CHICAGO — Cardinal Francis George was remembered Thursday as a man of deep faith, intellect and compassion as Catholics said their final goodbyes to the man who led the nation's third-largest archdiocese and was known as a vigorous defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.
George also didn't hesitate to speak his mind, even if it was unscripted and, at times, controversial, said Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who delivered the homily at a packed funeral Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral.
"The cardinal's faith was simple, direct, without pretense or embarrassment," Sartain said. "He was so utterly a Christian that no circumstance seemed inappropriate for him to give witness to Christ."
George, a Chicago native, died Friday at age 78, of kidney cancer. He was to be buried Thursday in his family's plot at All Saints Cemetery in nearby Des Plaines.
After being appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1997 to lead the Chicago Archdiocese, George earned a reputation as an intellectual leader and a leading figure in some of the most prominent events in the U.S. Church.
At the height of the abuse crisis in 2002, George led a group of U.S. bishops who persuaded resistant Vatican officials to more quickly oust guilty priests — a policy at the core of reforms meant to restore trust in church leaders. He also oversaw the contentious new English-language translation of the Roman Missal, one of the biggest changes in Catholic worship in generations.
And in his three years as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, George spearheaded opposition to the Affordable Care Act, arguing that the health insurance law would allow taxpayer money to fund abortion. The Chicago archdiocese's charitable arm helped sue the Obama administration in 2012 over the requirement that employers cover the cost of contraception.
George retired last fall before announcing his treatment for kidney cancer had failed. He was replaced by Archbishop Blase Cupich.
Hundreds of clergy from around the country, plus Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner joined lay Catholics at Thursday's services, which followed three days of visitation.
Lolita Slaughter of suburban Bolingbrook said the funeral Mass was "beautiful, and such a great home-going for the cardinal," whom she regarded as a steady and stabilizing force.
"I love the way he led the Church even through the controversies," said Slaughter, 48. "He helped Catholics come together."