In the Past 50 Years, Four Chicago Cardinals Left a Distinctive Mark on the See
Just one verse each day.
Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich is coming to Chicago, following in the footsteps of four very different men, each of whom left his own brand on the Hog Butcher to the World, the City of Big Shoulders, as poet Carl Sandburg described that city. Who were these men and what were their legacies? Not all were stellar!
Albert Cardinal Meyer grew up in a blue-collar family 90 miles north of Chicago, in Milwaukee. His intellectual gifts were noted early in his priesthood, and he was sent to the Pontifical Biblical Institute, where he received a doctorate in scripture study in 1930.
Albert Cardinal Meyer was installed as archbishop of Chicago in 1958 and almost immediately faced a duty as sobering as a cardinal’s admonition to be ready to die for the faith. He was summoned to accompany Mayor Richard J. Daley to bless more than 90 bodies of children and nuns killed in the Our Lady of Angels fire and bring comfort to their families.
Pope John XXIII recognized Meyer’s unique leadership qualities and named him one of the “Presidents” of a consistory at Vatican II. This bookish and bespectacled prelate, whose genius was moulded from his intimate study of the Old and New Testaments, brought a "liberal" viewpoint to the Council, especially in the areas of religious freedom and justice for the poor. He was a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr.
While we often note that King, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy died in their prime with much of their promise unfulfilled, the same may be said of Cardinal Meyer. Even considered “papabile” after Pope John XXIII died, he soon succumbed to cancer in 1964, before the riots that would burn Chicago and other cities in the 1960s.
Cardinal John Cody may have been one of the most enigmatic cardinals in the entire Catholic Church, at least in the 1960s and 1970s. The tune he marched to was discordant. In New Orleans he was known as a supporter of civil rights and social justice, yet that reputation evaporated with each mile his “Coronation Train” drew closer to Chicago. The pomp and richness of his entourage clashed with memories of the Great Migration of the 1920s, when dirt-poor African-Americans left the South for Chicago and the hope of a better life. And people remembered.
One hopes that there was a redeeming goodness in Cody’s heart, not outwardly obvious. Notwithstanding doctorates in philosophy, sacred theology and canon law, he stumbled into the potholes of Chicago politics and the racial woes of the Civil Rights era. His own clergy rebelled against him and, perhaps even worse, joked about him. A book about him called “Cardinal Sins” sold over one million copies. His reputation shrunk as Chicago’s papers revealed a series of scandalous accusations against Cody: a federal investigation over the disappearance of $1 million in archdiocesan funds, $4 million missing from the National Conference of Catholic BIshops in the year Cody was treasurer, as well as allegedly having a mistress for 25 years. The investigations ended with his death.
Joseph Bernardin, son of a stone mason, with a deep knowledge of civil-rights borne from growing up in the South and from his time as an auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, brought a conciliatory and collegial style, honed as President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He hoped to bring unity among Catholics divided over giving priority to abortion and the right to life as the preeminent issues of our day and those who saw abortion as only one of many social justice concerns. He famously coined the term, "the Seamless Garment,” to describe the inter-relatedness of all issues of human life and human dignity.
Cardinal Bernardin led by example and tneded to his flock. His biographer, Eugene Kennedy, wrote about one pastoral visit in My Brother Joseph:
Chicagoans recognized Joseph Bernadin’s goodness and his modeling the Sermon of the Mount. As his funeral procession crossed Chicago on the expressway leading to the cemetery, people of all races and cultures — especially working people — lined the route, their attention underscoring their grief.
To lead Chicago after Joseph Bernardin was an assignment not many would envy. The Church in Chicago, like the Catholic Church everywhere, was splitting into factions described by labels like “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative,” and “traditional.”
Like Cardinal Meyer, Cardinal Francis George came to Chicago after studious formative years, and he also had immense administrative experience. Yet it has been a rough ride for him, as he had to deal with problems he had inherited. His personality and leisure pursuits may have had their echoes in Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, but many Chicagoans prefer their sports and barbecues to bookish pursuits.
Cardinal George is known nationally and internationally for his integrity and eloquence. He has been afflicted with polio from childhood and, more recently, from recurring cancer. Like Cardinal Meyer, he has been a strong supporter of religious liberty. There is a prophetic dimension to Cardinal George’s writings, although it is generally overlooked among those of other faiths, and even within the Church:
In 2010, after Illinois passed legislation legalizing same sex civil unions and Obamacare called for taxpayer funding of abortion and mandated that religious employers cover even abortifacient contraceptives in their employee health plans, Cardinal George spoke to a gathering of his priests. Recognizing that religious liberty was increasingly being violated in the United States and in other Western societies, he told them: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
Reflecting later on the seriousness of the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate, he noted: “At the present moment, Catholics in this country are facing challenges to our institutional existence and our mission that we thought would never arise here. … The laws that used to protect us are now being used to weaken and destroy us, and this quite deliberately.”
These words are worth meditating upon.
When a new leader is appointed, the question often comes up: “Do you have any advice you’d like to give.”
Yes, indeed. In one recent year there were over four million admissions to Chicago’s major league ball clubs. What a great opportunity to evangelize! A visit to Citi Field to watch the White Sox would be high on my list of advice.
And only eight miles away, the Chicago Cubs once again languish in last place, with a paltry .440 winning percentage. The Cubs are living icons of the poor in spirit. My advice: Dress in civvies, sit in the bleachers, enjoy the watered-down beer, and experience a true Chicago version of the beatitudes.
William Van Ornum
is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.