As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was laid to rest Thursday, religious and lay members of the archdiocese revered him as a caring shepherd who wouldn’t let cancer get in the way of his ministry. Sister Mary Paul of the Daughters of Divine Love, an international women’s religious order with a congregation in the Archdiocese of Chicago, recounted how Cardinal George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had invited the order to Chicago. When he died in 1996, they didn’t know what would happen next. “When Cardinal George came in, he continued to be a father to us. He knows us personally and he calls us by name,” she told CNA the night before the funeral. Cardinal George passed away April 17 at age 78 after a years-long bout with cancer. He was Archbishop of Chicago from 1997 until his retirement in 2014. That the late cardinal was a warm, fatherly figure to those who knew him was a common sentiment from many who attended prayer vigils for his repose, the Funeral Mass, and the subsequent funeral procession ending in his burial at All Saints Cemetery. They described him as a man close to the people, evoking the image used by Pope Francis of good priests as “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” “I love the fact that he was a Chicagoan at heart, and he came back to serve this great diocese,” said Michael Czyzewicz, commander of the Knights of Columbus Bishop Boylan Assembly in Woodstock, Ill. After the evening prayer vigil for men and women religious the night before the funeral, Sister Mary Paul spoke with gratitude for all that Cardinal George had done for her order. When asked what stood out most about his example, Sister Mary Paul answered, “His humility.” She gave multiple examples of the cardinal’s fatherly care for them, and their love and affection for him in return. One time, when he was too sick to attend the Funeral Mass for one of the sisters, he still came to the wake — obviously in pain — and received applause from everyone there. Another time when the sisters were looking for a new home in the archdiocese, the arrangement fell through, and he gave a sincere apology. “He has the humility to say I am very sorry that this didn’t work, before he passed,” Sister Mary Paul said. “So for me that was a great humility.” “Any time you see him, he will greet you,” said Sister Immaculata, regional superior for the order. “He’s just humble. He doesn’t mind that he’s the big boss, but he will humble himself to be the first to say hi.” Shortly after the vigil for religious, the public began streaming in to pay their respects to the cardinal. The line ran out of the church as the all-night prayer vigil began. The local Knights of Columbus were particularly impressed by his support for the Knights — “He was a Knight,” they said with pride — but also his silent fight with cancer which he had endured on and off since 2006. “I don’t know how he was able to go on with his daily tasks the way he did,” said Greg Verbick, a member of the Knights. “He hid it quite well, let’s put it that way. He suffered very silently, I can assure you of that. I don’t think he wanted anybody to realize the pain that he had. He just wanted to continue doing God’s work.” Standing in line for the Funeral Mass the next morning, Jim Goeward, student body president at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., told CNA about how he and Cardinal George had worked together to plan a big Mass for high-schoolers from Chicago and surrounding dioceses. “We were able to build a great friendship, and he became just a great friend and hero to me,” said Goeward. After the Mass, the funeral procession traveled by the cardinal’s home parish of St. Pascal’s in the Western suburbs of Chicago. The parish celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and the school’s 100th anniversary is next year. Cardinal George graduated from the parochial school in 1951. He would sometimes stop by and say Mass when he visited his parents in that neighborhood, parishioners recalled. The parish is quite proud of its cardinal — pictures of him were displayed in the gym as students watched a live feed of his Funeral Mass, and the school has copies of his two books. “I think it gives all students, but especially our students from St. Pascal someone to look up to, to follow,” said the school’s principal Denise Akana. “Knowing that he graduated from here and knowing that he walked the same halls that the kids walk now and was in the same classrooms is sort of mind-boggling,” she added. As the funeral procession approached, dozens of parishioners lined both sides of the street to wave goodbye. Asked to describe the cardinal, parishioners painted the picture of a man who was “down to earth,” “very personable,” and “very easy to talk to.” They related how he attended the parish’s 100th anniversary picnic last year and was seen “sitting at the table like an ordinary person,” chatting away with parishioners. “He’s going to be sorely missed,” Verbick said at the Wednesday night prayer vigil. “You would typically think that a cardinal wouldn’t be approachable. But that wasn’t the case with him. And you could feel the love coming from him for everyone.”
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