day now Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin's final book, The Gift of
Peace, will show up in bookstores. Finishing the manuscript a
week before his November 14 death, he hoped to teach the Church what
he had learned from the experience of suffering and forgiveness, and
from letting go at the end of life. Yet even his own writing will
provide only a glimpse of this man who did so much and was so much
for the Catholic Church in our country and beyond. There is no way
to sum up neatly the multifaceted legacy of Cardinal Bernardin's earthly
Of course we
remember his inspiring struggle with false accusation and forgiveness,
then his saintly encounter with cancer and death. But those events
could be seen as the crown of a lifetime of other achievements: his
years developing and organizing the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops and some of its key programs; his voluminous writings and
countless actions in the service of Catholic moral teaching, Christian-Jewish
relations and ecumenism, world peace, social justice and more; his
shepherding of two archdioceses; his mediating role between the U.S.
hierarchy and the Vatican.
were a Mt. Rushmore for U.S. religious figures, said more than one
observer after his death, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin would surely
more fully Joseph Bernardin's contributions, St. Anthony Messenger
attended one of the three days of public mourning in Chicago last
November and interviewed two key people in his life: Msgr. Kenneth
Velo, who was Bernardin's closest friend and aide during his Chicago
years, and Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Bernardin's Cincinnati
auxiliary who followed Bernardin as archbishop of Cincinnati and
eventually, like Bernardin, was elected president of the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops. We also talked briefly with Msgr.
Philip Murnion, a New York priest who helped the cardinal organize
a program close to the cardinal's heart in his final months: the
Catholic Common Ground Project. Later in this article we will hear
from each of these. But first we paint in broader strokes.
A man's final
acts can tell much about him, especially when he knows he soon will
die. Upon learning of his pancreatic cancer less than two years ago,
knowing the odds that it would kill him, Cardinal Bernardin could
have retired for health reasons. He could have moved to a retreat
center or to a climate milder than Chicago's. Instead, he delegated
all but the most crucial administrative tasks and refocused his priestly
ministry. He told his cabinet of advisers that he had a new priority:
"to spend time with the sick and the troubled."
his final year he became, in his words, the "unofficial chaplain"
to Chicago cancer patients. In a 1995 interview with his friend
and biographer, Eugene Kennedy, the cardinal described how people
responded when he visited the wake of a young man who had died tragically:
"As I arrived and when I left," Bernardin said, "people
slipped me notes with the names of friends and relatives suffering
from cancer. I'm trying to get in touch with these people. Today
I've already made nine calls to talk with the sick. I've also sent
out several other notes. I've been in touch with people of all ages
and backgrounds." Kennedy likened it to the lives of the saints,
how people spontaneously sought out the prayers, guidance, help,
any proximity to those they considered holy. Cardinal Bernardin
kept up that ministry until he was too sick to continue.
his final year he devoted much time to organizing the Catholic Common
Ground Project, hoping to leave behind a way for Catholics to come
together and work out their differences while standing on the bedrock
of their common faith.
visited his mother daily in her nursing home.
finished the manuscript for The Gift of Peace as well as
a number of other smaller writing projects, including the Afterword
to a collection of his many writings and speeches since 1983 on
Jewish-Catholic relations. (That book, A Blessing to Each Other,
arrived from the printer in time to be presented to Jewish leaders
at a "Jewish farewell" service at Holy Name Cathedral
during the three days of funeral services.)
led, during his final year, a U.S. bishops' committee figuring out
how to reorganize and streamline the workings of the 400-member
joined a Washington, D.C., protest against partial-birth abortion.
visited and prayed with a prisoner on Death Row.
flew to Italy to discuss business with the pope and to visit his
final public act was writing a "friend of the court" letter
to the U.S. Supreme Court, promoting the pro-life effort against
physician-assisted suicide. (The court is currently considering
crucial test cases from Washington and New York states.) "There
can be no such thing as a 'right to assisted suicide,'" Bernardin
wrote, "because there can be no legal and moral order which
tolerates the killing of innocent human life...." And he wrote,
"I am at the end of my earthly life....[A]s one who is dying
I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life....I urge
the court not to create any right to assisted suicide."
