T he first was Samuel Stritch but I never saw him much less meet him. The second was Albert Meyer and I did see him a few times but, again, we never actually met. Cardinal Stritch was Archbishop of Chicago and died in Rome in 1958 while I was in the sixth grade. Cardinal Meyer died in Chicago in 1965 while I was a college freshman. The third was John Cody and I did meet him any number of times, including a day in May, 1972 when he ordained me. Then, starting in 1977, we talked somewhat regularly when he would be a patient at Columbus Hospital where I was chaplain. To be more precise, Cardinal Cody talked and I listened. My predecessor at Columbus, Monsignor Don Carroll, warned me to save daily visits to Cardinal Cody for the last of the evening because the Cardinal might want to talk a lot. Monsignor Carroll was right. So there I sat sharing Salerno Butter Cookies and drinking milk with the Archbishop of Chicago while he regaled me at length about his early days in Rome, In St. Louis, in Kansas City, in New Orleans, etc., etc. One night, I really was fascinated as he described his role in the funeral of Pope Paul Vl, the election of John Paul l, the funeral of John Paul l and the election of John Paul ll—all within a span of two months. He loved to tell stories and eat cookies. Cardinal Cody died in 1982.
Just two months later, Joseph Bernardin was sitting in my office at Columbus Hospital visiting with my mom and dad. It was the Feast of St. Francis Cabrini and Archbishop Bernadine, (he wasn’t a Cardinal yet) had come to celebrate Mass at the Shrine. He struck up a lively half hour conversation with my dad and Mass ended up starting a few minutes late as a result. Over the next seven years I only really spoke with Cardinal Bernadine twice more that I recall. Once on the phone when he asked me to be the chaplain at the University of Chicago and once in his office when he redefined my leaving active ministry and called it, instead, an “extended sabbatical.” He was very kind and understanding that day and, remarkably, he also turned out to be right. Cardinal Bernadine died in Chicago in 1996 while I was living in Washington, D.C.
In the fall of 2005 Bishop Frank Kane arranged for me to meet with Cardinal Francis George at “the residence”. I had talked to Frank about my desire to return to active ministry so he talked with the Cardinal. What was booked as a half hour of the Cardinal’s time turned out to be an hour and a half. After fortyfive minutes I asked if I was making him late but he just waved off my concern. For the first hour Cardinal George mostly just listened to my story about growing up in Chicago, my experience of seminary, of parish work, of hospital chaplaincy, of the University of Chicago. He was curious about the work I was doing in professional ethics in the financial industry and asked a bunch of questions. The last half hour he talked quite a bit about what it was like for him to return to his hometown as Archbishop, about some of the problems he was dealing with and how he worried about priests in danger of burning out. Most poignantly, he talked about the crushing personal and family tragedies caused by abusive priests his struggle to try to heal, to some degree at least, the harm they had done. As he walked me to the front door he stopped and asked, half smiling, “You’re not going to leave again, are you?” Taken a little off guard, I jokingly said that I seemed to be on an 18 year cycle—18 in—18 out. He laughed and said, “In 18 years you’ll be old and I’ll be dead so I guess that’s alright. You’ll be someone else’s problem by then. Welcome back John. It’s good to have you home.” A couple of times more during those first few years back, Cardinal George invited me over and we’d talk. He was just making sure all was well. The last long conversation we had was the night Father Frank Cimarrusti died. Frank’s brother, Dave, had called to tell me and I called Bishop Kane. Bishop Kane gave me the Cardinal’s private number and said I should call him right away. I hesitated and said that it was 10:00 at night but he said to call regardless of the hour because the Cardinal will want to know right away.
Cardinal George answered on the first ring and we talked for a good 20 minutes about Fr. Cimarrusti and what he had meant to each of us, to St. Matthias and to so many others in the Archdiocese. He asked how Dave and the rest of Frank’s family were doing and then the Cardinal told me how touched he was by the people at St. Matthias who cared for Frank over these last difficult months of his illness. He also mentioned the evening Mass we had for Frank two weeks earlier and how he had learned it had comforted Frank. I was truly surprised by all the things that Cardinal George knew about Frank’s final days and the personnel affection and care he clearly had for him and all of us who were close to Frank.
I never had a real business meeting with Cardinal George, I never had any difficult discussions about parish or Archdiocesan concerns with him and I am glad for that because all my experience with him was personal and pastoral. He was warm, gentle, funny, smart, and very, very caring. Cardinal George was a very good priest. That’s the man I met that first time 10 years ago and that’s the man I will always remember with deep gratitude and true affection.