Mourners filled the center aisle of Holy Name Cathedral on Tuesday, seeking one final moment with Cardinal Francis George. Some clasped their hands in prayer. Others bowed their heads and made the sign of the cross. One woman kissed the cardinal’s cheek..
The Rev. Peter Armenio pulled a silver crucifix from his pocket and brushed it across the cardinal’s hands, the black beads of a rosary entwined in his fingers. Armenio then slid into a pew and knelt in prayer.”Being very edified by the heroic practice of the Gospel on the part of the cardinal, I thought it was fitting to take my crucifix and lay it on his hand as a gesture of faith in his holy life,” said Armenio, the Midwest vicar for Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic movement. “He was a holy man.”
Tuesday marked the start of funeral rites for George, with a series of public and private events leading up to a funeral Mass and burial Thursday.
Family members gathered at Gibbons Family Funeral Home earlier in the day Tuesday for a more intimate memorial. They later filled the five front pews in the cathedral.
George’s sister Margaret Mary Cain said while greeting other mourners that she would hear from her brother at least three times a week. On the morning he died, she had just returned home to Grand Rapids, Mich., after a two-week stay and spoke with him by phone.
“I will be all right,” she told him, knowing he had worried about her since her husband died last year. “You go with God.”
“I won’t have that voice calling me anymore,” she added. “He was a great brother that way — all his life.”
The cardinal’s casket traveled from the funeral home through the Portage Park neighborhood and down Byron Street, where he was raised. Children came out of his grade school alma mater and boyhood parish, St. Pascal, to greet the motorcade as it rolled by.
At Holy Name, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich and other clergy received George’s casket just inside the cathedral’s bronze doors after it was brought in by priests recently ordained by George. Monsignor Dan Mayall, rector of the cathedral, sprinkled it with holy water before auxiliary bishops draped it with a white cloth symbolizing the garment Catholics receive when they are baptized into the church.
Cupich led the casket up the center aisle for the last time as family members filed in behind it.
Though a homily is rarely delivered at the liturgy called Rite of Reception, Mayall said an exception was made for the cardinal. He took the opportunity to give a stern lecture to those in the pews, reminiscent of the cardinal speaking to reporters.
“Don’t get the story wrong,” Mayall said. “We are not here to canonize the cardinal. And we certainly are not here to condemn him. But we are here to commend him to the Lord.”
He also gave a light-hearted nod to the cardinal’s early days in the archdiocese, when priests dubbed him “Francis the Corrector.”
“Does that mean the cardinal has gone to heaven?” Mayall said. “I knew Cardinal George well enough to be certain that if I were to make such a definite statement, he might jump out of that casket right now and scold me.”
After the service, the pall and lid of the casket were removed so family, friends and parishioners could pay respects. Two honor guards will be stationed at the head of the casket at all times throughout the two-day visitation period.”We have two days worth of prayer to accomplish our task,” Mayall said. “Then we will take him out of his cathedral for the last time. If you tell all that the story ends there, you will have the story all wrong. But if you believe that we, his church, are taking him to the way, the truth and the life that he knew so well and which goes on forever, then you will have the story gracefully correct.”
More than 200 people lined the sidewalk before the ceremony on the blustery, raw spring day, wrapping around the corner of State Street and Chicago Avenue. Chicago police, including those on mounted patrol, stood watch near the church entrance.
About a dozen sophomores and the principal from Leo High School got in line hours before the ceremony began.
“He was a nice guy and he made everyone feel like he wasn’t a celebrity, he was just one of us,” said Aamir Holmes, 16, who met George about a year ago at the school. “I know he meant a lot to the city.”
Principal Philip Mesina said he never will forget the cardinal’s kindness.
“He was the nicest man one could ever meet,” Mesina said. “You didn’t even feel like you were talking to a cardinal, or someone high up in the church. It was like talking to someone from Chicago, a regular guy.”
John Gora, who showed up at dawn to be first in line, clutched a page from his photo album, which held pictures of him and his late sister with George. Gora, a parishioner at St. Pascal, met George at the church about 20 years ago.
“Our parish was extremely proud of him,” said Gora, 52. “He was very outgoing and a very friendly guy. I loved him and respected him. He was a local boy done good.”