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Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin

Didn't He Show Us the Way?

He was a man of enormous contributions and accomplishments for our Church. But it might be the events at the end of his life that leave the deepest impression.

By John Bookser Feister



New Priorities
The Change
Final Good-byes

Good-bye, Joseph
An Instrument of Peace
Enduring Actions
Personal Memories

A ny 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 life.

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.

If there were a Mt. Rushmore for U.S. religious figures, said more than one observer after his death, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin would surely be included.

To understand 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.

New Priorities

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."

During 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.

In 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.

He visited his mother daily in her nursing home.

He 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.)

He led, during his final year, a U.S. bishops' committee figuring out how to reorganize and streamline the workings of the 400-member national body.

He joined a Washington, D.C., protest against partial-birth abortion.

He visited and prayed with a prisoner on Death Row.

He flew to Italy to discuss business with the pope and to visit his immigrant-parents' families.

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."

Instead, 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 son.

"He 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."

In 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?"

Velo, 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.

In 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.

He became archbishop of Cincinnati in 1972, and within two years was elected president of the national bishops' conference.

Archbishop 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.

It 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.

In 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.

At 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.

The Change

Perhaps 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.

It 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 at length.

"His 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, says Velo.

Then came the 1995 news of cancer, and news of its return last August.

Archbishop 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."

Does 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 into."

Msgr. 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."

Bernardin 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.

Enduring Actions

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.

During 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.

And 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."

It 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.

Plans 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.

What 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?

Final Good-byes

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.

A 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.

Freida 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."

Personal Memories

And what was it that had brought me to Holy Name Cathedral for the third time in 15 years?

My 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.

Less 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.

But 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.

I remembered 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.

Good-bye, Joseph

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?

John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication and coauthor of Radical 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.
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