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Emotional farewell to 'Brother Joseph'

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The 42-hour funeral rite of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Chicago's seventh archbishop and fifth cardinal, eclipsed anything this city had seen since the burial of the former mayor, Richard J. Daley in 1976. An estimated 100,000 people of all faiths braved the bitter cold in order to pay their respects at Holy Name Cathedral to the man who had become known as "Brother Joseph."

The cardinal, who died at 68 of pancreatic cancer Nov. 14, was honored at the three-day funeral rites that began with a procession from his home to his cathedral and ended with a two-hour funeral cortege -- taking Chicago's high and mighty through some of the city's poorest neighborhoods -- to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Ill.

Although the 377 parishes and some 500 other institutions in the 2.34 million-member archdiocese were urged to hold local services (most did), the faithful traveled to the cathedral from all parts of the vast archdiocese, often waiting upwards of three hours for a few seconds at his bier.

At 11 p.m. on the first night of his wake, 10,000 people were still in line outside the church. At the Dunkin Donuts shop across Chicago Avenue, sales of hot coffee were eight times the norm for that hour of night. A fast food place near the cathedral carried a sign reading "Gentle Joseph, Rest in Peace."

In the midst of the Christmas sales season, major department stores ran full page ads to pay tribute to him. He had captured both public and private hearts.

Inside the cathedral, a generous supply of memorial cards was exhausted before the second night of the wake. Reliable sources said that there were 12,000 requests for the 1,200 available tickets to the Rite of Christian Burial.

The carefully calibrated procession of dignitaries was led by ecumenical leaders of all faiths. They were followed by hundreds of diocesan and religious priests, 157 visiting bishops and archbishops and nine American cardinals, two of them from the Vatican. Eleven clerical masters of ceremonies were required to herd the shepherds and ranking sheep into preassigned places.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, presided at the exquisitely planned liturgy -- one that bore the clear prints of Cardinal Bernardin, who was famous among his administrative family for micro-managing such events. (Had Bernardin not designated a principal celebrant, protocol would likely have meant that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, now the highest ranking U.S. prelate, to have led the ceremony.)

The assignments of significant participants -- from homilist and close friend Msgr. Kenneth Velo to a pallbearer who tended the grounds at his mansion -- bore a clear Bernardin mark and a statement about the people he valued.

A man, who by his own admission was once enchanted by hierarchy, now turned to close friends to see him to his grave. ("Sometimes during my priestly life I made political decisions in preference to pastoral ones," he once confessed to his priests. "Now I am trying to make pastoral ones.") For his episcopal brothers, there was a coded message in virtually every aspect of the Rite of Christian Burial.

Typically, when his body arrived at the cathedral following the mile long walk from his home, the funeral pall was removed and folded by his sister, Mrs. Elaine Addison, and five other women, just as it was women who prepared Christ's body for burial. That was just one of at least a dozen roles assigned to women during the more than two-hour liturgy.

Following Cardinal Mahony's greeting, Cardinal William Baum, former archbishop of Washington and now a member of the Roman curia, who acted as John Paul II's personal representative together with Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, pro-nuncio to the United States, brought the Holy Father's personal blessings and gratitude.

The lay assemblage included Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn, together with other high-ranking officials, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The delegation sat across the aisle from Elaine Addison, the cardinal's only sibling, her husband, Jim, their four children and other relatives from Columbia, S.C., Philadelphia, and Tonadico, Italy, Bernardin's ancestral family home.

(Bernardin's mother, Maria Simion Bernardin, remained in a nearby nursing home. The 92-year-old widow, who raised the cardinal and his sister on a modest hourly wage, working as a seamstress for the Works Projects Administration -- WPA -- following the death of her husband in 1934, had been informed of his passing. But her mind is failing, and her caretakers could only say they "thought she understood.")

Msgr. Kenneth Velo, the cardinal's executive assistant and now president of the Extension Society, delivered a witty, insightful homily, mercifully devoid of cliches. It was sprinkled with humor that brought laughter and several bursts of applause from the congregation of clerical and lay leaders as well as warmth to the hundreds standing outside the cathedral on a portion of State Street that had just been named in honor of the cardinal.

The first homiletic outburst occurred when Velo said of the people of Chicago: "They loved him." All in the cathedral clapped with the exception of the stonelike men, including the nation's remaining cardinals, who sat in the first few rows in the sanctuary, apparently unaccustomed to spontaneous liturgical celebration.

"God has touched you through the life of Cardinal Bernardin," Velo said. "He wanted to make common ground holy ground.

"Didn't he teach us? Didn't he show us the way?" Velo asked rhetorically, while the congregation applauded for the last time. "Cardinal, Eminence, you're home. You're home." This time it was a standing ovation.

The formal funeral rites had been preceded by a special liturgy by his Pastoral Center staff, an ecumenical morning prayer service by local Episcopal, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox communities, and a memorial by Jewish leaders. Particularly moving was the Jewish service at which one speaker, Rabbi Byron Sherwin of Spertus College of Judaica, said: "Had there been more people like him during the Holocaust, there would be more people like us, Jews, alive today."

The Rev. Kenneth Olsen, bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said that Bernardin "spoke to the entire community about the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Bernadin's last letter to the clergy was read at the special liturgy for priests on the eve of the final rites. Bernardin, who had administered the archdiocese for 14 years and had restored a great measure of the shattered morale of the priest corps, urged the clergy to shun parish pettiness and to de-emphasize administrative duties. "Get away from the paperwork," he told them. "Ask yourself: When people come to church are they finding Jesus? If they are not, you are wasting your time.

"People simply want us to be with them in the joys and sorrows of their lives," Bernardin's letter told the 1,200 priests who packed the church. "The things people remember most are small acts of concern and thoughtfulness."

The letter to his priests will be part of his final effort at writing, a task he loved. His last book, The Gift of Life, will be released by Loyola Press in January.

"You have brought me to the gate," the cardinal said in his letter, read by Fr. Jeremiah Boland, chairman of the Presbyteral Council. "I will have to go in first. But know that I will carry each of you in my heart." In an unprecedented reaction, the priests gave him a lengthy standing ovation.

Following the Mass, a 100-car cortege, followed by at least a dozen buses, made its way to Mount Carmel Cemetery through streets selected by the late cardinal. He wanted to pass through neighborhoods that reflected the diversity of his archdiocese. It took nearly two hours to cover the 17 miles to the door of the bishops' mausoleum where an estimated 10,000 more mourners waited in light but wind-driven snowfall. Some had been standing for hours in the cold.

Above the bronze doors of the massive Romanesque building was the single Latin word Resurrecturis -- to those who will rise again.

Back in 1988 Bernardin visited the mausoleum to select his niche. He later confided to friends that he selected the space to the left of his predecessor, Cardinal John Patrick Cody, adding that he had always been "to the left" of Cody.

Bernardin, who rarely missed a funeral of one of his priests, had a signature commendation that was recalled by Bishop Timothy Lyne, retired auxiliary and vicar for senior priests. "We commend him to the God he loved so much," he would say, "to the God he served so well."

Bishop Raymond Goedert, vicar general of the archdiocese, choked as he delivered the final farewell. He was not alone.

Cardinal Mahony, the presider, was heard to say that he had never witnessed such an outpouring of feeling since the death of John XXIII.

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996