Tagging along with the Cardinal

cardinalgeorge More reporters should tag along with an interview subject. As someone who has gone on ride-a-longs with cops in New Orleans and followed politicians in Washington, I have found that being in a subject’s physical presence is essential, enabling me to see the world from their eyes and walk in their shoes.

So I was happy to read The Chicago Tribune‘s profile of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Reporter Patrick Reardon showed readers a realistic look at His Eminence’s life.

By following the Cardinal, Reardon revealed part of George’s personality and his job. For example, the Cardinal came across as much of a bureaucrat or CEO than a priest. Witness this timeline:

12:50 p.m. — George arrives at his desk on the 4th floor of the administrative offices and begins making his way through a stack of paperwork.

1:30 p.m. — He makes a quick stop at a birthday party for Susan Burritt, the archdiocese’s media relations director.

1:33 p.m. — He heads a meeting with a board of priests who advise him on financial dealings. Then he returns to his desk for more paperwork.

Reardon also showed that Cardinal George, far from being a dour functionary, is a man of humor and wit. This story was a good example:

After attending the wake of Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton’s mother at St. Catherine of Siena and St. Lucy Church in Oak Park, George gets into the passenger seat of his black Cadillac with his private secretary, Rev. Daniel Flens, at the wheel.

Flens pulls the car up a couple feet to make it easier for Colleen Dolan, the communications director, to get into the back seat.

But, fully enjoying a child’s joke, the cardinal merrily pretends that the car is about to drive away, leaving Dolan at the curb.

With a wide grin, all teeth, the cardinal archbishop of Chicago waves goodbye frantically — looking for all the world like a 10-year-old boy.

Finally, Reardon showed that the Cardinal is more than the CEO of Chicagoland Catholics; he is their moral and spiritual leader.

George’s spiritual life follows the routine of a monastic. He starts his day by saying his morning prayers from the Divine Office and celebrates mass; prays the Angelus at noon; attends a funeral in the afternoon; celebrates mass and says a homily in the evening; and says his prayers before going to bed.

His moral leadership is expressed via spiritual diagnosis, such as this incident that Reardon shows:

Twenty-four hours earlier, five students at Northern Illinois University had been fatally shot in a classroom, and a reporter asks George about his thoughts.

In his answer, the cardinal notes that American individualism “leaves many people isolated.” At the root of the shootings, he suggests, was a breakdown of the sense of community. “What is the basis of our being together?” he says. “It has to be something more than individual rights or individual dreams or individual desires.”

Reardon noted that the Chicago archdiocese’s top prelate has not allowed access to his residence since 1979. Here’s hoping it won’t be another 29 years.

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