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The spiritual legacy of Joseph Bernardin


By Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
Loyola Press, 153 pages, $17.95

By Tim Unsworth
Crossroad, 154 pages, $9.95

By Paolo Magagnotti
Center for Migration Studies, 222 pages, $14.95


The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin opens with a handwritten letter he penned just two weeks before his death. It captures much of the tone of this 153-page departing gift.

"My dear friends," the cardinal writes. "It is the feast of All Saints and I am home because the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese is closed. The weather is much colder than it was several days ago, but it is still good for walking. Normally, I would be doing just that.

"But today I will not do any walking. The reason is that a pervasive fatigue -- one that is characteristic of pancreatic cancer -- has overtaken me."

Bernardin writes through continuous pain, "discomfort in my lower back and legs." Related spinal deterioration has helped keep the cardinal focused on suffering that has awakened within him new spiritual awareness.

Bernardin acknowledges that this book "is not an autobiography but simply a reflection on my life and ministry during the past three years, years that have been as joyful as they have been difficult. ... To paraphrase Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, 'it has been the best of times, it has been the worst of times.' "

Concluding his introduction, he invites "those who read this book to walk with me the final miles of my life's journey. When we reach the gate, I will have to go in first -- that seems to be the rule: one at a time by designation. But know that I will carry each of you in my heart! Ultimately, we will all be together, intimately united with the Lord Jesus whom we love so much. Peace and Love," (signed) Joseph Card. Bernardin

The Gift of Peace, then, is a personal invitation to share a spiritual journey, one encompassing the last three years of Bernardin's life, years of transformation. Bernardin gradually became aware of the importance of the changes within him, at first sharing them with friends but eventually feeling compelled to explain them in more public ways.

They had the effect of tearing down barriers erected through the years by personality and position, connecting him to others through spiritual and physical anguish. Out of this Bernardin believed he had gained new insights or perhaps simply come to terms with beliefs never fully grasped. These were insights born not so much out of lofty scholarship or rich associations but rather through loneliness, humiliation, uncertainty and fear of death.

During his last years, we see Bernardin accepting a new sense of priesthood, one finally divorced from any pretext of ecclesial ambition, one grounded in baptism and, in the end, a faith in God's goodness and promise.

The Gift of Peace is a gift to all who seek spiritual understanding. Those who have felt blessed by Bernardin's ministries over the years will celebrate this small book. It should be noted that it would probably not have been published without the assistance of several people, including his friend and biographer Eugene Kennedy, who helped Bernardin recapture and construct some of his thoughts. Additionally, Loyola Press editor Jeremy Langford took on the project as a labor of love, quickly winning Bernardin's confidence and friendship. Langford continued to meet with the prelate, hurriedly working the manuscript through to publication before time ran out. For the editor it was a life-shaping experience.

Bernardin's influence in church history is significant and secure. As a U.S. prelate, his influence may come to be seen as unparalleled in the 20th century. His articulation of a consistent life ethic is already seen as one of the faith's more important expressions. Catholicism's sacramental view of life has long been life-supporting, but it took Bernardin to translate abstract theology and philosophy into more practical and popular expressions.

Bernardin's influence will continue to grow, in no small measure assisted by the openness and consistency with which he faced his death, as The Gift of Peace shows.

This book has nice touches. Chapter headings, like the book title itself, are handwritten in Bernardin's script. Knowing he was in his final days, the cardinal introduced his reflections with an essay titled "Letting Go," in which he wrote of his release from "those things that inhibit us from developing an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus."

To read The Gift of Peace is to gain a new personal acquaintance; it is to recognize again the common bonds we all share; it is to be reminded that our ecclesial leaders are people much like us, facing mystery, uncertainty and sorrow.

We learn that Bernardin, facing death, repeatedly cried. We learn that he believed he had long failed to separate essentials from nonessentials in his ministries -- until, at least, his own transformation. We experience his loneliness. We learn how a fellow journeyman, Fr. Henri Nouwen, taught the cardinal to befriend death.

As part of his final passage, Bernardin turned impending death into a public meditation on Christian faith. This is the essence of The Gift of Peace. On the day he announced he was dying, Bernardin spoke about what he wished would become of his legacy: "I hoped that through my ministry, my life, I would leave a community that would be more gentle, more loving, more compassionate." Later he added: "All my life I have been teaching people how to live and I thought if I could teach them how to die, that would be important."

Bernardin's death triggered many reflections. One of the early ones has ended up as an easy-reading paperback, the work of Chicago storyteller and NCR columnist, Tim Unsworth. He calls I Am Your Brother Joseph an anecdotal biography.

