Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Model pastor, “saintly man”

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Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Model pastor, “saintly man”

For a long time, Eugene Kennedy was certain that Joseph Bernardin, the soft-spoken, bridge-building archbishop of Cincinnati, would become the first American-born Pope.

“He was a perfect candidate for it,” says Kennedy, a psychologist, former priest and widely published writer who became Bernardin’s friend. “He was internationally known. He was internationally respected. He would have been a pope of peace.”

But, even as Bernardin was raised in 1982 to head the archdiocese of Chicago, the largest in the nation at the time, and, a few months later, was consecrated as a cardinal, his star was on the wane.

Reaction to the Second Vatican Council was setting in. The new pope, John Paul II, was much more conservative than the open-the-windows liberalism of the 1960s, and he was appointing regiments of new cardinals of a similar mind. Eventually, it became clear to even the most hopeful that Bernardin would never be pope.

“He became something else,” Kennedy says. “He became a saint.”

At the height of his success as Chicago’s Cardinal, Bernardin underwent three soul-shuddering trials — an accusation of sexual abuse, later recanted; an attack of cancer; and then a recurrence of the disease in a virulent and inoperable form that killed him less than three months later on Nov. 14, 1996.

He lived those last 77 days dying in public. He spoke of his fears and bouts of weeping, but also of his recognition of death as a friend. He taught his flock in Chicago — and many more around the world who followed his story in the news media or later read his posthumous bestseller “The Gift of Peace” — how to die.

“We can look on death as an enemy, or we can look on it as a friend,” Bernardin told reporters at the news conference to make public his fatal diagnosis. “If we see it as an enemy, death causes anxiety and fear. We need to go into a state of denial. But if we see it as a friend, our attitude is truly different. As a person of faith, I see death as a friend, as the transition from earthly life to the eternal.”

SUBHEAD: More than a heroic death

Yet, 14 years later, Bernardin’s legacy is more than his heroic death.

He was a high churchman who didn’t let ambition get the better of him. As a leader in the National Council of Bishops, he strove to reconcile differences. Indeed, working with a drafting committee that included a pacifist and the head of the chaplains in the U.S. armed forces, Bernardin was able to broker the writing of “The Challenge of Peace,” a powerful book-length pastoral letter on nuclear weapons that is a standard resource today among military ethicists.

He argued for a “seamless garment” approach to social issues, a recognition that all questions must be seen with a consistent ethic of life — war, euthanasia, abortion, the death penalty, health care, treatment of the poor.

“There is one single issue, and that issue is life,” he told an interviewer. It’s a principle that continues today to inspire those pursuing a comprehensive, nuanced approach to questions of morality in the public arena.

Such efforts, though, ruffled feathers. The left felt that, in working with conservatives, Bernardin was playing a political game. The right attacked him for failing to take hard-line stands on what they saw as either-or questions.

President Barack Obama knows something of the difficulty of playing the role of mediator, and, in a 2009 speech at the University of Notre Dame, he talked about watching Bernardin in action while working as a community-organizer in a Catholic church-sponsored program in Chicago.

“He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads — unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues, ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war,” Obama said. “And, yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground.”

He was, the president said, “a saintly man.”

SUBHEAD: “A good, good person”

Such talk doesn’t sit well with Rev. Dominic Grassi, the pastor at St. Gertrude Church on Chicago’s Far North Side. “A saint is up on a pedestal, and they’re perfect, and they’re not human,” he says.

For Grassi, it was Bernardin’s humanity and his capacity for growth that set him apart. “He became a good, good person, cleansed in the fire of life. You saw a man taking what life was giving him and learning from it and getting holier. He became very human.”

However, even before the very painful and public trials that Bernardin underwent near the end of his life, his warmth and openness were evident.

In August, 1982, during his first visit to Chicago after being named its archbishop, Bernardin took part in a prayer service in Holy Name Cathedral with the priests of the archdiocese. “I remember someone was cantoring way off key,” says Grassi. “I looked, and there was Bernardin carrying in the Pascal Candle up the aisle, singing.”

The new archbishop was arriving to lead a church that was awash with bitterness after the 17-year reign of Cardinal John Cody whose domineering, imperial style alienated clergy and lay people alike.

In his homily, Bernardin showed himself to be anything but autocratic. “Peace be with you,” he started, and then, in the simplest of ways, told the priests about himself.

