The Cardinal I Never Knew: George Mundelein

Last week saw the second anniversary of my being named a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II. The day passed quietly, but it was for me a moment to consider the office itself and to think a bit about my predecessors, especially one who was styled, “the first Cardinal of the West.”

Cardinals trace their office back to the early days of the public organization of the diocese of Rome, after the era of persecution came to an end in the fourth century. Special assistants to the Pope in Rome had been called Cardinals already in the second century and, with the end of government persecution, the title began to be used for the pastors of the major Roman parishes. The College of Cardinals took on its present structure in the early ninth century and gradually developed into a body that not only advised the Pope on local matters but also became a kind of senate of the Church and an electoral college, with the responsibility of choosing the Bishop of Rome. In the late twelfth century, Popes began naming cardinals outside Italy. Each was given “title” to a church in Rome itself, no matter the diocese he served in some other part of the world. Every Cardinal is part of the clergy of Rome, at the service of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

Over the centuries, the office took on trappings of honor and royalty, with the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 and the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 giving Cardinals the status in international law of princes of ruling houses. Since there aren’t too many ruling houses around these days, much of the more elaborate dress and protocol once associated with the office have been mercifully simplified. The task of advising the Pope, usually through serving on committees in the Roman Curia, continues. And, after a Pope dies, the Cardinals assemble from around the world as pastors of the Roman Church in order to elect the Bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter.

Among the six Archbishops of Chicago who have been named Cardinal (including myself), I have heard or spoken to or known in some fashion all but the first, Cardinal Mundelein. He died suddenly in 1939, when I was two years old and still not adequately aware of being Catholic. My sister remembers going on the street car to Holy Name Cathedral with my mother and grandmother to see Cardinal Mundelein’s body lying in state, and my mother kept in her personal prayer book a holy card with his picture. There was also among her effects a small lapel pin, like a political campaign badge, with Mundelein’s face and the words: “We mourn our loss.”

The Catholics of Chicago had reason to mourn the loss of Cardinal Mundelein. He created the modern Archdiocese of Chicago. Born in Brooklyn and a priest and then auxiliary bishop of that New York diocese, he came in 1915, at the beginning of “the American Century”, to a city which still remembered its rising from the ashes of the great fire. Growing like wildfire, Chicago became, in many ways, the typical American city. At 43 the youngest U.S. Archbishop, Mundelein quickly created in Chicago a system of administration and financing which enabled him, even through the years of the First World War and then the Great Depression, to organize Catholic Charities, create the Catholic cemetery system, build parishes and parochial schools, high schools and colleges, and found Quigley Preparatory Seminary and the Archdiocesan major seminary in a town that changed its name to Mundelein. He is buried behind the altar in the seminary chapel. We all live in his shadow; in particular, I live in a house with his paintings, his rugs, his dishes and a huge fireplace with his coat of arms.

Cardinal Mundelein was a great initiator and administrator but also, like any bishop, a teacher of the faith. In 1927, at exactly the halfway point of his years as Archbishop of Chicago and three years after he was named the first Cardinal west of the Allegheny Mountains, he published a book called “Letters of a Bishop to His Flock.” He explained in the preface to this collection of letters and addresses that he had been asked to write an autobiography but had refused. There were, he explained, “really no outstanding events or features in my life...and there is the ever-present danger of taking too much to ourselves the credit for what has been accomplished through us by the Holy Spirit.” But he agreed to publish a collection of his letters to the Catholics of Chicago, because that would furnish “a contribution to the contemporary history of the Catholic Church in Chicago.” The letters did not belong to him but to those to whom they had been written.

What did Cardinal Mundelein write about? There were six groups of letters: nine on Peter’s Pence; nine more on Catholic Charities; nine on Catechectical instruction for Sunday sermons at Low Mass; ten letters on the First World War and its aftermath; three letters and an address on the Eucharistic Congress of 1926; and a last group of letters on various unrelated topics, from a eulogy of Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore to a request to help the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters raise funds for a college for working class women, the original Rosary College which is now Dominican University.

Many letters speak of the plight of children, especially orphans here, in Cook, Will and Grundy counties, and hungry children abroad, in Ireland, Poland, Germany, Austria and Mexico. He wrote about refugees, the education of women, the generosity of religious Sisters, the home and foreign missions, the obligations of family men. In 1922 he used a word we’re hearing about today, “stewardship”, and he said that the opportunity to relieve others’ distress is a “mark of divine favor.” Many times he described the miseries of the poor in a great city and of the Church’s great contribution to the city, especially through Catholic Charities and the Catholic schools. He supported the Red Cross and the Liberty Bond drives during the Great War and commanded a Te Deum at its end.

He wrote of the mysteries of the faith, and instructed his priests to preach on the Creed, the Commandments, the Sacraments and prayer. The Catechetical sermon cycle covered the whole subject matter of the essentials of the faith in three years. Revealed religion, he wrote, both challenges believers, especially in presenting the danger of eternal damnation, and also comforts them. God’s truth is a source of consolation.

What did Cardinal Mundelein sound like? The one tape I’ve heard, a recording of remarks at a dedication of a church, gives him a clear, somewhat high-toned voice. He did not have what we think of as a “Brooklyn” accent, but it was New York, something like the accent of his friend, President Franklin Roosevelt.

What was his personal religious life like, what were his devotions and practices? He evidently had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many of the paintings he collected in Europe were of Mary or pictured scenes of Christ’s nativity, with Jesus’ mother and St. Joseph. The porcelain statues he acquired were all of Mary. The ceiling of the living room in the Cardinal’s villa at Mundelein has the initials AM (Ave Maria) in the plaster work.

Cardinal Mundelein knew the people who looked to him as their bishop and, especially, he knew his priests. He worked to strengthen the Catholic faith by founding and strengthening the institutions of the faith at a moment when that was what was most needed for the mission of the Church. For good or ill, he has been captured by the Chicago myth of “clout”, which is a word we hear more often than “grace”. Friendly cynics, of which Chicago has no dearth, translated Mundelein’s episcopal motto, Dominus adjutor meus (“The Lord is my help”), as “The Lord is my assistant.” The best biography we have of him, a fine piece of work, is called “Corporation Sole,” almost as if it were unique to Mundelein or Chicago to protect the assets of the Church by having the diocesan bishop be recognized, in civil law, as a corporation sole. In fact, over half the Ordinaries in this country are “corporation sole”, wherever the laws of the State admit that form of incorporation.

No matter what he is in civil law, a bishop, even a Cardinal, has to govern according to the canons of the Church. And no matter when or where he governs, a bishop, even a Cardinal, does so aware that Christ will ask him at his death whether or not he loved the people given him to pastor. I hope and I believe Mundelein did. I hope and pray I will too; but the people and the times are different and so are the demands of the mission. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago