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Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

The last days and final hours...


It was Bishop Raymond Goedert, vicar general of the Chicago archdiocese and a close aide to the cardinal, who emerged from his residence shortly after 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, to announce that Bernardin had died in peace at 1:33 a.m.

"Brother Joseph is at peace," Goedert said. "He has begun a new life."

A weakened Bernardin, who lived so much of his life in the public eye, stayed in seclusion during the last two weeks of his life, seeing few people, in his Chicago lakefront residence.

On his last day, he spoke by phone to the pope and to President Clinton, while his sister and close friends sat at his bedside.

Among those with him in the last hours of his life were his only sibling, Elaine Addison, who traveled from her South Carolina home last weekend; Goedert, who has been handling the archdiocese's day-to-day operations and Msgr. Kenneth Velo, a longtime aide and friend.

Immediately after his death, the archdiocese began to focus on funeral preparations. Following tradition, Bernardin's body was to be placed in state, almost certainly at Holy Name Cathedral, after this NCR issue went to press.

After a public mourning, Bernardin's funeral was to be held at the cathedral Nov. 20. He was to be entombed at the Bishop's Mausoleum at Chicago's Mount Carmel Cemetery.

The day before his death, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, flying from Washington where he participated in the annual meeting of U.S. bishops, visited and said Mass with Bernardin. Shortly before, at 2:30 p.m., Pope John Paul II called from Rome and spoke with Bernardin.

An archdiocesan spokesman said the pope "expressed his hope that the cardinal would offer his suffering for the well-being of the Chicago area and the United States."

Hours earlier, Clinton called and told the cardinal that "he and Hillary love the cardinal very much," the spokesperson said.

Following Bernardin's death, Pope John Paul expressed his sadness, saying the church had lost a generous and devoted pastor.

In a telegram sent to the archdiocese, the pope praised the prelate's long years of service to the church and the dignity he showed in his battle with cancer. The pope said he joined in commending Bernardin's "noble soul to the eternal love of almighty God, who in his providence never fails to raise up wise and holy men to shepherd his people."

The pope said he was confident that all who knew the cardinal would be inspired to greater fidelity to Christ and the gospel. He said the cardinal had shown "dignity and hope in the face of the mystery of suffering and death." He cited the cardinal's "devoted service" at a priest in his native Charleston, S.C., and as archbishop in Cincinnati and Chicago; his "untiring work" as general secretary and president of the U.S. bishops' conference; and his "generous cooperation with the Holy See."

The two men met last in late September during a farewell visit to Rome by the ailing cardinal.

At the U.S. bishops' meeting in Washington, Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, president of the bishops' conference, told the bishops at their Wednesday afternoon session of the deteriorating condition of Bernardin's health. Pilla led the bishops in prayer, asking God "to love our dying brother and make him one with your Son."

As the four-day meeting opened in Washington Nov. 11, Pilla read a handwritten message from the cardinal, in which the prelate asked his brother bishops to pray "that God will give me the strength and grace I need each day."

As head of the Ad Hoc Committee on Mission and Structure, Bernardin was to have presented one of the major proposals facing the bishops on this year's agenda -- plans for restructuring the NCCB and its twin, the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Some bishops wondered aloud who, if anybody, among the bishops could take Bernardin's place. "He's been so much a part of the conference," said Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo of Harrisburg, Pa. "It's a sad thing. ... It's a loss for the church because he's a relatively young man (at age 68), filled with energy and a love for the Lord."

"It's certainly a notable absence, isn't it?" said retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. "We all feel it very deeply. There will be no one to take his place. There is no one with his combination of experience."

Bishop John S. Cummins of Oakland, Calif., compared Bernardin to the late Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit, who was the first president of the NCCB after it was formally established in 1966 from the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Cardinal Dearden died in 1988 at age 80 from pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his other organs.

"It's a terrible absence, the poor guy," said Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., of Bernardin. "He's always a factor, a good factor." When it came to bringing people together, "he was a master at that," Daily said.

Even as he prepared to die, Bernardin kept his sights on his mission as a Catholic priest. Only days before his death, he wrote a letter to the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court urging them to reject arguments that a dying person has a right to commit suicide with a physician's help.

"I am at the end of my earthly life," Bernardin wrote. "There is much that I have contemplated these last few months of my illness, but as one who is dying I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life."

The letter was submitted Nov. 12 as part of a friend-of-the-court brief by the Catholic Health Association of the United States. The court will hear arguments early next year on two cases that ask whether the Constitution grants terminally ill patients a right to kill themselves with a physician's help.

Bernardin said that creating a right to assisted suicide would "endanger society and send a false signal that a less than 'perfect' life is not worth living. ... Our legal and ethical tradition has held consistently that suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia are wrong because they involve a direct attack on innocent human life."

Bernardin wrote that he knew from his own experience that patients often face difficult decisions about their care, including whether to continue medical treatment.

But declining further treatment, as he did, is different from taking medication to end a life, he said. "Even a person who decides to forgo treatment does not necessarily choose death," wrote Bernardin, who decided to stop chemotherapy because he wasn't responding to treatment. "Rather, he chooses life without the burden of disproportionate medical intervention."

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996