“As to my personal tastes and habits, I am quite ordinary,” he said at one point. “I do like music. My favorite is classical, especially opera. I am credited with being a good cook but that is somewhat exaggerated.” He said he didn’t have a lot of time to cook, adding, “Also, I do not want to regain the weight I lost several years ago.”

He noted that his friends called him a workaholic. (In fact, many who later served with Bernardin in Chicago would nickname him Joseph the Worker.) “If I do work hard,” he said, “it is more because I like what I do than because of compulsion.”

He told the priests that he couldn’t do his work alone: “I need all of you.” And, concluding, he told them that he was sure that, in time, they would know him and his idiosyncrasies well.

“You will know also that I love you,” he said.

“For I am Joseph, your brother.”

It was a revelatory moment. The contrast with Cody was astonishing. The church erupted with waves of applause. “You saw the humility in him at that moment,” says Grassi.

SUBHEAD: “Your brother”

“I am Joseph, your brother” — a quotation from the book of Genesis, uttered by Joseph when he is reunited with his family in Egypt — became Bernardin’s calling card. And it spoke volumes. It said that, despite the hierarchical nature of the institutional church and his own position in that hierarchy, he saw himself as an equal with others in the search for faith and meaning in life.

“With women, he always introduced himself by saying he was our brother — not our father, our brother,” Sister Margaret Cafferty, PBVM, executive director of the National Leadership Council of Women Religious, told a reporter on the day of the Cardinal’s death. “He may not have agreed with everything that some women wanted — the ordination of women, for example — but he listened with compassion. Always.”

“He was a good listener,” says Sister Mary Brian Costello, BVM, Bernardin’s school superintendent and then chief of staff in Chicago. “You had the feeling he paid attention.” Throughout his term, she notes, women made up half or nearly half of his 12-person cabinet. “His inclusion of women in decision-making roles in the diocese was unique at that time,” she says.

In 1982, the Cardinal adapted the Genesis quote when he held his first meeting with the city’s Jewish leaders. “I come to you as your brother, Joseph,” he said.

And he followed up that greeting by spearheading in 1984 the creation of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, a one-of-a-kind organization in which representatives of 32 faiths met — and, after more than a quarter century, continue to meet — regularly to find common ground and serve as a moral force in the public debate.

Bernardin was the council’s first president, followed a few years later by Rabbi Herman Schaalman of Emmanuel Congregation on the city’s Far North Side. They became close friends — “Herman” and “Joseph” in private.

“He certainly did not come across as an ‘official,’ ” Schaalman says. “He came across as a human being who came looking for connection with other human beings. He approached you as another person looking for answers.”

Because the Cardinal was often trying to mediate between people with differing opinions, he was described at times as a centrist. But that, says Schaalman, is a misreading. “He was a peacemaker. He was a person who wanted to bring people together and help them realize what they shared rather than what set them apart.”

Even though it’s been more than a decade since Bernardin died, the rabbi says, “In my own personal life, he has been a constant presence. I have a picture of him on my desk. I consider him one of the most important impacts on my own personal life and development.”

SUBHEAD: Holding the center together

Of course, to be human is to err, to have flaws.

Bernardin “became more and more skillful at collaboration and collaborative action,” says Costello. “I don’t know that he came here as a great collaborator. He grew into that.

“It was hard for him to put up with someone who wasn’t prepared or was kind of stupid. He could be impatient. He worked so hard on that.

“When possible, he avoided conflict. Some people would say that was a fault.”

In fact, during his early years in Chicago, he was known by another nickname, “Hamlet,” for his caution and seeming indecisiveness. Yet, caution and its sister virtue tact were essential to Bernardin’s efforts to build bridges.

Every day that the Cardinal was in Chicago, he paid a visit to his mother at her nursing home. That institution was in the St. Josaphat parish where Dominic Grassi was, at the time, pastor. On occasion, Bernardin would stop into the rectory for a visit, particularly after Grassi had written something critical in an independent archdiocesan newsletter.

“He’d come up to my room, and we’d just sit and talk,” Grassi recalls. “He’d ask me questions about why I said this or that. It always ended with a hug and embrace.

“He loved the church. He said his job was — and he would put his arms out as far as they would go, like this, his hands far apart — to hold the center together.”

