A strong leader, yet humble. Approachable, yet not preoccupied with a desire to be liked. A high-ranking prelate and intellectual powerhouse, yet a friend to the poor who embraced the sufferings in his own life. The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago might seem a man of contrasts, but his life was one of different virtues lived in harmony, said his superior in the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The oblates are an international missionary congregation of priests and brothers. As a leader in the order back in the 1970s and '80s, Cardinal George helped steer the oblates through much tumult and confusion that was rampant in the Church at the time, said the congregation’s current superior general, Fr. Louis Lougen, OMI. “(I)n those troublesome years, he helped the congregation be focused on our real strong values of religious life, consecrated life, life of prayer. The outreach to the poor through justice and peace,” Fr. Lougen told CNA. 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. Although he was a high-ranking U.S. Catholic prelate — in addition to heading a major archdiocese, he led the U.S. Bishops’ Conference for three years — Fr. Lougen saw Cardinal George as his “son,” noting that he was, after all, still one of the oblates. And as Fr. Lougen stood at the head of the casket where the cardinal lay in repose, he said goodbye to his spiritual son. At the April 22 vigil for men and women religious and deacons, Fr. Lougen recalled Cardinal George’s observation that “we have kind of lost or forgotten in our congregation the superior general is both a father and a brother to all of the oblates.” “Because of what he said, I discovered my fatherhood as the superior general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. And I come tonight to bless my son, for the son came to the Father’s house.” Cardinal George was foremost a strong leader, both with the oblates and in his own archdiocese, the superior recalled. “Maybe some people thought he was hard, demanding. He never was running to be popular,” Fr. Lougen reflected. “He was never doing things so that people would like him or love him. He was doing what he really believed was right in prayer before God, and he wanted God to have the glory.” Giving God the glory — this was a theme of Cardinal George’s life that Fr. Lougan repeatedly emphasized. “It wasn’t about Francis. It was about God and the Church and Jesus, and living for that,” he said. “He tried to do what was right and he didn’t worry about whether people didn’t like him…There was a lot of courage in that, I think, a lot of courage to do what he believed his convictions, his discernment, his prayer called him to do.” But the cardinal was not only a strong leader. He was also personable and approachable, especially with the poor, Fr. Lougen said. “He didn’t blow his own trumpet…he was helping the poor in many ways, interested in the plight of the poor without making a lot of noise about it.” And although he was widely acclaimed as an astute intellectual, he was still very down-to-earth. “He really was intellectual, but a simple man, a man close to the poor, he could talk to the poor on the street, he could talk to the poor at a meeting,” Fr. Lougan said. “Among us he was a brother. He had a good sense of humor,” the superior continued. “And you could banter, banter with him. And even we would argue and discuss with him,” he added. “So he was never, ‘I’m the cardinal and you better listen to me.’ Among us, he was a brother and a good friend. Very real.” Fr. Lougan also reflected on the suffering the Cardinal George bore throughout his life. The cardinal contracted polio as a teenager, which left him with permanently damaged legs. He would go on to beat cancer in 2006, although it later returned, and he struggled with it for several years before passing away. Although he obviously suffered from the effects of both diseases, he never gave an appearance of suffering, choosing instead to help others, Fr. Lougan said. “He had the physical disability. I never heard him complain, I never heard him cry about that,” the priest explained. Rather, “he empowered, he helped other people with difficulties, with challenges, to move ahead. To go out and to see the good things in life.” The superior recalled Cardinal George’s to his chapter of the congregation in 2010. “We were talking about conversion to Christ as Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate,” he said at the vigil, and the cardinal emphasized that “when you speak of conversion to Christ, it’s conversion to Christ crucified.” “That came from his own experience of limitations in his life. Never a victim, he lived his oblation with joy, with dedication,” Fr. Lougen said.
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