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Inside NCR

We will miss Cardinal Bernardin. He was a strong NCR supporter. Some years back he told me he viewed the paper as "a candle in the night."

"Keep the flame lit," he said.

While cautious by nature, Bernardin was generally open to the press. The noise of newsroom banter would noticeably drop some decibels when my assistant, Jean Blake, announced, upon answering the telephone: "It's Cardinal Bernardin."

Years back we would talk together about the church or the crisis of the time. In recent years, our conversations were more personal. Most recently they focused on his state of health and his thoughts about death.

I remember three years back, just after Bernardin was accused by the misguided Steven Cook, who claimed he had been sexually abused by the cardinal. Bernardin called. It was clearly the nadir of his life. I heard in his voice that afternoon his total isolation. "Tom," he said, "I don't even know the man. I don't remember him. I've never abused anyone."

That he was placed in a situation in which he felt forced to defend himself, to plead through planted doubts, was, I thought, a humiliation of unimaginable dimensions.

Cook later recanted. Bernardin flew to the dying man's bedside to reconcile and forgive. The instinctive act was pure Bernardin.

Not long after came the news of his cancer. Following the diagnosis, Bernardin called again. He told me, as he told others, that it was far easier for him to deal with the cancer than it had been with the abuse accusation. After all, he said, cancer was a natural illness. It happened to many. Being accused of sex abuse was different. It was a blow to personal credibility. "Without my credibility," he said, "I have nothing."

Confronting cancer and the prospect of death moved Bernardin to quickly separate the essentials from nonessentials. He began to choose more carefully what he did with his time. He began each morning ministering to other cancer patients, writing letters, telephoning. As he said, "enjoying being a priest again."

In the year and a half from diagnosis to death, he found himself laughing a lot more. He began to find humor in ordinary circumstances. Much of this had to do, it seems, with a sense of new freedom and an ability to enjoy the moment, friends said.

Somehow the idea of the dying Bernardin laughing with gusto through his tears still provides me solace as I adjust to his departure.

Bernardin was eager to get the Catholic Common Ground Project going. We spoke shortly after it was announced. It pleased him enormously that Cardinal Roger Mahony offered his support. That came in the wake of public attacks on the effort by other U.S. cardinals. Mahony's support, it appears, led to Bernardin's decision to ask the Los Angeles prelate to be chief celebrant at last week's funeral Mass.

The last conversation I had with Bernardin came one evening when he called just after he had learned from his physicians that his cancer had returned, this time in the liver. We talked about his condition, about the time he might have left, about death. I remember most what seemed to be the cardinal's apologetic and consoling manner. He seemed genuinely sorry he could not finish all the work he had planned. He seemed sorry not to be able to say goodbye as he might have liked. I had the feeling he was calling to console me rather than to seek consolation.

In the weeks that followed, we exchanged notes, but it soon became clear that anything beyond prayers on my part would be intrusive.

Writing this column, I feel gratitude and loss. The former for having known him a bit; the latter for knowing that the church will not be the same without him. My thoughts drift back to last summer when I interviewed him on the first anniversary of his cancer operation. We met in his Chicago residence.

After the interview, we dined together. Following dinner I prepared to go, thinking he had other things to attend to. But he insisted I stay.

He invited me upstairs to his study. He wanted to show me around. He wanted to show me the bed Pope John Paul II had slept in during his visit to Chicago. He grinned as he asked me if I wanted to use the bathroom the pope himself once used. (I did.)

Afterward we sat and talked. He seemed at peace. We spoke again that night about the church and the gift of life and the acceptance of death. He was especially aware, he said, of the briefness of life.

I remember his words that evening. "Life is like a meteor," he said. "It passes briefly in the night -- and then is out." Yes, but this meteor brightened the sky -- and changed it forever. And the spirit and memory of this meteor live on.

And, as Bernardin years ago encouraged me to remember, the dawn will surely come.

-- Tom Fox

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996