Cardinal Bernardin sought to embrace death as a natural part of
life. In the spirit of St. Francis, to whom he had deep devotion,
he stood in front of TV cameras and called death his friend. World-renowned
advice columnist Ann Landers was among the few of his closest friends
and family called to his bedside at the end: "He somehow made
us all less afraid to die," she wrote. Before he slipped into
a coma, he received phone calls of farewell both from Pope John
Paul II and from President Bill Clinton.
An Instrument of Peace
It was another person at the bedside of Cardinal Bernardin who gave
the homily at his funeral Mass. Forty-nine-year-old Msgr. Kenneth
Velo was more than a friend to Bernardin; their relationship was
considered by those closest to them almost as that of father and
was a friend, and he was a companion," Msgr. Velo told St.
Anthony Messenger. "He was someone who watched television
in my room late in the evening, someone with whom I offered the
Eucharist, someone with whom I had countless meals. More than being
a Church leader, I found him to be very companionable."
his funeral homily, broadcast nationally and beyond via cable TV,
Velo charted out the contributions of Cardinal Bernardin using the
Peace Prayer of St. Francis as a guide. At every turn in Bernardin's
career, Velo would begin, "Lord, make me an instrument of your
peace." And when he ended each section, he would ask, "Didn't
he teach us? Didn't he show us the way?"
head of the Catholic Church Extension Society, spoke of the milestones
of Bernardin's career, from his 1928 birth to Italian immigrants
in Columbia, South Carolina, through his 45-year career as priest
and bishop. It was in the predominantly Baptist American South that
Bernardin learned ecumenism.
1968 Bishop Bernardin was appointed the first general secretary
(director of staff) of the relatively new National Conference of
Catholic Bishops. There he began to make his mark as a man who could
bring diverging points of view together toward a common purpose.
He also was instrumental, in 1969, in founding one of the conference's
most influential and successful programs, the anti-poverty Campaign
for Human Development.
became archbishop of Cincinnati in 1972, and within two years was
elected president of the national bishops' conference.
Daniel E. Pilarczyk remembers well Bernardin's contribution to the
bishops' body as its third president. "He put it in order,"
says Pilarczyk. "I think after seven or eight years it had
become very clear that the conference would not work if it continued
to be run as a kind of friendly gathering of 'old boys.' It was
too complicated. Bernardin got in and, at the request of the bishops,
got process into the meetings." Pilarczyk describes the shift
as bringing the U.S. bishops' conference from adolescence to adulthood.
was during his Cincinnati years that Archbishop Bernardin oversaw
the drafting of the landmark pastoral letter The Challenge of
Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. In it the bishops restate
Church teaching that the slaughter of innocent civilians--and thus,
almost any use of nuclear weapons--is immoral. Midstream in the
controversial task of drafting revisions, Pope John Paul II named
Bernardin, age 54, archbishop of Chicago. Time magazine featured
him on its cover with the headline "God and the Bomb."
Six months after naming him Chicago's archbishop, the pope elevated
Joseph Bernardin to the College of Cardinals, on January 5, 1983.
The nation's bishops adopted the peace pastoral in May of that year.
December of 1983, giving a speech at Fordham University, Cardinal
Bernardin introduced a pro-life concept that sought to bring people
together across the board in defense of human life. His "seamless
garment" or "consistent ethic of life" concept brought
Cardinal Bernardin under heavy attack from some. They felt it diluted
the anti-abortion focus of the pro-life movement by introducing
opposition to the death penalty, nuclear war and social policies
that cause poverty. But Bernardin's language eventually made it
into Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life,
the definitive statement of the Catholic pro-life position.
times in his career he served on key Vatican bodies, including the
Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship. His contributions
to the life of the Church in Chicago--and some of the local controversies--are
stories in themselves.
Cardinal Bernardin would be remembered most for these admirable,
if somewhat impersonal, tasks if the events of 1993 had not happened.
