Cardinal Francis George, the sixth cardinal to lead Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics, has died after years of battling cancer. He was 78.
"A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord," Archbishop Blase Cupich said Friday, remembering the Cardinal as a respected leader and proud life-long Chicagoan.
George passed away at 10:45 a.m. at his residence, Cupich confirmed.
"He pursued an over-full schedule, always choosing the church over his own comfort and the people over his own needs," Cupich said. "Let us heed his example and be a little more brave, a little more steadfast and a lot more loving. This is the surest way to honor his life and celebrate his return to the presence of God."
A group of Chicago Catholic priests received a text message just after noon about his passing.
"Please add Cardinal George to your prayers today," St. Giles Parish in Oak Park wrote in a post online. "May he rest in eternal peace."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said George "led a remarkable life of faith and service."
“He lent his counsel to those in distress, his comfort to those in despair and he inspired us all with his courage in his final days," Emanuel said. "He could always be counted on to provide those granite qualities to the countless people who relied on them when it mattered the most."
A Chicago native, George was born on the city's West Side to parents Julia and Francis. He attended St. Pascal before leaving the city to attend seminary in high school and pursue his dream of becoming a priest.
"I'd like to think it was a call from God," George recalled to NBC 5. "I started to think about it when I received First Holy Communion."
He was known for his endurance. George contracted polio at age 13, and Chicago's Quigley Seminary rejected him. Instead he joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Despite a leg brace, he was determined to enjoy life.
With the Oblates, George rose through the ranks and was based in Rome for 12 years, traveling the world as their Vicar General.
He returned to Chicago by way of Portland, where he was archbishop, and Yakima, Washington, where he was bishop for five years.
A year after his Chicago appointment, Pope John Paul II elevated George to the College of Cardinals, and in 2007, he became the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"It's a symbolic post," George said in November 2007.
As a cardinal, he played a role in the selection of two popes, Benedict the 16th and Francis, and was known as the go-to American church leader.
"It was necessary to make some changes," he told NBC 5 in March 2013. "The style is the substance."
Difficult church finances forced George to close Catholic schools and lay off staffers. His handling of the priest sex abuse crisis, he told reporters, was a low point, and he admitted he did not fully accept how grave the situation was.
"Things came a little unraveled," he said. "Then you're not quite sure whom can you trust."
He didn't back away from social controversies, though. He opposed Obamacare, met privately with Catholic politicians like Gov. Pat Quinn and spoke out against same-sex marriage.
"Over the years he tangled with Father Michael Pfleger's outspoken style but eventually asked him to be the archdiocese's voice against violence.
"I always had a good relationship with Father Pfleger, but sometimes he says things I can't agree with," George said in 2012.
The cardinal's first bout with cancer came in 2006, in his bladder. The cancer then returned in his kidney and liver in 2012. In early March, he wrote to parishioners that he would begin a more aggressive round of chemotherapy and said, "it will probably eventually be the cause of my death."
Just weeks before celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest, the cardinal spoke of one day meeting the next archbishop of Chicago.
"I would hope that I would meet my successor," George said at the time.
On Sept. 20, he did just that, meeting Spokane's Bishop Blase Cupich, Pope Francis' pick to succeed Cardinal George.
An apartment steps away from Holy Name was ready for the cardinal's retirement, but he never moved in. In his final months, George tried a new clinical trial to fight his cancer.
He will be remembered for enduring a rigorous schedule to the end. Chicago is known as the flagship American diocese, and the changes the Church has witnessed here have often shaped it worldwide.
"I love Chicago, I love being here, but sometimes I don't love everything that happens, nobody does," he said.