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Joseph Cardinal Bernardin


The death of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin Nov. 14 came as no surprise to millions of Americans, especially Chicago's 2.4 million Catholics who had shared his illness and dramatic death watch since June 1995. At that time, the 68-year-old archbishop announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and would undergo complicated surgery and a hopeful recuperation.

The illness was further complicated by several badly deteriorated vertebrae in his lower back, a byproduct of his cancer treatment. He was scheduled for surgery Sept. 16 to relieve the compression on his back.

For nearly 14 months following his surgery, tests showed he was cancer-free, but MRI tests in late August revealed that five large nodules had appeared on his liver. His oncologist, Dr. Ellen Gaynor, a Dominican sister practicing at Loyola University Hospital's Cancer Treatment Center (recently renamed the Bernardin Cancer Treatment Center) informed him that, while surgery was possible, it would be ineffective, and furthermore that he had "a year or less to live."

On Aug. 30, at an emotion-charged news conference, the cardinal announced that his condition was terminal. His handling of the news was widely seen as setting a standard for the way bishops should interact with the media. During 14 years as archbishop of the nation's second largest diocese, he had become renowned for his openness with the press, even when such honesty was painful.

Experienced observers could recall only one comparable example, New York's Cardinal Terence Cooke, who announced in 1983 that he was losing his 20-year battle with leukemia. Cooke died shortly after and is now considered a candidate for canonization.

Bernardin's final months were spent just as he planned and predicted: in loving, compassionate and gentle service. He spent much of his time comforting other terminally ill cancer patients. He came to know many of them during his hospitalization at Loyola. "I felt like a priest again," he said often. In a matter of months, his "congregation" grew to over 600 other sufferers.

Bernardin's biographer and close friend, Eugene Kennedy, has called him "the most influential bishop in the history of the American church."

The 27th American bishop to receive the red hat since 1875 and the first Italian-American to head a major archdiocese, at the time of his death he was the senior active American prelate among the country's more than 350. But his influence far exceeded his seniority. His writing and speaking on national and even global issues caused him to eclipse megabishops of the past such as Baltimore's James Gibbons (1877-1921), Boston's William O'Connell (1907-1944), Chicago's George Mundelein (1915-1939), New York's Francis Spellman (1939-1967) and Bernardin's own mentor, John Dearden of Detroit (1958-1980).

The earlier cardinals were churchmen for their times -- builders and authoritarian princes. Bernardin, who will have no red hat hanging in his memory from the ceiling of his cathedral (Paul VI discontinued the practice), set a new style, one marked more by gentle leadership than authority.

Nationally, Bernardin strongly influenced teaching on pro-life issues, nuclear weapons, the pursuit of peace and equitable economic policy. As a national administrator, he supervised the reorganization of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and was attempting to fine-tune the conference even more at the time of his death. He also served as a patient, consensus-building oil can to the sometimes squeaky machinery of church politics.

As a local ordinary, he developed new models for dealing with the politics of cutback, developing less painful ways of closing churches and schools. He also created models to deal with the even more painful problem of clerical sexual abuse. All the while, he attempted to form new models of dialogue with both priests and laity. While he didn't fully succeed, few bishops could match his example for listening, consulting and building consensus.

The early years

Joseph Louis Bernardin's career path had unlikely origins. Born in Columbia, S.C., on April 2, 1928, he was raised in a city then less than 2 percent Catholic. His parents, Joseph, known as Bepi, and Maria (Simion) Bernardin were from the village of Tonadico in the valley of Primiero, located in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy. The village is so close to Austria that locals consider themselves Austrians although they speak Italian. In fact, Bernardin's father served in the Austro-Hungarian army before immigrating to the United States with his five brothers, all stonecutters.

With two of his brothers, Bepi Bernardin went to Columbia to work in a quarry. He returned to Tonadico with one of his brothers to marry Maria Simion at the church of St. Sebastian. (Bepi's brother married Maria's sister.) The family returned to Columbia but, soon after, the future cardinal's father took ill with cancer. He died in 1934 and Maria Bernardin worked as a seamstress for the Works Projects Administration to support her young family, which included her son and daughter, now Mrs. Elaine Addison of Columbia.