SUBHEAD: Standing accused

Bernardin was a man who, his aides joked, “never met a microphone he didn’t like.” He enjoyed news conferences. In talking to reporters, he was talking to all of Chicago, not just the region’s Catholics.

But the tone was starkly different when he stepped before the cameras on Nov. 12, 1993. Earlier that day, Steven Cook, a 34-year-old former seminarian, had filed suit in Cincinnati claiming that, 17 years earlier, Bernardin and another priest had sexually abused him.

The Cardinal was the highest ranking Catholic leader to face a sex abuse charge, and the more than 70 journalists in the room — knowing that many a highly praised public figure had later been found to be harboring dark secrets — were avid for answers.

In the face of overlapping shouted questions, Bernardin began responding in a calm, dignified voice. “I have never abused anyone, at any time and at any place,” he said.

Finally, with the ordeal nearly over, a young reporter shouted a question from the back: “Are you sexually active?”

(“It took your breath away,” Costello said, to hear the bald accusation implicit in the question.”)

“I can assure you,” Bernardin said, “that, in all my life, I’ve led a chaste, celibate life.”

Four months later, Cook dropped his charges against Bernardin because, he said, he no longer trusted his “memories” of abuse evoked by hypnosis.

Then, late in 1994, Bernardin made a private journey to Philadelphia to meet with and say Mass for Cook who was terminally ill with AIDs. “I told him that, in every family, there are times when there is hurt, anger, alienation….but we cannot run away from our family. We have only one family, so we must make every effort to be reconciled.”

The experience left Bernardin deeply wounded. Yet, in his pain, he found new life.

Shortly before his reconciliation meeting with Cook, Bernardin was in Rome and agreed to sit down with writer Paul Wilkes to talk about high-level church politics. But, when the meeting took place, Bernardin seemed to compelled to explain what he had been through.

“He pointed toward the Vatican,” Wilkes recalls, “and told me, ‘They don’t own me anymore. I have been stripped bare in the public square. I was pilloried.’ ”

The words, however, weren’t said in a tone of an angry man or a man bitter at the loss of prestige within the hierarchy.

“He looked like a man at peace,” says Wilkes. “He had been brought down to earth. He had become a man.

“And he liked being a man.”

SUBHEAD: Living and dying well

Reporters who covered the Catholic church during Bernardin’s career say he probably never had a chance to become Pope. Given the influence that the United States wields on the world stage, it was unthinkable that church leaders would give the nation the Vatican as another power center.

And, although, in the immediate aftermath of his death, many people described Bernardin as a saint, there is no canonization process underway today.

Yet, for those who remember him or have read about him or have read his books, Bernardin remains “a good, good person,” a model pastor and bishop, an inspiration of how to live — and die — well.

Eugene Kennedy who wrote two biographies of the Cardinal remains steadfast in his admiration.

“As time goes by and we’re able to see better,” he says, “people will know he was a saint.

“I pray to him all the time.”

Patrick T. Reardon
May, 2010

4 Comments

  1. Jack McGuire says:

    Dear Mr. Reardon:
    I found your recent posts on Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of particular interest.
    The year of his death was particularly momentous for me, since it was just before that unfortunate event that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was also a time when I met with the Cardinal and the result of our brief meeting had a profound effect on me..
    I wrote a letter to his Eminence about the matter and was thrilled to receive a letter back with a request that he use it in a forthcoming book.
    If you would care to read the details of the circumstances surrounding our brief but
    profound (at least to me encounter) may I direct you to page 115 of his final book: “The Gift of Peace.”
    By the way, my legal first name is also Joseph and since the incident described in my letter, I have always refered to the Cardinal, as “my brother Joseph.”
    With best wishes,
    Jack McGuire

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Jack —

      Thanks for sharing your story. I thought I had a copy of “The Gift of Peace” here, but can’t put my hands on it right now. I’ll track it down and take a look.

      I think Cardinal Bernardin was a special person. I’m not sure how he would fare in today’s church./

      Pat

  2. Caterina Bellio says:

    He was a fantastic human being, I had the fortune of meeting him several times during his visits to Italy, as he was my mothers cosin… My deepest regret is that I was to young to understand who he really was.
    Today, Im absolutly honored and proud of being able to say that such a great figure was part of my family.

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