Few U.S. Catholic writers have the storytelling ability of Unsworth, whose favorite yarns have focused on the Catholic clergy, many of them in the Chicago archdiocese. Writes Unsworth with characteristic humor: "I have long had a fascination with prelates. It is seen as a character disorder by my friends."

Since Bernardin's arrival in Chicago, Unsworth kept a keen eye on the man, recording and writing about him with the distance of a journalist and frequently with obvious admiration. "I considered him a friend and generally wrote sentiments that others occasionally saw as pandering," Unsworth tells us, half apologizing. "Yet, I stung him a few times, even causing anger." One focus of Unsworth's book is Bernardin's interaction with the media. He depicts the cardinal as pastorally sensitive and politically shrewd, "a man who understood the difference between leadership and authority."

"Bernardin was a man who loved the media," Unsworth writes, a man who "never viewed it as a threat or as a group of supplicants grateful for decrees pushed under their doors." He adds, "The cardinal had used a rare technique to manipulate the media: He told the truth."

Bernardin, we learn, began each day with prayer, a light breakfast -- and three major newspapers. He closely followed national and international events, wanting to stay informed and ponder their moral dimensions.

While The Gift of Peace, primarily a spiritual reflection, transcends place, I Am Your Brother Joseph finds its strength in being located in Chicago, a city that fits Unsworth well and came to fit the cardinal too.

The reader feels the chilly winds coming off Lake Michigan and is invited to an episcopal visit to the Unsworth home, where the cardinal, Roman collar discarded, sits in the kitchen "sipping Campari, until the meal was ready." I Am Your Brother Joseph has its own flavor and will be especially pleasing to Unsworth addicts and other Catholics still mourning Bernardin's death. Unsworth retells the story of Bernardin's rise through the clerical ranks, but is at his best on the streets of Chicago.

Unsworth's writing is always entertaining. Consider these Bernardin-directed Unsworthisms:

  • "He appeared embarrassed when people tried to kiss his ring, but he didn't stop them. He understood the frail packages in which faith is carried."
  • "His room at Loyola had been inundated with flowers, enough to bury a monarch."
  • "For poor Cardinal Cody the priesthood was a career; for Cardinal Bernardin it was a vocation."
  • "During a dinner visit, I asked him how he kept his weight off in spite of a genuine passion for good food. 'Will power,' he answered. I could have killed him."
  • "Other cardinals travel in retinues, emerging from stretch limousines, accompanied by solemn-faced careerists who had arranged convenient -- and often illegal -- parking in front of the church. Bernardin generally arrived alone, searched for a parking spot, carried his own baggage, and vested in the sacristy with his fellow priests."

It will be some time before the Catholics of Chicago adjust to their loss of Brother Joseph. They are finding ways to mourn and remember, to adjust and continue on. It's called coping. Unsworth's recollections represent one such response.

Authors will examine Bernardin's life for years to come. His speeches and writings will be assembled and published; scholars will study their impact. In the process, his place in history will find its shape. One of the earliest efforts to give form to his writings is another labor of love, this by Paolo Magagnotti. In the preface of his book The Word of Cardinal Bernardin, Magagnotti explains that the prelate has "always stirred up deep emotions and a great interest in me." Understandably. Magagnotti shares the same homeland as Bernardin's parents -- the Trent region in the Italian Alps. Some years back Magagnotti began to comb through Bernardin's writings and talks, distilling them, editing them down, cutting and paraphrasing, with the intention of disseminating them to a wider audience. Bernardin cooperated with Magagnotti, who sent 27 chapters of manuscript to the prelate for his approval. In May 1993 Bernardin returned the revised manuscript with some notes and suggestions.

For personal reasons the project was delayed, Magagnotti explains, but Bernardin's death prompted him to complete it. And with the help of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, headed by Scalabrinian Fr. Lydio F. Tomasi, the book was published.

It serves admirably the purpose Magagnotti set out to achieve, acquainting the reader with Bernardin's views on a host of issues starting with the "Ten Commandments and Human Rights" and ending with "Health-care: A Point of View from a Cardinal Diagnosed with Cancer." Other topics include civil rights, racism, family and marriage, immigration, education, sexuality, the death penalty, morality, peace and war, and pornography, among others. The shortcoming to the topic approach is that the book loses some context. The reader does not sense the development in Bernardin's thinking on these matters.

Magagnotti has worked conscientiously to present the essence of Bernardin's thought, at times paring talks of 5,000 or more words down to several hundred. The book will help the reader gain an appreciation for the breadth of Bernardin's interests in matters of public morality. Magagnotti struggles not to insert himself into the texts. The book provides a nice overview of the cardinal's thinking.

Tom Fox is NCR editor and publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997