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Cupich to be next Chicago archbishop

As Bishop Blase Cupich is named the next archbishop of Chicago, the community reflects on the legacy of Cardinal Francis George.

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The Vatican has picked a replacement for Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George.

Pope Francis has tapped Bishop Blase Cupich, who leads the diocese in Spokane, Washington. Before that, Cupich was bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Pope Francis’ choice for Chicago has been closely watched. It is his first major U.S. appointment and the clearest sign yet of the direction he hopes to steer American church leaders. Cupich is a considered a moderate among the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops.

Meet Bishop Blase Cupich, Chicago’s incoming archbishop

Cardinal George has been the spiritual leader for two million Roman Catholics in Lake and Cook County for 17 years now. He’s 77, and he’s battling cancer for the third time.

George first Chicago native as archbishop

The Cardinal -- the first Chicago native to become archbishop here -- has been a polarizing and at times even controversial leader. But there are contradictions between the Cardinal’s public and private life that could shape how we remember him.

As former head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Cardinal led a high-profile fight against Obamacare and the birth control mandate. He’s become one of the most prominent voices in the church, nationally and internationally, about what he sees as the dangers of secularism, same-sex marriage and most of all, restrictions on freedom of religion.

Cardinal Francis George (File)

The Cardinal’s often portrayed as unfeeling, aloof, even imperious. But colleagues – and even some critics – said there’s more to him than that.

Despite being a powerhouse in the Roman Catholic church, Graziano Marcheschi – who worked with him for a dozen years at the Archdiocese – said George is not overly impressed with himself, or the trappings of his office.

“He’ll stand in line, he’ll grab the paper plate, he’ll get the plastic spoon and fork, and he’ll put the food on his own plate, and he’ll just go sit where there’s a place at any table,” Marcheschi said. “He’s not looking for the ‘quote’ head table, he’s not looking for the other power players in the room. He just goes and sits and he talks to whoever’s there.”

That doesn’t mean the Cardinal’s the touchy-feely type. But people who have gotten to know him say he’s kinder and has more compassion than people generally give him credit for.

Marcheschi, who now heads mission and ministry at St. Xavier University, likes to tell a story to illustrate this.

George was speaking at a retreat for young volunteer ministers several years ago when a young woman asked him about the issue of female priests. The Cardinal told her the church believes it’s God’s will for men to be priests, not women.

“And the young woman became very distraught, and began to cry, and ran out of the room,” Marcheschi said. “Well, Cardinal George was just speechless. And then afterward, he turned to my wife and he said, ‘Nancy, what happened?’”

Marcheschi said his wife explained the woman may have felt the church was closing the door on her dreams. Then later some other women at the event asked the Cardinal if they could further discuss the subject of women’s ordination later.

“So he said, absolutely, make sure that young woman is part of the group, and I’ll be happy to sit down with you,” according to Marcheschi.

The women spent part of a day talking with the Cardinal, but he didn’t budge from his view on church teachings prohibiting female priests. (That’s a stance he’s remained firm on – in fact, he has asked some priests who openly supported women’s ordination to publicly apologize.)

“Obviously the young woman clearly would have liked to have heard something different and didn’t,” Marcheschi said. “But what did happen is she felt heard, she did not feel dismissed. Here she was with the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, a man with a global reach, a man who meets with popes and presidents, and he took an afternoon to meet with this young woman because he had seen how distressed she had been.”

Two views of George legacy

Cardinal Francis George speaks earlier this year. (WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)

Georgetown University Theology Professor Chester Gillis sees two differing views of George’s legacy emerging.

“Those who see him as defending the church against what might be kind of an anti-Christian sentiment in culture and society will raise him as a hero and say he stood against gay marriage, he stood against abortion, he stood against a lot of cultural patterns, and they think that’s exactly what he should have done,” Gillis said. “Others will say that’s all he did. That’s not true that’s all he did, but they’ll say he was irrelevant.”

On the progressive side, many see the Cardinal as rigid – even doctrinaire – in his view of church teachings.

“He has been a constant complainer about the inroads of secularism and individualism, that those things have crept into the church, and that people aren’t like they used to be, and not talking about how the church should be reacting today,” said author Robert McClory. McClory is a charter member of the national Catholic group based in Chicago, Call to Action, and writes for the National Catholic Reporter.

McClory credited the Cardinal with being a hardworking, conscientious overseer of the Archdiocese, but not an innovator.

