It was a very cold day on November 21, 1996. I had been asked by colleagues at the Office for Divine Worship here in Chicago to help coordinate the liturgical rites at Mount Carmel Cemetery for the burial of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. I remember arriving very early that morning and being allowed into the "Bishops' Chapel" at Mount Carmel, where the Cardinal's remains would be laid to rest.
It was an eerie feeling as I stared into the open vault in the wall in which the Cardinal's coffin would soon be placed. I had never witnessed an entire city pour out its grief like Chicago did on that day; etched in my memory forever.
A few months later, I found myself in Portland, Oregon. I was there to interview for the position of director of the office of worship for the Archdiocese of Portland. After the lengthy interview, I was told that the Archbishop, Francis George, wanted to spend about a half hour with me; he did so with all the interviewees who were interviewing as potential members of his cabinet.
Here's a photo of Archbishop George at his Mass of farewell to the Archdiocese of Portland in April of 1997.
When I was introduced to the Archbishop and entered his office, I remember distinctly how friendly and cordial Archbishop George was. Simply, he was easy to be around. He spoke passionately about his hopes for a new era of liturgical catechesis once a new translation of The Roman Missal was received. I was a doctoral student at the time and remember how excited the word and worship faculty was at Catholic Theological Union as the new ICEL translation was being voted upon by the US bishops. The Archbishop said that, by and large, the Church had failed in its attempts to catechize the laity about the celebration of Mass when the Mass was first celebrated in English after the Second Vatican Council . The new translation, he said, would be a watershed moment for liturgical catechesis in the Church. The Archbishop spoke about his family; I spoke about mine. He asked if I had any questions and I asked him about the makeup of the Archdiocese of Portland. I remember this as if it were yesterday. There was a map of Oregon on the wall next to him in his office. He pointed at the map and said that the city of Portland itself was a center of liberalism. Then he pointed to the rest of the Archdiocese and said that from the coast to the Cascades, the rest of the people were "a bunch of rednecks." I was taken aback by this comment and I remember that right then and there, the Archbishop made it easy for me to decide not to take this position if it were offered to me, which it eventually wasn't.
Many of my colleagues here in Chicago knew that I had applied for the position in Portland. Just a few short weeks after my interview, it was announced that Archbishop George was to become the new Archbishop of Chicago. My phone was ringing off the hook, with friends and colleagues asking me about this stranger who was to become our new Archbishop.
So, my impressions of Archbishop George were mixed. When he came to Chicago, I was asked to coordinate the music for two of the Masses he celebrated. The first was for the consecrated religious brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese. I remember walking into the sacristy of the Basilica of Our Lady, Mother of Sorrows to speak with the Archbishop about what we would be singing at the Mass. When I walked into the sacristy, he looked up and, with delight in his eyes, said, "Jerry, how are you? How goes the job hunt?" Frankly, I was impressed that he remembered me at all and, once again, I was struck by his personal touch and genuine friendliness. We chatted for a little while and then he celebrated the Mass.
I have spoken with Cardinal George many times over the years. When the translation of The Roman Missal finally came around (distinctly different than the translation of which we had spoken so many years before), the Cardinal was clear that he was glad that our publishing house had decided to publish the Missal. He made it clear to me that we in Catholic publishing, particularly liturgical publishing, had a deep responsibility to God's people to see to it that the reception of the new translation was as smooth as possible. I remembered his passion years earlier when he talked about this being a watershed moment of liturgical catechesis.
A few years ago, when I was still a parishioner at Saint James Parish here in Chicago, Cardinal George came to our parish to announce that Saint James would live on and that property had been purchased by the Archdiocese for the building of a new church, which would replace the crumbling structure (now torn down). It was one of the happiest days of my Catholic life.
Tomorrow night, I will make my way to Holy Name Cathedral to pay my final respects to Cardinal Francis George, the man who has been my shepherd here in Chicago for the past 18 years. I will remember him as an absolute straight-shooter in my conversations with him. I will remember his kindness and genuine friendliness. I will remember some of what I would call the "odd ways" he would phrase things. Most of all, I will remember this man, who struggled physically for most of his life, as a man of the Church. The image I have of him is from the prophet Isaiah: "A man of sorrows, familiar with suffering."
May God grant him eternal life.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.