Bernardin attended both Catholic and public elementary schools, public high school, and, for one year, the University of South Carolina, where he was enrolled in a premed program.

Encouraged by classmates, he entered St. Mary's Seminary in Kentucky to study Latin in order to prepare for the major seminary. At St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, he earned a BA (summa cum laude) in philosophy in 1948. In 1952 at Catholic University in Washington, he completed a master of arts in education. His superiors invited him to continue his education in Rome but he refused, largely out of concern for his mother.

On April 26, 1952, he was ordained at St. Joseph's Church in Columbia for the diocese of Charleston. He was assigned to that parish and to a teaching position at Bishop England High School, a school named for the first bishop of Charleston (1820-1842).

Within two years he was moved to the Charleston chancery where he performed a variety of tasks, including superintendent of cemeteries and chaplain to the Citadel.

Within seven years he was named a papal chamberlain (very reverend monsignor), and by 1962 John XXIII had appointed him a domestic prelate (right reverend monsignor).

Advancement in the church relies heavily on a mentoring system, generally supported by connections in Rome. Bernardin became a philosophical and political disciple of the second of four Charleston prelates under whom he served: Bishop Paul Hallinan.

Biographer Kennedy described Hallinan as "a man of great faith and optimism," two traits Bernardin cultivated throughout his priesthood. "Defend the principle," Hallinan would tell him often. It was an axiom that Bernardin would abide by throughout his life. It was the "defense of the principle" that fueled his writings and teachings and kept him from wielding the hammer of episcopal authority.

In 1962, John XXIII appointed Hallinan as the first archbishop of Atlanta. Four years later, Bernardin would follow him there as an auxiliary bishop. He was only 38 and the youngest bishop in the country. ("Walk straight and try not to look too pleased with yourself," his mother cautioned him on the day of his episcopal ordination. It was a story he loved to tell.)

Paul Hallinan's mentor was John Dearden of Detroit, a cardinal who had made a powerful transition from the "Iron John" of Pittsburgh to a cardinal archbishop willing to carry out the mandates of the Second Vatican Council. The three men would occasionally vacation together, sharing prayers and thoughts.

After Hallinan became ill, Bernardin virtually administered the archdiocese until Hallinan's death in 1968. Bernardin did not succeed Hallinan into the rather small (then 35,000; now nearly 200,000 Catholics) archdiocese. The job was filled by Francis E. Hyland through the good graces of New York's Spellman.

By 1968, however, Dearden was named president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He asked that Bernardin be appointed general secretary. Bernardin had declined twice already but this time the pressure was increased.

1968 was also the year Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae appeared and the National Federation of Priests Councils was formed. The encyclical alienated bishops from their pastors and pastors from their flocks. The NFPC used much of its scarce resources to provide support to Washington, D.C., priests who had been suspended for criticizing the encyclical. Bernardin, a loyal churchman, supported the encyclical but did all he could to ease the pain of the quarrel, which saw priests' departures, the resignation of one promising bishop and faculty dismissals from Catholic University of America.

He served in the general secretary's position until 1972, helping to restructure the organization and to add the United States Catholic Conference, the administrative arm of the NCCB, a department that could include lower clergy and laity.

During these years, he became a confidant of literally hundreds of bishops, a man almost famous for his prudence and discretion. One observer marveled that he kept so many confidences and wondered "how Joe could sort them all out." Years later, the cardinal would observe, "I don't know how I got this way. I'm told that my father was very prudent." He also was in a position to advise the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Jean Jadot, on the appointment of more pastoral American bishops.

During his term as general secretary, Bernardin undertook a massive, in-depth study of the priesthood. The psychological aspects were studied by Eugene Kennedy, then a professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago. Sociologist Fr. Andrew M. Greeley examined the sociology of priesthood.

Now nearly 30 years later, some priests claim it was the best study every done, but the nervous bishops did not appear eager to learn -- or reveal -- that much about themselves. The project caused a great deal of controversy and Bernardin had to struggle to maintain the delicate balance.

