George Cardinal Mundelein (1872-1939): Inspiring Seminarians 80 Years After His Death

by on October 2, 2019

When Mundelein Seminary hosted American bishops for a USCCB retreat last January, on a campus built by Cardinal George Mundelein, many of our Catholic leaders took a moment to pay their respects at his tomb. Located beneath the altar of repose in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the Cardinal’s placement is appropriate for the foundation he laid for thousands of future priests. Cardinal Mundelein, whose legacy would inspire not just our campus, but the surrounding town to take his name, was a trailblazer and community leader whose influence is still clearly visible today, 80 years since he died.

A seminarian in 1939 memorialized the Cardinal, saying, “We, the future priests of the Archdiocese, owe to the third Archbishop our gratitude for Quigley, St. Mary of the Lake, the Villa (in Wisconsin) and the countless opportunities and advantages which he freely bestowed on us…More precious than all these gifts, however, is the motive which begot them. They came to us from a paternal heart. They sprang from a generous heart. Above all, they arose from the heart of a true priest.”

Indeed, it was Cardinal Mundelein’s intrepid character as Chicago’s first cardinal-shepherd that built the seminary that would eventually bear his name. And his fearlessness in the face of uncertain and difficult times, I think, can be instructive for clerics and would-be clerics today, times which are similarly uncertain and difficult. “Nolite timere,” or “Do not be afraid” — Jesus’ words to the Apostles so many times in the Gospels — was not the episcopal motto of Cardinal Mundelein, though perhaps it should have been. But there’s a reason those words were chosen to adorn the house chapel in the Theology Residence at Mundelein Seminary.

A young 22 when he was ordained a priest, George Mundelein was only 36 when he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn (the youngest bishop in the country), and just 43 when appointed archbishop of Chicago (again, the youngest archbishop). Bold, and not a little headstrong, he arrived in his new see, survived an assassination attempt before even being installed and promptly promised to put the city on the map.

Within months, he came up with the idea that would surround seminarians and bishops nearly 100 years later: a lakeside campus that he wanted to become the Catholic University of America of the West. The nation’s bishops declined, however — the Church already had a national university — so Mundelein decided to go at it alone, making the University of Saint Mary of the Lake a place of his own to train, form and prepare a homegrown generation of priests to serve his burgeoning archdiocese and beyond.

Mundelein’s fearlessness and audacity were certainly apt for the era, for anti-Catholic sentiment was on the rise in the United States, especially the notion that it was not possible to swear allegiance to the American flag and to the pope. Mundelein built his retort to that ignorant perspective right into the bricks of this campus, choosing an architectural style that looks distinctly American, but which is also proudly Catholic. And he fearlessly sparred with an upstart politician in his ancestral home of Germany, calling Adolf Hitler in 1937 nothing more than “an Austrian paper hanger, and a poor one at that,” drawing the Führer’s ire as a result.

By the time he welcomed hundreds of thousands of people to the seminary campus for the culminating event of the 28th International Eucharistic Exposition in 1926, he had already accomplished his goal of raising Chicago’s stature and renown. But he did the same for the Catholic faith, refusing to mix apologies with apologetics, and unabashedly proclaiming the Church to be a source of Truth.

As his successor, Cardinal Francis George, would write decades later, “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.”

Today, 80 years since the day he died, and as the Church is challenged with a similar moment of necessity, I think Cardinal Mundelein’s example reminds us all — bishops, priests, seminarians and lay people — of Jesus’ call: “Do not be afraid!” May we, like him, never shy from being bold in preaching the Gospel, audacious in witnessing God’s truth and fearless in evangelizing Christ wherever he calls us to serve