“He has followed kind of the directives of Pope John Paul II. Keep the church from moving forward, in fact, to keep the church moving backward,” McClory said.

Cardinal George views church teachings in strict terms. He’s a noted conservative intellectual, who has earned master’s degrees and doctorates in both philosophy and theology. He personally rejects the terms liberal or conservative as being in the realm of politics, not religion. He describes things as being Gospel truth, or not.

“Jesus didn’t die on the cross so you could believe anything you want to,” he told WBEZ. “There is a faith, and the teachers of the faith are the bishops, with a lot of instruction by others. You can say I’m Catholic but I don’t believe this, I don’t believe that. Well, you’ve created your own church.”

Perhaps the sharpest criticism is reserved for Cardinal George’s handling of the priest sex abuse scandal. He was instrumental in pushing for reforms in the early 2000s that changed how the church handles abuse across the U.S.

But church records show he let some priests stay in their positions despite abuse allegations, and sometimes even after the church review board recommended their removal. Advocates point out the Cardinal also didn’t discipline those priests’ superiors.

The most notorious case on the Cardinal’s watch was that of Daniel McCormack, who was convicted of molesting several boys and named in numerous lawsuits over additional abuse allegations.

In 2012, the Cardinal told WBEZ: “Oh, by far, the most difficult challenge has been the terrible fallout from the sexual abuse of children by some priests. I pray for victims. That’s been the overwhelming weight in a sense that has stayed with me.”

The Cardinal’s also faced protests from the LGBT community as an outspoken lobbyist against gay marriage.

He has compared the tactics of some gay rights activists to fascism, and he ignited controversy a few years ago by likening organizers of Chicago’s gay Pride Parade to “something like the Ku Klux Klan” when he worried that the parade route would disrupt mass at a local church. He later backtracked and apologized for using an “inflammatory” analogy.

“I wish he was leaving a legacy as someone who was in the trenches with the poor, as someone who was against gun violence that permeates this city,” said Martin Grochala, a board member with Dignity Chicago, which advocates for LGBT people in the church. “I think unfortunately for LGBT people, his legacy is going to be about advocating against gay marriage.”

“A person of vision”

But supporter Robert Gilligan, who heads the Catholic Conference of Illinois, called Cardinal George a “person of vision.”

Gilligan said the Cardinal clearly and eloquently articulated Catholic church teachings on many issues, including the sacredness of life from conception to death, and that will be what George is remembered for.

Mary Anne Hackett, who heads the conservative Catholic Citizens of Illinois, said she thinks the Cardinal was doing just what he ought to, fighting against abortion and for what she calls ‘true marriage,’ between a man and a woman.

“What he tried to do was to restore the church in Chicago to what the church teaches,” Hackett said. “You could call that conservative, I would call that Catholic.”

She acknowledged the Cardinal can sometimes be overly blunt. But she doesn’t think those moments will be his lasting legacy:

“He’ll be remembered as a person that is open to talk things over, to meet with people of all different persuasions and different opinions, to meet with them, and try to resolve difficulties and differences, on a personal one-to-one basis actually,” Hackett said.

Dignity Chicago’s Martin Grochala experienced this firsthand when he and his group met with George several times.

“While we did not see eye to eye on church teaching about sexuality, our conversations were warm and respectful,” Grochala said. “He was very intelligent and quite, quite quick-witted. Very funny.”

The Cardinal has called this kind of contact with parishioners his greatest joy. And he has packed as much of it as he could into his final days in office. Although he’s facing cancer for the third time, George has resembled the Energizer bunny of late.

His battles with cancer aren’t the first time he’s faced serious illness. As a teen, George fought polio and overcame it, though the disease left him with a limp. Quigley Preparatory Academy turned him away, saying he was disabled and couldn’t be a priest. So George found another religious school, before going on to hold high posts in Rome and being appointed a bishop, archbishop and finally cardinal.

The Cardinal doesn’t plan to entirely slow down. He has said repeatedly that he’ll help his successor any way he can. He hopes to spend much of his time doing confirmations and hearing confessions.

“The skill of living is to live as if you’re going to die tomorrow and still do your job,” the Cardinal said. “In a sense prayer does that. You live for a while in a moment where you’re not in charge, you’re just at God’s disposition. And as long as that’s the case, then, well, I don’t want to die tomorrow, but if I did, I’m sure the Lord would still be providential in his care of the Earth. It doesn’t depend on me.”

WBEZ’s Lynette Kalsnes covers religion and culture. Follow her @Lynette Kalsnes

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