Portage Park church mourns 'favorite son' Cardinal George

Portage Park church mourns 'favorite son' Cardinal George
A photo on display of Cardinal Francis George from when he was an altar boy at St Pascal’s Church in Portage Park. WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes
Portage Park church mourns 'favorite son' Cardinal George
A photo on display of Cardinal Francis George from when he was an altar boy at St Pascal’s Church in Portage Park. WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes

Portage Park church mourns 'favorite son' Cardinal George

Parishioners at Cardinal Francis George’s boyhood church are mourning the late Roman Catholic leader.

George grew up in the Portage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side at St. Pascal Church. He went to Catholic school here and was ordained here. He’s described on the church website as their “Favorite Son.”

George died Friday after a long fight with cancer.

Photos lining the back of St. Pascal’s show George at every stage of his life: as a baby, an altar boy, graduating from school here, and years later, greeting the Pope.

Parishioners gathered around the photos and shared memories before mass started Sunday.

“No matter where he came to visit, he came back with a smile and hope,” Danny Klbecka, a longtime parishioner recalled. “He was a great man, and we’re sorry he’s gone. We’re going to miss him, we’ll all miss him.”

The cardinal often returned to visit the church and to see childhood friends.

“He was our great success story,” said St. Pascal’s Pastor Paul Seaman. “He was symbolic of what St. Pascal and the Catholic church is all about. He was a man of faith, he was a man of service, he cared about people, and he was very genuine in the life he lived.”

The pastor and parishioners alike described George as a kind man who was devout in his faith, and they offered insight into the longtime spiritual leader.

In his sermon, Father Seaman said George talked about his bouts with cancer. At one point, the cardinal felt he was sure he was dying. He said he felt cold inside and out. But a nurse held his hand and told him to fight.

George said he learned the only thing we take into eternity is our relationships. And although his most important relationship was with God, Seaman said, during a meeting with priests the cardinal said he regretted not becoming friends with more of them. He always wanted to be fair and didn’t want anyone to feel they were “in” or “out,” Seaman said, adding that such an attempt at fairness came at a high personal cost.

The cardinal had a strict interpretation of church teachings and was often described as rigid or rule-driven by some.

Rev. Seaman said George believed that if we learned merely from our experience, our range of knowledge would be too narrow. He saw the history and teachings of the church as a broader and wiser teacher.

Seaman said the point wasn’t the rules, but a relationship with God. Without that relationship, the cardinal said, religion was just a set of burdensome rules.

St. Pascal isn’t the only parish remembering the cardinal. Churches across the region said prayers for him over the weekend, and tributes came pouring in from religious and political leaders.

Muslim and Jewish leaders here offered sympathy. Leaders of the Muslim Community Center said George made arrangements for Muslims to pray within Chicago churches, denounced injustice and collaborated on public policy issues.

“The Muslim Community Center along with the world will miss this truly committed person of interfaith understanding,” leaders said in a statement.

“Leaders of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago join with the entire Jewish community in remembering with joy, respect and gratitude the faithful friendship of Cardinal George,” a statement said, adding George “continued the path of his predecessors, Cardinal Cody and Cardinal Bernardin, in building a relationship built on foundations of mutual respect.”

Meanwhile, Pope Francis sent this telegram from the Vatican:

“To the Most Reverend Blase Cupich
Archbishop of Chicago

Saddened to learn of the death of Cardinal Francis E. George, Archbishop Emeritus of Chicago, I offer heartfelt condolences to you and to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese. With gratitude for Cardinal George’s witness of consecrated life as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, his service to the Church’s educational apostolate and his years of episcopal ministry in the Churches of Yakima, Portland and Chicago, I join you in commending the soul of this wise and gentle pastor to the merciful love of God our heavenly Father. To all who mourn the late Cardinal in the sure hope of the Resurrection, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of consolation and peace in the Lord.”

Details: Funeral services for Cardinal George.

Lynette Kalsnes covers religion for WBEZ. Follow her @LynetteKalsnes.