder of the Christian Family Movement and a church icon, he informed her that he didn’t agree with her -- and that was that. With the exception of Dorothy Day, Crowley may be the most respected Catholic lay woman in America. George’s remark left him at the side of Fabian Bruskewitz, the intransigent bishop of Lincoln, Neb., who is given to excommunicating almost anyone who reveres the sanctity of the individual conscience. (Bruskewitz’s diocesan paper called Crowley a “degenerate.”) George is acres removed from Bruskewitz, but he is simply not nuanced enough to appreciate where his abrupt responses leave him.

“I’m just thinking out loud,” he has been cited as saying -- a luxury that a cardinal cannot afford.

George’s priests are still having difficulty separating the man from the authority vested in him. “We’ve got to learn to push back,” one pastor said -- and they have. In a rather poorly written but pointed letter, a group of over 40 of his best pastors told him to cease chasing motes as he went from parish to parish. Later their leaders, including the rector of his own cathedral, met with him for some 90 minutes and appear to have settled some issues.

All observers agree that George is not a vindictive person. “He’s incapable of carrying a grudge,” one priest said. However, he sorely needs to connect with the parish priest, an experience that has eluded him since his ordination in 1963. “The priests are trying to like him,” one priest said. “But he’s his own worst enemy.”

“He’s a train wreck,” a hardened priest said.

But there is evidence that he’s learning -- and he’s learning fast.

In an earlier “thinking out loud” episode, he announced that he was thinking of importing foreign priests. His troops rebelled, citing many ethnic and cultural reasons, as well as the economic ones. “I can’t afford a janitor in my parish,” one inner-city priest said, “let alone another priest.” The cardinal backed down. But he will bring the proposal up again.

The new cardinal managed to rattle the archdiocese by insisting that the 600 active permanent deacons attend classes, largely aimed at correcting their alleged liturgical abuses.

“Hell, he oughta go after his priests first,” one parish priest said. “We’re a lot worse.”

As things turned out, however, there were significant glitches. Some poorly trained deacons had gone over the edge. The situation was handled well. The cardinal delegated the task to others and, upon reflection, most recognized that some fine-tuning was necessary.

There with the Trinity

The issue of the ordination of women has really gotten under his pallium and caused him to insert his crosier in his mouth on more than one occasion. Again, his disciplined and conservative theological training has turned him into a walking syllogism. To his seminarians he has said that he could not ordain them if they harbored any thoughts regarding the acceptability of female priests. He has told his ordained priests that this belief was “part of his very being.”

“There isn’t a theologian in the country worth his salt that would hold that women cannot be ordained,” one knowledgeable observer said. “But he’s got this notion right up there with the Trinity.”

Women who were willing to reserve judgment on the issue are now furious. “They tell us that a priestly vocation comes with the mother’s milk,” one believer said. “Now, we won’t encourage our sons to become priests. We won’t even encourage them to be Catholics.”

George’s predecessor, Joseph Bernardin, privately favored the ordination of women. In carefully couched terms, he said so to this reporter -- and to others. “But I would never say so publicly,” Bernardin added. “I am a bishop and I will support the Holy Father. The time is simply not opportune.”

Informed of this, George corrected me, saying that Bernardin would never hold one opinion privately and another publicly, at minimum a clear indication that George has never been married. When I stuck to my story, George said: “Well, you’re wrong, Tim.” Case closed.

Around the archdiocese, clerical humor now focuses on the validity of the ordination of those who have any doubts about most anything. Allegedly, when one priest confronted George, by admitting his own support for the ordination of women, George simply said: “Well, you’re still a good priest.”

Women have felt even more patronized. One religious sister, hearing his response on the ordination of women, said a word that older nuns used to scrub out of kids’ mouths.

Just as Bernardin did, George has been holding overnights at the archdiocesan seminary in Mundelein, Ill. During the “pajama parties” as his clergy call them, he has proved to be a good listener. One priest, whose duties required that he attend all of them, reported that George continues to learn from each of them.

“I’ve noticed a distinct change from one to another. He’s listening. He’s learning. He’s clearly softening his position on a lot of issues. I like the guy.”

Blood still flows

Cardinal Bernardin was not able to halt the blood flow from every artery of the institution. In his 14 years as archbishop, he reduced the number of churches by 61 and lowered the number of schools by 100. George has closed only one high school and a half dozen parish schools. But the closings will continue, especially as Chicago, like other once city-centered dioceses, becomes a suburban church.

The archdiocese continues to lavish funds on an excellent seminary system that is simply not working. The cost per ordained candidate may rival that of a special counsel. The new priests don’t even replace the number who resign in a year, not to mention those who retire or die. However, the institution continues to push the stale bread so that the fresh will keep.

If the new cardinal archbishop can find some wiggle room in his thinking or at least be more nuanced in its application, he may have a chance to become America’s most influential bishop. There is little evidence for this as yet, but one observer who has known him for years said: “This guy will do something that will surprise the living hell out of you.

“Too many people want to argue with him about this conservative versus liberal stuff,” he continued. “George is a man who when he likes something or someone will behave on it. He has a real need to be liked, and his desire to be liked takes over.

“Don’t let Francis [George] stop the motion and freeze it on some silly-ass rubric,” this informant concluded. “That’s only Franny the fifth-grader talking. Forget his theology. He won’t budge intellectually. So, don’t play on his turf. He needs to be loved. Remember what Leonard Cohen wrote: ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998