On May 11th Chicago Archbishop Francis Cardinal George paid a visit to the young men, parents, staff and Alumni of Leo High School. It was the first visit by Chicago's Archbishop since 1926, when George Cardinal Mundelein dedicated, blessed and consecrated the school's corner-stone situated on the northeast corner of the school at 79th & Peoria.
Cardinals Stritch, Meyer and Cody never dropped by for a chat with the Lions. More hurtful than no visit was the fact that all financial subsidies to Leo High School from the Archdiocese of Chicago ended during the last years of Cardinal Cody's episcopate. Subsidies were cash grants determined by the size and needs of school. The last subsidy amounted to about $ 80, 000 in 1981. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wanted to close Leo when the Irish Christian Brothers pulled out in 1991, only to be challenged by this school's fiercely loyal and dedicated Alumni bulled into action by the heroic Bob Foster, the school's first lay-Principal and later President. Foster and the Leo Family was told ' You are on your own' in no uncertain terms. Leo flourished through the 1990's and bounded into the New Millennium with robust Alumni and private financial support.
Just before the new century, Cardinal Bernardin died and the Catholic Church itself was rocked by scandal universal. During Cardinal Bernardin's stewardship, Catholic school and church closings became as common as a politicians lies.The Big Shoulders Fund was organized to help Catholic schools in the inner city of Chicago ion Bernardin's watch. Leo men like Andy McKenna '47 and Frank Considine '39 help their Church by bringing Catholic and Jewish civic and business leaders to work with Jim O'Connor and the Big Shoulders Fund. The Catholic Church in Chicago, as elsewhere struggled and Cardinal Bernardin went home to Christ. The first Chicago born and bred Archbishop succeeded the beloved Cardinal Bernardin - Francis George of the Oblates of Mary Immaculata.
Cardinal Bernardin closed schools and churches to strengthen the Archdiocese of Chicago financially, but the Faith lost the foundations of Faith - parishes and schools. Archbishop George was determined to maintain Chicago's Catholic identity, vitality and viability. His task was much more difficult. No more closings, meant greater sacrifices. These sacrifices were asked in a climate of unprecedented hostility to religion from the Chicago media and the secularist national culture which made every opportunity to shout about scandal, an opportunity to shame faith itself.
Cardinal George and Leo High School were on their own. Cardinal George received nothing but hostility from the newspapers, and the electronic media while he fought to nit only maintain Catholic education but push it beyond mere academic success. Cardinal George faced the rise of Charter Schools developed by the brilliant Paul Vallas to ape the superficial aspects of Catholic education - school dress, dedication to mission (Charter), academic flexibility due to freedom from the teachers unions, and accountability. Charter schools more often than not operated on the sites of closed Catholic schools. Charter Schools are Public Schools -funded by the State and absent of God.
Cardinal George made Catholic schools more Catholic and more successful. Yet, he was on his own as far as the once Catholic Chicago secular culture was and remains concerned.
Cardinal George visited Leo on May 11th. Chicago television covered the visit and the Cardinal's chat to our family. This visit coincided with President Obama's support of Gay Marriage and the Cardinal's public defense of marriage between a man and a woman managed to wedge its way into the story. The Cardinal immediately engaged Jack Schaller, who hosted the Cardinal and Father Dan Flens at the historical Scahller's Pump on Halsted and the crowd of Leo leaders and luminaries in President Dan McGrath's office.
The real story is this - before the Cardinal's arrival several of the guys asked how they should address the leader of the Archdiocese. President McGrath informed them that the most common form of address would be to greet the Cardinal as " Your Eminence." Eminence is not a word that gets featured very much in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Dan told them that the Cardinal title is an honorific. Bishop is the real position, but core Francis George is a priest -"Father would be Okay."
Francis George is a priest. After personally shaking hands and chatting with every graduating senior from the Class of 2012, offering a simple and beautiful lesson to scores of tough but fragile inner city teenagers - mostly African American Protestants, Muslims a very few Catholics and five Mexican and one Irish American Catholic from Canaryville - and being made a Leo Alumnus by Dan McGrath, Mike Holmes, Mike Anderson, Ken Mason, Bernie Pepping , Jackie Schaller, Dick Landis and Bob Sheehy, Cardinal George and I had a chance to talk.
We talked about one freshman who was on thinnest layer of ice at Leo - tall handsome, street-smart, self-dumb, talented, athletic, lonely and tormented kid. This young man had been abandoned by his mother and somehow survived a succession of seven foster families before he was fifteen years old. He is a damaged soul who first impulse is rage. He is challenge to younger teachers and a few veterans. His button gets punch with " Why are you late? Pull up your Pants! Take that hat off! Sit down!" His dial is always set in rage range that goes from One immediately to Ten -" #$% You, Bitch!" & etc. Can't have that.
All year every person drawing pay at Leo has had a run-in or a counselling session ( I have had MORE than few chin-wags with my young friend). I see real promise in this kid, but life has really done some crucial damage to his heart and soul. He is self-destructive in his sense of self preservation. Cardinal George offered to counsel the young man personally. The Cardinal said, " Let's arrange a talk between J_____ and me."
The following week this planned session was halted by the actions of the kid. J_________ finally overplayed his hand. The ice cracked and the young man did something completely unacceptable, Leo could no longer help him.
Close on the heels of the expulsion, Cardinal George checked in and wanted to schedule a chat with the boy. I reported the problem to the Cardinal. "Our guy is expelled."
That priest is not finished. We protected the school in expelling the kid. The guy from St. Paschal's Parish on the north side -The priest who became a bishop and then was conferred the honorific of Cardinal is now a Leo Alumnus. is not finished with the one we could not help. The Cardinal, a real priest, checked in.