Mourning the Loss of Cardinal George

In 1999, Cardinal George hosted a gathering of over 150 clergy and community members at a ceremony to commemorate the signing of a new “Covenant for Peace in Action.” This concise and carefully considered list of 10 pledges was written on a set of four foot high arched tablets designed after the Ten Commandments. The Covenant was signed by 140 Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, rabbis, pastors, bishops, imams, sheiks and other community religious leaders and practitioners. These faith leaders committed to several actions including preaching about and marching against violence, as well as performing direct outreach to Chicago’s highest risk youth.

Over the course of the next 10 years Cardinal George would lead marches through Chicago communities in the north, west and south side neighborhoods most affected by violence when shootings occurred.  When the walks were several miles long he would begin limping as childhood polio limited him, but always joined at the end of the march, where he would speak to the community. When the march was shorter, he would walk the distance.

Over the same period he would talk to high risk youth one-on-one and in groups and also led them in prayer. On the southwest side he negotiated a truce between gang leaders as they kneeled in prayer in the basement of a private home in the neighborhood.  As board chair of the newly-formed CeaseFire program in Chicago, he would attend monthly meetings, surprising other attendees by humbly sitting at the table like any other member, opening up the file and discussing the neighborhood situations and the data which was of great interest and importance to him.

I had been fortunate to meet Cardinal George – it had taken over two years of persistence and help from his advisors at the Archdiocese to arrange our first meeting. Scheduled for twenty minutes, he allowed the conversation to last almost three hours and agreed to serve as Chair of our new program.  Astoundingly, at the conclusion of the meeting, he quietly asked if “I would have time to just come over for dinner.” We had both spent time working in some of the same African countries and returned to Chicago about the same time.    He told me he saw the work of reducing violence as “transformation” – for individuals and for Chicago.  .

After our initial meeting in 1999, I was honored to spend many hours with Cardinal George at his home and in the neighborhoods of Chicago, as well as at meetings, planning for the Covenant for Peace in Action ceremonies, as well as at the multiple CeaseFire events he held at the residence for community and civic leaders between 2000 and 2007.  Cardinal George also co-hosted annual CeaseFire award ceremonies for about seven years recognizing the hard work of some of the most notable community, political and law enforcement leaders, outreach workers, violence interrupters, clergy, funders, as well as high risk youth who were making changes in their own lives.   Cardinal George‘s presence brought a great deal of pride and many wonderful memories for all who participated.

Some of my most memorable times with Cardinal George include accompanying him on a visit to a newly quadriplegic former gang leader in the hospital.  Although most thought this man recently released from prison had changed, his past reputation led others to ambush his girlfriend and him while they were walking their dog in a park.  Cardinal George and I visited him in the circumstances of a highly guarded hospital ward.  Cardinal George prayed at the bedside as he did in all too many situations.

I had the occasion of personally visiting Cardinal George at his home after his initial diagnosis and surgery.  We discussed the medical and other aspects of his situation. I did get a sense that Cardinal George never lost his heart for people.   He shared with me that his most joyous times came when he was out with the people, leading marches to highlight youth violence or talking with high-risk youth in Chicago.  Because of his prominent position within the church and Chicago, he was frequently cloistered and surrounded by staff and officiants.  But I knew him as a caring friend and priest.  He was an unbelievable intellectual.  And he had a heart and warmth for people which radiated from the depths of his soul.  His faith was so certain, it moved me and continues to cause me endless hours of contemplation.

His Eminence Francis Eugene Cardinal George, O.M.I., eighth Archbishop of Chicago, was born in Chicago to Francis J. and Julia R. McCarthy George on January 16, 1937. He was the first native Chicagoan to serve as Archbishop of Chicago and the first Cardinal to retire as Archbishop of Chicago. Cardinal George passed away on Friday, April 17, 2015.