Bernardin the bishop

In 1972, Bernardin was named archbishop of Cincinnati. He inherited an archdiocese of some 230 parishes and 540,000 Catholics. His predecessors included some old-school triumphalists who led princely lives. Bernardin moved from the episcopal mansion to the seminary and to a small suite. (He also undertook a strict diet, bringing his considerable weight to under 200 pounds and, unlike other dieters, keeping it off for the remainder of his life.)

In 1974, Bernardin was elected to a three-year term as president of the NCCB/USCC, a position he held until 1977. During this time, the 1976 presidential election was held, pitting Jimmy Carter against Gerald Ford. According to Tom Fox, author of Sexuality and Catholicism and editor of NCR, "Gerald Ford agreed with the bishops on abortion and little else, but Jimmy Carter agreed with them on a series of issues, but disagreed with them on abortion."

Speaking for the NCCB, Bernardin called the Democratic Party's platform "irresponsible," even as the Republicans called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions. The dispute led to the impression that the bishops supported a Republican ticket, something Bernardin regretted.

Carter won the presidential election. Although he lasted only one term, the impression that the bishops supported a Republican ticket lasted into the 1990s.

By 1983 Bernardin had succeeded to the archdiocese of Chicago and was made a cardinal. He urged friends not to attend the Rome consistory but to give the travel money to useful causes. In that same year, he had introduced the concept of the "consistent ethic of life." In addition, with his fellow bishops, he had released the pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."

The teacher

The pastoral was Bernardin's best effort. At 45,000 words it was too long, according to some critics, yet it was vintage Bernardin. It grew because he strove for consensus. He wanted to include the sentiments of other bishops who had taken the time to study the document. According to NCR's Fox, the "peace pastoral," as it was called, "offered a conditional approval of the American nuclear arsenal and called for a bilateral halt in the development and deployment of new nuclear weapons."

The pastoral would upset the Reagan administration, which was larded with conservative Catholics. Even before it was released, Reagan operatives had issued seven pages of sharp criticism of the document, without sending a copy to Bernardin. "The Challenge of Peace," however, started a dialogue. It changed the way in which bishops would interact with government. Bishops were no longer invited to the White House to serve as wallpaper. They were moral leaders who deserved to be heard.

John Paul II may have had reservations himself about the peace document. "I never lived under communism," Bernardin would say some years later. "I don't know what it was like." But, in a private audience with Bernardin, the pope gave his approval. Years later, his own encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae would contain trace elements of "The Challenge of Peace," a discovery that would please Bernardin immensely. Those elements were an implicit endorsement of his "consistent ethic of life."

In December 1983 at Fordham University, he explicated the "consistent ethic of life." During the question period, he used the expression "seamless garment," a metaphor that captured the imagination of millions of American Catholics, including at least 23 bishops who were members of Pax Christi, a national organization dedicated to peace issues.

The seamless garment metaphor, though not fully developed, basically holds that all life is sacred. It covers ecological issues, spousal and sexual abuse, mercy killing, capital punishment -- all the issues concerning life. Under Bernardin's guidelines, abortion could no longer stand alone.

The consistent ethic issue caused problems for him, especially from his fellow bishops, some of whom felt that support for the elimination of capital punishment would soften their stand on abortion. While cardinals such as Bernard Law of Boston and John O'Connor of New York were viewed as "single issue" bishops, Bernardin was characterized as soft on abortion and weak-kneed on crime.

Bernardin continued, however, to hold that human life is both sacred and social. "Because we esteem human life as sacred," he explained, "we have a duty to protect and foster it at all stages of development from conception to natural death and in all circumstances. Because we acknowledge that human life is also social, society must protect and foster it."

The go-between

Nationally, few bishops have been called upon more than Bernardin for help with internal problems. His habits of consensus-building and patience were legendary. In one high profile case dating to 1983, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle together with the two other bishops of Washington state had published a paper, "Prejudice against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church," in which they suggested a "rethinking and development" of the issue.

Hunthausen also welcomed Dignity, an organization of some 5,000 Catholic gays and lesbians, to celebrate its biannual convention Mass in Seattle's St. James Cathedral. Hunthausen immediately came under attack and was eventually supplied with an unwanted auxiliary, Bishop Donald Wuerl (now bishop of Pittsburgh), who was designated to take over many of his duties.

