Updated 6:08 p.m.
About 1,200 people packed Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral Thursday to say goodbye to the late Cardinal Francis George.
The smell of incense rose into the rafters as nearly 70 Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops filed slowly into the cathedral. They were joined by top political leaders, priests and religious sisters, as well as George’s family, friends, co-workers and parishioners.
The mass ended three days of visitation, including an interfaith service and an overnight vigil Wednesday.
“He offered a brilliant mind in love with God,” said Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who gave the homily. “No one could ever dispute the extraordinary intellectual gifts God gave Francis George, nor could one ever dispute the enthusiasm with which he put these gifts to use for the good of the church and for the world.”
George, who was the first Chicago native to become archbishop here, died at home Friday after his third bout with cancer. He retired in November, and was replaced in the role by Archbishop Blase Cupich. George was 78.
The cardinal was known as an intellectual leader and prominent conservative voice in the church here and abroad. As former head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he led the bishops’ battle against the Obamacare contraception mandate and against same-sex marriage. He was a fierce fighter for religious liberty, and often warned of the dangers of rising secularism.
Sartain said he first heard of George more than 20 years ago, when he read a talk George had given while still bishop of Yakima, Wash.
“Here was a clear voice, a voice I wanted to listen to, a pastor who helped me understand the faith and taught me how to teach it,” Sartain said, adding George had a “keen ability to communicate clearly what he believed.”
Sartain described the cardinal as someone having “a profound interior life motivated by hope, hope in the Lord,” and a strong sense of compassion for the suffering learned at an early age after contracting polio at 13.
Before the mass started, the line to get into the cathedral wrapped around the block. It was by invitation only, and seemingly everyone had a story of knowing the cardinal.
Mary Anne Yep said the cardinal supported her company’s fight over a religious liberty issue. Triune Health Group joined a lawsuit to protest the contraception mandate, saying it would force them to go against their conscience.
“The cardinal took the time to give us his home phone number. How many times can you actually be calling a cardinal to say, ‘Cardinal, guide us through this, help us on this?’ Yep said. “He helped us write a whole declaration for religious liberty … He was so profound and so succinct in what he had to say.”
“He was always smiling, always approachable to young people as well,” she added. “He knew my kids’ names. It was beautiful.”
She attended an event where someone asked his sister if there was anything people didn’t know about George. His sister replied that he was in pain every day, but never let anybody know it.
Yep said she’s glad he’s no longer in pain, a common refrain this week.
Graciela Contreras, who served as the coordinator for Hispanic ministry at one of the vicariates here, said George’s death is a great loss for Latinos. One of his first acts was to create a pastoral plan to make Latinos feel welcome and increase archdiocesan programs for them, work started under Cardinal Bernardin, she said.
George created an Office for Racial Justice after the beating death of a black boy by white teens. The office created anti-racism training for thousands of employees and school leaders that led to workshops, unity events and a book. It gave new prominence to the issue.
He appointed Sister Anita Baird to head the effort, and she was one of two people vying to be first in line Thursday. She described the cardinal as a “dear mentor and friend” who was approachable and had a great sense of humor.
“He loved to hear hear people’s opinions, he loved the challenge. He would challenge you, but he wanted you to also voice your opinion, and you were always treated with respect.”
The director for campus ministry at Chicago State University, Corrine Grant, said George had great warmth and never declined a request to speak to students. “That was his problem, he never said no. He’d always find a way to work it into his schedule. That helped our schedule, but I know it crowded his schedule.”
A college student from Benedictine University who got to know George in high school said he respected the way the cardinal kept his core beliefs.
“He wasn’t scared to cause a little controversy,” Joe Ward said. “Everything was black and white with him, and that’s one thing I really respected about him. He didn’t let the public change his mind. He stuck to the Catholic teachings, and that’s awesome.”
That strict sense of Catholic teachings, that sense of black-and-white, didn’t describe George as a person, said longtime family friend Jack Norton of Westchester. Norton described George as kind, understanding, generous and supportive, while being firm in his faith.
“I don't think we realize yet what a loss it was and how much he has done in the last 17 years for us,” Norton said.
Cardinal George was buried in his family's plot at All Saints Cemetery in nearby Des Plaines Thursday afternoon.