On the eve of the U.S. bishops' national gathering, Cable News Network
(CNN) broadcast a dramatic accusation that, years back, Cardinal
Bernardin and another priest had molested a former seminarian in
Cincinnati. People worldwide were shocked, whether they believed
the implausible story or not. Within four months Bernardin's name
was cleared, and a few months after that he met with his accuser
and prayed with him: "For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,"
Msgr. Velo reminded us during his funeral homily.
was the accusation and what followed that changed everything, says
Msgr. Velo in our interview. First of all, Bernardin knew he was
innocent, and was thus most concerned about the man making the accusation:
"The [accuser's] lawyer and a few other people were ruthless,"
says Velo. Bernardin went before the media openly, honestly and
stature rose because of the way he had offered forgiveness and the
way he handled it," says Velo. "I remember traveling around
with him in the city. There was a marked difference. We could hardly
walk down the street without people wanting to get to know him better,
wanting to stop him, wanting to congratulate him, being impressed
by him." This happened even during Bernardin's visits to Rome,
came the 1995 news of cancer, and news of its return last August.
Pilarczyk predicts that a century from now the Catholic faithful
will remember Bernardin most for the way he rose above the events
of his final years: "To say that somebody was a good administrator
and loved his people and served the Church, those are all wonderful
qualities....Bernardin had them all in large quantities and used
them well. But I think that what people are going to remember is
that he was falsely accused, he forgave, he reconciled, he got sick,
he bore his sickness with Christian patience and he died a holy
death. That's the unusual part."
he think Bernardin was holy enough to be canonized? "I don't
think that's impossible by any means," he says. "That's
not for me to judge, but I think that's going to have to be looked
Velo says Bernardin would not have wanted to be canonized--"he
would understand his human limitations. But I think he had wonderful
attributes and qualities, many of them that really emanated from
his own personal spirituality and understanding of his faith."
carried the Peace Prayer of St. Francis in his suit pocket and quoted
it frequently, recalls Velo. "I always felt that it was his
favorite prayer," says the man who prayed with him the most.
"He had sort of a Franciscan spirit," says Velo, and made
a point of celebrating the Feast of St. Francis annually. Bernardin
had close ties to the Franciscans during his early years in Washington,
even being officially inducted into the Holy Name Province of Friars
Minor in 1972. A Francis statue, in fact, was one of a few items
on the end table in his study where Bernardin prayed his daily office.
The Archdiocese of
Chicago handed out more than 100,000 prayer cards to people who stood
in line to pay respect to Cardinal Bernardin as he lay in state at
Holy Name Cathedral last November. There were times when the line
extended out the back doors and five solid blocks from the cathedral.
Msgr. Velo and Archbishop Pilarczyk, both of whom rode in the 100-car
funeral procession, reported a solid line of people, sometimes six
or seven deep, all along the 20-mile route from cathedral to cemetery.
"They were waving and throwing flowers," recalls Velo.
the mourning period, two ceremonies stand out because they were
for people not of Bernardin's fold. Any bishop might expect a funeral
well-attended by other bishops, priests, leading Catholics and civic
leaders. But who would expect the Jewish leaders in the city to
hold a memorial service for a Catholic cardinal as they did for
Bernardin? "Never in the history of our world has an observance
such as this taken place," commented Rabbi Herman Shaalman,
past president of the Council of Religious Leaders, as he paid tribute
to his friend with whom he had traveled to the Holy Land in 1994.
There the Catholic and Jewish pilgrims had taken turns participating
in ceremonies at each other's holy places.
there were two commemorations by leaders of other Christian denominations.
As I talk on the subway with the Rev. Jeff Nichols, a United Church
of Christ leader who represented his denomination at the daytime
service, a common Bernardin theme comes forward: "He could
listen to people and make you believe that you were being heard
and taken seriously, even if you didn't necessarily believe that
he was going to come around to your point of view."
was that type of listening within his own Catholic community that
Cardinal Bernardin wanted to see. Will his Catholic Common Ground
dream take place without him? "The enormous enthusiasm that
was generated by the initial announcement continues to come to us
in letters and calls," says Msgr. Murnion, director of the
National Pastoral Life Center that staffs Catholic Common Ground.
are still under way for a series of town hall-type dialogue forums,
the first one in Chicago, during the first half of this year. Murnion
notes that the initiative was never Bernardin's alone, but he did
provide a vision for the group: "Part of his gift was to look
for what's the best possible consensus we can reach, that doesn't
just settle for what already exists, but moves us ahead to what
is possible. He was so open to anybody's ideas, to really testing
ideas for their value to the Church." The Common Ground committee,
consisting of Catholic laity and hierarchy from across the spectrum,
including Archbishop Pilarczyk, will conduct the dialogues.
is the legacy of Cardinal Bernardin? Those who resist the renewal
of Vatican II probably won't miss him much. For Joseph Bernardin imbibed
deeply the Spirit that overtook our Church in the 1960's and opened
the windows. He was the man who repeated often the biblical words
of Pope John XXIII to the Jewish people, "I am Joseph, your brother."
