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Bernardin helps to answer: 'What's a priest?'


When I told my children that we were going to Grandma's house to have dinner with a priest friend, I was surprised by the response: "Mom, what's a priest?" Actually, this question has been on my mind, too, both because of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's life and death, and because in my parish we are wrestling with that question in the context of long-term visioning.

We are a small inner-city parish known for our human service programs, social justice orientation and grassroots worship style. We're trying to be "proactive" rather than "reactive" about the inevitability of someday losing our current pastor, who shares our understanding of worship and sacrament. We are beginning discussions about what we want our parish to look like in three to five years and who will lead us to that vision and beyond.

In my view, leaders are persons not only gifted with vision and strong interpersonal skills, but who live the example of what they teach and preach. Bernardin seemed to be such a man, a man of virtue who remained true to his profession and his vows. Our age's heroes are just as likely to disappoint as to inspire us -- an affair, a shady money deal, a misuse of power. "Well, I suppose we're all human," is our response, even as we inwardly grieve a little the loss of a shining example.

Perhaps one reason people still leave flowers and candles on the steps of Cardinal Bernardin's residence and his ministry continues as a subject of discussion is that Joseph Bernardin's example seems untarnished. He gave his all to the cause and the calling he believed in, which many of us still believe in -- the goodness of the Catholic faith.

I grew up with a traditional reverence for the ordained. My parents were not the type to cozy up to the priests or pray for one of us kids to be called to a religious vocation, but I knew they put "Father" on a pedestal. The long-time pastor at the suburban mega-church I attended was a beloved figurehead. A tall, cigar-smoking man, he'd give school kids a big hug or a pat on the head as he cruised the halls of the school in his flowing black cassock, but you were pretty sure he didn't know your name. His job, I guess, was to maintain morale and keep the coffers full.

When I was a young teenager, my family lived in the capital city of a South American country for two years. The church we attended there was like a frontier outpost of the church as a multinational corporation, a Quonset hut serving a primarily American community of business people, state department personnel and their families. There the priest emerged from behind the marble altar rail of my big suburban church to become a person seated with us on a wooden bench under a tin roof. He, not the bishop, confirmed four of us who had attended preparation classes together. He presided at my brother's first communion in the intimacy of someone's back yard one sunny day. It was the first time I saw the priesthood in a new light, the priest as equal to the people in his congregation.

Cardinal Bernardin, the church leader, made his mark on my personal history when I first heard of the "seamless garment" theory. That phrase has had a great impact on my own sense of social justice: the idea that all forms of death-dealing are equally reprehensible, that all life has dignity. And Cardinal Bernardin, the priest, had the courage to show us how to be with people. He prayed with other dying people, even with his own accuser, in efforts to achieve conversion, healing of hearts and minds. He did not sequester himself, even in his last weeks, when anyone would have given him that right.

What I admire about Bernardin are his apparent purity of heart and his ability to be a member of the church of the people first, a political player in the institutional church second. He did not hold his office above others; he used it to connect with others. By all accounts, he was pastorally gifted and chose to develop and use his gifts in the profession of the priesthood.

My understanding of the priesthood and pastoral and sacramental leadership has evolved since my childhood. I believe that some people naturally have more talents than others when it comes to leading worship, providing pastoral services and understanding theology. I believe that leaders are born and made. But on a gut level, I believe ordination has very little to do with priesthood. What Bernardin did as a priest, we can all do on some level -- pray for an enemy, pray with a friend, be with someone who suffers, bring people together to reconcile differences.

I suppose that on one hand I should be slightly embarrassed that my kids, regular participants in worship and religious education programs, did not know what a priest is. On the other hand, these children and their peers will see priesthood with fresh eyes and, I hope, a shared sense of responsibility for church leadership.

I submit that a priest is a person who chooses to seek and use the gifts of leadership, understanding, compassion and wisdom in order to serve and to build community with the people of God. Maybe most important, a priest is a person who knows your name.

We know your name, Joseph Bernardin, and we hope you will intercede for us as we identify those who will lead us into the 21st century of the church you loved.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997