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Cardinal George: A Reluctant Prophet of the Resurrection

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 04/21/15

The late Cardinal's famous quote and the "right side of history"

Was the late Cardinal George, who died last week, a prophet? As his death receives prominent attention in both the secular news and among religious sources, there will be an inevitable discussion about his legacy. Shall he be remembered primarily as the first native son of Chicago to serve as its archbishop? Shall he be remembered as “the American Ratzinger”? I think it is likely that as Cardinal George’s legacy is discussed and finally begins to form, many will speak of his oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) remark about the fates of his possible successors—a remark which he insisted was not a prophecy. 

Cardinal George’s own reflection on his statement can be found in its entirety on his own blog here and is well worth reading. Here let’s just attend to the key quote:

“Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: ‘His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.’”

He insisted that the statement was not “prophetic”, and I agree, insofar as “prophetic” is taken to mean “a sure prediction about the future.” But insofar as “prophetic” is taken to mean, “the message that God wants delivered,” then I think his statement was prophetic. The merits of that claim will become clearer if we link the famous quote to the rest of what Cardinal George wrote in that blog post regarding Easter, and then reflect on all that in light of the prophet Isaiah.

Cardinal George noted in that same blog post that, “…God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression… The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end… It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters… entire societies, especially in the West, have placed themselves on the wrong side of history…”

I say that Cardinal George is standing in a long line that extends at least as far back as the early fifth century, with Saint Augustine writing his famous “City of God” in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. In God’s Providence, the Church will always outlive her would-be pallbearers. Faithful Christians, both Francis George and Saint Augustine would agree, are on the right side of history. History is decisively and irrevocably defined by the triumph over sin and death achieved by the Crucified, Risen and Returning Christ of God. All human events have their measure and meaning in light of Easter. Those on the right side of history, in other words, those who understand the purpose of human life which is to be found in Jesus Christ, will be able to accept His offer to share in His glory, bringing humanity into the life of the Trinity. Those who reject the Christ of God will have their choice accepted by God.(Matthew 25: 31-46)

Meanwhile, from time to time, the Church steps into the wreckage of human history (whether amidst a fallen civilization by the likes of Saint Augustine or Cardinal George’s hypothetical “future successor," or in the life of a fallen sinner ministered to by a priest-confessor) and starts rebuilding. Human history, whether writ large or small, is replete with examples of the Church renewing the work of human living. And this brings us to my earlier point about the prophet Isaiah. I mention Isaiah to show that the work of the Church to restore fallen human life is often a very lonely, if not solitary work.

I re-read the prophet Isaiah in a new light on the night of the presidential election in 2012.Earlier on election day, I had stumbled upon an essay called “Isaiah’s Job”, penned by Alfred Jay Nock, for The Atlantic Monthly in 1936. As I started to get chest pains during that night, I read the essay, and found a renewed sense of urgent purpose. The entire essay is a rewarding read. I will summarize it quickly here. In brief, Nock lamented that too many people were all too eager to share their great ideas, their decisively transformative ideas promising hope and change, “for the masses.”The messengers to the masses had to be nimble, every ready to adapt as the masses passed from one fad or fury to the next. To be a messenger to the masses, Nock warns, “…necessitates an opportunist sophistication of one’s doctrine, which profoundly alters its character and reduces it to a mere placebo. If, say, you are a preacher, you wish to attract as large a congregation as you can, which means an appeal to the masses; and this, in turn, means adapting the terms of your message to the order of intellect and character that the masses exhibit… But as we see on all sides, in the realization of these several desires, the prophetic message is so heavily adulterated with trivialities, in every instance, that its effect on the masses is merely to harden them in their sins.”

The “masses," according to Nock, were the great majority of people who had neither the strength of intellect to acknowledge principles of “the humane life” nor the strength of character to adhere to those principles. Mass man, said Nock, were akin to the great majority of the people of Judea in the time of Isaiah. God told Isaiah that his prophecy, that is, his delivery of the message entrusted to him by God, was doomed to failure and would enrage most who would hear it. Isaiah, understandably asked, “Then why bother?” God insisted that Isaiah speak on behalf of those rare folks whom God would call “the Remnant.” It was for the faithful few who would be called upon to rebuild that Isaiah was to deliver his message. Those who accepted Isaiah’s prophetic message would be, to borrow Cardinal George’s phrase, “on the right side of history.”

How shall a faithful Christian walk in the footsteps of Saint Augustine, Cardinal George and the prophet Isaiah? How shall a faithful Christian walk in the light of the Risen Christ to the victory He promises? How shall faithful Christians and their leaders work to form the Remnant that, when needed, will re-emerge and re-build? That’s the problem. This is not —there can not — be a program or a plan or a task force or an initiative or a committee to bring such a work about.Trusting in grand initiatives animated by human ingenuity bring us fill circle to the self-appointed “messengers to the masses.” There is simply no choice but to bring our human nature to grace and to let God build upon us. Those who come to know the Risen Christ, who know His voice, His face, His mind, His heart, His will, through Sacred Scripture and Tradition, through the sacraments, through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, through ordinary Christian fellowship, and are ready to give witness to Him Whom they have come to know with their own hands and eyes and minds and hearts—those will be the faithful Remnant who will rebuild and rebuild again and again until the Lord returns in glory.

In other words, quiet and diligent individuals, who are zealous but not ambitious, who do not seek fame or reward—these will be the instruments and recipients of authentic prophecy, these will be on the right side of history as witnesses of the Resurrection, these will be the Remnant that rebuilds, as the Church has done throughout history.Yes, it is well and good to strive to produce great Christian art, literature, music, architecture. Yes, it is important to inaugurate authentic Christian institutions, organizations and foundations. But all that is never enough, and none of these will endure. What will endure, as Cardinal George I trust now knows better than ever, is the witness to the Resurrection of Christ, who speaks, as befits a prophet, the message God has given him, and is ready to keep his mind and heart and hands busy until the Lord tells him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25: 23)

When I write next, I will share some reflections on the annual drama of preparing university students for final exams and graduation.Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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