He was the man who not only supported charity, but also was charitable
and just in person. Didn't he teach us what it means to be peacemaker?
Didn't he show us the way to be Church in the modern world?
By Judy Ball
We all had our reasons
for being at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral last November 18-and for
choosing to say our final good-byes to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in
the wee hours of the morning. What we lacked in numbers--there were
no more than 200 of us at any point during my two-hour stay--we made
up for in variety.
Chicago policeman still on duty at 4 a.m., Jim Sadkowski, had come
to pay his last respects to a man he admired for his unwavering faith
and "the tremendous way he faced death." David Vickner,
who would typically be getting ready to jog at that hour, felt drawn
to the cathedral to say a prayer for "the best man that ever
walked in shoe leather," next to his own father.
Shepherd, a receptionist with the local Church of Scientology, had
only encountered Cardinal Bernardin on TV, but those experiences convinced
her that he "was inspired by the Lord and in the Lord."
Poor health had prevented Claudman Bourgeoise from joining the long
lines outside the cathedral during the day and late into the wintry
night, but it did not stop him from rising early to come and pray
for "an honest, everyday guy who made you feel comfortable to
be around him." Cradling the memorial card he had just received,
Josť Favela looked intently into the face of the man who "taught
people to live their faith to the fullest and to embrace it as a gift."
And what was it that
had brought me to Holy Name Cathedral for the third time in 15 years?
first two visits were for decidedly uplifting occasions. In August
of 1982, I had traveled from Cincinnati for the installation of Joseph
L. Bernardin as the new archbishop of Chicago. While the Church of
Cincinnati was losing its revered archbishop, I was saying good-bye
to an employer and a friend. Just two years earlier, he had entrusted
to me the editorship of our archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic
Telegraph, and given me the honor of being the first woman to
hold that position. As our work relationship grew, so did my esteem
for a visionary Church leader, a holy priest, a supportive boss, a
warm and sensitive human being.
than six months later, in February of 1983, I was back at the cathedral
to join the throngs who welcomed their new cardinal who had just returned
from the consecration ceremony in Rome.
what called me back to Chicago in November 1996 was a heavy heart.
As I stood before the casket of Cardinal Bernardin and then returned
to my pew to continue my prayers for him, I recalled a man who had
shown all of us the face of holiness. But I also reminisced about
a man who never wavered in his personal and professional trust, teased
me about inheriting my Irish forebears' sentimentality and reached
out to help following a sudden, tragic family death.
a man who met with presidents and kings and popes but who always
made me feel he had enough time in his day for another telephone
call, visit or question from me. I remembered the man I kissed on
the cheek just before he became the archbishop of Chicago. My favorite
Catholic Telegraph photo of him, taken at the end of his
tenure in Cincinnati, even came to mind: smiling, relaxed, dressed
in a sports shirt and wearing a Chicago White Sox hat with a Cubs
pennant in the background. His Cincinnati priests had given him
all the politically correct gear he would need in his new archdiocese.
The untold thousands
of us who came to pay our last respects to Joseph L. Bernardin last
November all felt some kind of connection to this unassuming churchman.
How could we not return
to the cathedral where he had begun his service to the Church of Chicago
and captured the hearts and souls of a new archdiocese and, in many
ways, a nation? How could we not make one more journey to Holy Name
Cathedral to say good-bye, thank you and shalom to our brother Joseph?
Feister is an assistant editor of this publication and coauthor of
Grace: Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr. Judy Ball is managing
editor of Millennium Monthly, a new publication from St. Anthony
Messenger Press. She and John each have master's degrees in humanities
from Xavier University. John H. White's photos from This Man Bernardin
appear courtesy of Loyola Press.