When the protests against the Vatican's move grew louder than those directed against Hunthausen, Bernardin, together with New York's O'Connor and San Francisco's Archbishop John Quinn, was asked to mediate the matter. While the prudent cardinal refused to discuss the details, he told this reporter that he had spent eight hours on a single day, attempting to find a solution.

Eventually a consensus was reached. Bishop Thomas J. Murphy of Great Falls-Billings, Mont., was named coadjutor archbishop. Hunthausen retired in 1991, and Wuerl returned to his native Pittsburgh where he was named bishop in 1988. (Ironically, both Murphy, a Chicago native, and Wuerl are being touted as Bernardin's successor.)

Chicago's 12th bishop, seventh archbishop and fifth cardinal inherited an archdiocese in terrible pain. After 17 years of erratic rule by Cardinal John Patrick Cody, a man who viewed priesthood as a career while Bernardin viewed it as a vocation, the archdiocese was in a chaotic condition both physically and emotionally. Cody, his defenders say, had done some positive things, including the implementation of many of the dictates of the Vatican II. He had established a generous pension fund for the clergy and had exhibited a decent record on civil rights.

Further, many of the ailments of the archdiocese were shared by the wider church. Most notably, Chicago was severely hobbled by the loss of over 300 priests through resignations and the paucity of new vocations to replace them. There were population shifts that witnessed major parishes reduced from a dozen standing room only Masses on Sunday to a single Sunday Mass attended by a few hundred people. Mass attendance in the diocese, once nearly 60 percent, had dwindled to some 25 percent.

Bernardin had to restore the morale of a dispirited clergy. It was clear he had a mandate from John Paul II who had informed him personally of his appointment during a Vatican audience less than four months after Cody's death.

Soon after his installation, he presided at a moving liturgy for his priests and, while not criticizing his predecessor, said: "I am your brother Joseph." It was a statement that would be used again and again during his 14 years as archbishop. A similar liturgy was held in early October just before his death. It drew 800 priests, many in tears.

Bernardin soon had to deal with the politics of cutback. He was forced to close or consolidate some 70 churches and 50 schools. Many of the buildings were over a century old. Some had been woefully neglected by frugal or indigent pastors. Contrary to their colorful facades, many had been built rather poorly. Yet, each closing brought painful cries of protest from parishioners who had largely moved away.

Bernardin sympathized with his pastors. "You must support your people," he would say to some who joined the protests outside his office. But the realities of both politics and economics left him few options. Further, the tightly bound structure of canon law made it appear that the cardinal was issuing decrees rather than simply approving a conclusion reached earlier by others.

Some closings were badly handled, sometimes by subordinates with great ambition but little pastoral sensitivity. But the harried cardinal got the blame. Following the closing of a Southside seminary high school, for example, which had been handled in a particularly clumsy and arrogant manner, Bernardin quietly asked one pastor, who viewed the closing as racist, "How can I regain your trust?"

In time he would form a model plan for such cutbacks, but the protests became an integral part of the drama.

When the sexual abuse by priests, largely of teenagers, became a matter of public knowledge, Bernardin was among the first, after Hunthausen, to acknowledge the problem. He was criticized roundly by his fellow bishops and priests who thought that such matters should be handled in the internal forum. Instead, Bernardin acknowledged the problem and took immediate action.

The initial protocols were clumsy, but gradually the response evolved into a plan that respected the rights of the priests as well as the rights of the victims. There were a few years in which the expenses of settling cases and providing treatment almost exceeded the cost of running the entire seminary system. But the cardinal, perhaps remembering Hallinan, his mentor, abided by the principle. The program he established for dealing with the issue was adopted by many other dioceses.

Steven Cook allegation

Ironically, the cardinal himself became the target of sexual abuse charges. In 1993, just a few days before the bishops were to hold their annual meeting in Washington, a carefully timed release accused the cardinal of having sexually abused a former Cincinnati seminarian some 20 years before.

