The man from Chicago is, at this writing, in the final hours of a close election campaign. U.S. President Barack Obama is praised as a gifted orator. Yet his words, mellifluous though they can be, do not linger in the mind.
There is another man from Chicago whose words are not mellifluous for the most part, but almost everything he says bears examination and rewards serious engagement. That man is Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago for the past 15 years.
And of all the many things Cardinal George has said and written, the most frequently quoted in recent years was something that no one was absolutely sure that he said. As alarm about the erosion of religious liberty in the United States was on the rise, Chicago’s archbishop reportedly made a prophecy many considered alarmist, namely that one day his successor would be martyred.
There were many sceptics that Cardinal George would have said such a thing. He is nothing if not sober, given more to measured statements than melodrama. But one would hear the prophecy repeated more and more often. Now we know the truth, for in his recent column in his diocesan newspaper, Cardinal George explains.
“The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades. The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is,” George writes. One expects he had in mind, at least in part, the administration of his fellow Chicagoan.
“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,” Cardinal George writes. “I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smartphone 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.”
So there it is. The man often praised as the leading intellectual light of the American episcopate did in fact predict that martyrdom would come to Chicago, even if he considers the remarks overly dramatic. Everything Cardinal George says is worth paying attention to, and in the current contested political climate it is sobering that he would return at this time to that dramatic vision of an American future which will betray its past.
Cardinal George knows better than most that martyrdom too has its place in the history of salvation. And he is a man of Christian hope. For the martyred bishop in Chicago’s public square is not the end of the prophecy, which the cardinal demurs from calling prophetic:
“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.’ What I said is not ‘prophetic’ but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.”
Cardinal George placed his remarks in the line of anti-Nazi comments made by his predecessor, Cardinal George Mundelein, in the late 1930s. Encouraging Americans to support the struggle against the Nazi regime, Mundelein said:
“There is no guarantee that the battlefront may not stretch some day into our own land. Hodie mihi cras tibi. (Today it’s me; tomorrow, you). If we show no interest in this matter now, if we shrug our shoulders and mutter … it is not our fight, if we don’t back up the Holy Father when we have a chance, well, when our turn comes, we too will be fighting alone.”
We all like to think that it can’t happen here. Persecution and martyrdom is for other places, other peoples, other periods of history. Our default position is that our tradition of liberal democracy makes us safe from such dangers, immune from the principalities and powers arrayed against the Gospel from the beginning. As Americans exercise their democratic rights, it is wise to be wary that no liberty is eternally secure. This election season, it is important to listen to the prophetic, not political, man from Chicago.