Christian charity is a virtue that is widely recognizable. Where the church goes compassion and care for the poorest and weakest follows. Missionaries and Christian teachers have opened hospitals, cared for orphans, the widows and the poor. Where the Christian faith has advanced universities and day care have followed. Churches, from the beginning, have given to those in dire need with no expectation of direct response. One mark of the Christian faith is caritas, or love. In fact, the word caritas (Latin) means love.
But Pope Benedict XVI taught us that there is a somewhat less recognizable form of love for others that can rightly be called “intellectual charity.” Mother Teresa, respected in India and beyond, for her deep commitment to “material charity” said, “We are not social workers, we are brides of Jesus Christ.” She thus makes it clear that though material charity is important to Christian love “intellectual charity” is even more important.
The danger of material charity is that we reduce the other to a mouth to feed, a body to clothe, a need to be met, and we miss the great capacity that they have to be opened to the knowledge of the Father. In a recent appeal the Catholic News Agency Zenit said intellectual charity is “to enable every person to say with the same personal feeling of a St. Paul: ‘He loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20.’” The zeal for eternal life leads us to value the other, to serve them with humility and to regard the other person as better than ourselves.
I thought of this when I reflected on the passing of my friend Cardinal George last week. He was a model of true charity, both in caring for the weak and the poor and in showing respect for the other. He possessed and demonstrated genuine love for the mind and heart of his friends, even for his enemies.
Francis Eugene George, OMI (January 16, 1937 – April 17, 2015), a native of Chicago, was the eighth Archbishop of Chicago (1997-2014). Cardinal George was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1998. He served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010. On September 20, 2014, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal George’s resignation and appointed Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Washington, to succeed him as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In this unusual circumstance, George was permitted to remain as the incumbent archbishop until Cupich was installed to succeed him on November 18, 2014.
For many years Cardinal George suffered from cancer, having been initially diagnosed in 2006. He died from the disease last Friday. His funeral mass will take place this Thursday, April 24, at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.
George contracted polio at age 13. The effects of this disease caused him real difficulty throughout his long life but he was a fighter who overcame and served with great joy. Due to his disability, he was rejected by a well-known Catholic prep school in Chicago and instead enrolled at St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville (IL), a high school seminary of the Missionaries Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This led to his joining the Missionary Oblates on August 14, 1957, thus the OMI after his name. He continued his studies at the Oblates novitiate before entering Our Lady of the Snows Seminary in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He eventually lived and studied in Canada and Rome. He earned a Masters’ Degree in theology and philosophy as well as a Ph.D. in theology and philosophy, all of which leads me to my own tribute to my friend.
My book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church (Zondervan, 2010), was given to Cardinal George in the spring of 2011. A friend read a front-page story about George in the Chicago Sunday Tribune and saw a reference to his desire to see more conversation with evangelicals about ecumenism. (George was well-known for his work in ecumenism.) This friend found a way to get a copy of my book to the Cardinal. I thought, at the time, he’ll never see it much less read it.
In the summer of 2011 an email came to me from Cardinal George inviting me to visit with him at his residence. In August I made that visit. At the end of a delightful hour, an hour in which I observed “intellectual charity” as I had rarely seen it, I asked him, “Cardinal George, if I can secure Wheaton College for an evening would you come and sit down with me for a public dialogue on my book?” He agreed and plans began. We had that meeting, as many of you know, on Monday, March 26, 2012. The event was taped and you can watch it on the ACT3 Network website.
What was most remarkable about that evening was not the stimulating discussion we had, which was refreshing and honest. What was memorable, at least to me, was seeing the Cardinal around others and talking to him before a crowd of 1,200-plus people. He was clearly the intellectual giant I expected him to be. But he was much more. He was a humble gentleman who loved deeply and it showed very clearly.
This was not the last time we shared time together. We had several private visits in the years following. And we shared a public moment at the first Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation in Mundelein in 2013. In every instance he not only knew me but asked about specific things in my life and told me of his prayer for me. He watched what I was doing in ecumenism and celebrated it, encouraged it and prayed for it as a friend to me and servant of Christ. What I saw in him is “intellectual charity.” He could have bested me in every way with his mind but he used his great intellect with charity and served me so that he could serve our Lord Jesus Christ! It is this that I remember today about my friend.
Rest in peace dear brother. You will be missed by all who knew you. You were loved by thousands of people, not just because you were a giant in our midst but because you loved so deeply. Your love for me had a profound impact upon my life and our dialogue at Wheaton that night was the “turning point” in my work, opening doors that I never expected to open in my life and ministry. I am eternally in your debt my dear friend.