Steven Cook, a former seminarian, was dying of AIDS. With the help of his attorney, he achieved instant celebrity and brought the expression "suppressed memory syndrome" into the common language. Bernardin decided to handle the matter in his usual manner: tell the truth. First, he turned the accusation over to the same review committee that handled cases involving archdiocesan priests. Then, at two incredibly painful news conferences -- in Chicago and Washington -- he answered every question, including some shockingly invasive ones. He avoided the stereotypical and highly questionable tactic of standing with his advisers and lawyers. He stood alone before batteries of microphones that carried his answers to a nation.

In a second biography, This Man Bernardin, Kennedy wrote: "The reporters had eagerly assembled to get a good story but found instead a good man."

By February 1994, Cook had recanted and Bernardin had been vindicated. Bernardin traveled to Philadelphia to pray with his accuser just before Cook's death.

In October 1993, Pope John Paul II issued a 1,146 word document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Priestly Ordination) in which he forcefully reiterated that the church does not have the authority to ordain women. He went on to say that he was speaking "definitively" and that Catholics must stop even discussing the issue.

The statement was unique. It had the ring of infallibility. No pope in history had ever made such a statement.

Bernardin supported the pope's statement but attempted to soften it by recognizing that the letter "will be a disappointment to some."

The letter may have prompted Bernardin to undertake his most recent effort, the Catholic Common Ground Project, announced just before he learned of his terminal cancer.

On Aug. 12, 1996, at another crowded news conference, Bernardin released a statement titled "Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril."

Search for common ground

The statement began, "American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively." He observed that polarization is blocking "a candid and constructive response" to urgent issues.

Bernardin stated, "Whether the church in the United States will enter the new millennium as a church of promise ... able to be a leavening force in our culture" or "a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures ... depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination, and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership."

"Unless we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts," the statement suggested, "within a few decades a vital Catholic legacy may be squandered, to the loss of both the church and the nation."

A blue ribbon committee, composed of seven bishops, five women and five other high profile clergy and laity from across the nation represented a mix of conservatives, moderates and liberals. It was Bernardin's hope to greatly expand the group and, while operating within the boundaries of church discipline, acquire an enriched understanding of church teaching.

The cardinal's announcement of the project was met with much criticism from his fellow bishops. Cardinals Law (Boston), James Hickey (Washington), Adam Maida (Detroit) and Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia) issued strong statements that made it clear that dialogue had no place in a church that dispensed truth unilaterally. The cardinals saw little use for discussion. They called for conversion, prayer, fasting and acceptance of authority.

Bernardin was hurt. While the cardinals were not sharp tongued or acrimonious, it was clear that they were dampening a spark.

By Aug. 29, Bernardin issued 10-page written statement in which he suggested that his initiative had been met with "grave misunderstandings." (The cardinal had sent advance copies of "Called to be Catholic" to the Vatican and the office of the apostolic delegate but had received no replies.)

As his illness progressed more rapidly than expected, the opening date of the project was advanced to the final week of October. "This project is not dependent upon me," Bernardin said. "It can carry on without me."

The cardinal's final months were spent in a surprising amount of activity. Much of it had to do with liturgies for and visits to the aged and the ill. In Chicago, he became an icon, centerpiece of a death watch that moved millions. The coverage became so intense that the Pastoral Center was forced to release a statement to the media, asking them to have some respect for the weakening cardinal's condition.

In mid-October, he traveled to the Vatican for a final and touching visit with John Paul II. Although it was clear that he differed from the pontiff on his approach to some issues, Bernardin was a staunch loyalist. "I have a promise of obedience to the Holy Father," he said often. "If I cannot agree, I will resign." Before his final visit to Rome, he observed: "The pope is my spiritual father."

On Sept. 9, Bernardin was one of 11 prominent Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the government could bestow on a non-military citizen. President Clinton called the cardinal "one of our nation's most beloved men and one of Catholicism's great leaders."

But the cardinal, who had declined to give the invocation at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago because of the president's veto of the late-term abortion bill, still drew pickets outside the White House -- ardent pro-lifers who expected him to decline the honor.

Such contradictions formed the story of his life -- a gentle, Italian-American Southern gentleman who would influence the American church for generations.

Tim Unsworth's biography of Bernardin, I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, will be published by Crossroad in the new year.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996