Steven P. Millies

Cardinal Bernardin: ‘He was our pastor’

November 17, 2021

Amid remembrances of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who made so many contributions to the global church and to the national political conversation, it could be easy to forget that he also was our bishop here in Chicago for 14 years.

The pastoral letter on the nuclear arms race in 1983, the consistent ethic of life and promoting dialogue in the church were vital contributions like none any U.S. bishop had made before. But 25 years after his death, we Chicagoans should want to remember him the way Msgr. Ken Velo welcomed us, as “friends and family” at Cardinal Bernardin’s funeral, “whether you’re watching television coverage of this funeral service in a nursing home in Waukegan, a living room in Calumet City or a classroom on Chicago’s West Side.” Cardinal Bernardin belonged to us. He was our pastor.

As the director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, a living memorial to which Cardinal Bernardin gave his blessing 37 days before his death, I spend a lot of time talking about his influence on national and global affairs. But I also have that other experience.

I grew up in the Archdiocese of Chicago while Cardinal Bernardin led our local church. I made my first Communion here just two years before Cardinal Bernardin came to Chicago and I left Chicago for graduate study only a year before he died.  Like many of us, my sense of Catholic faith was formed by the fresh air of the Second Vatican Council that Cardinal Bernardin had brought to Chicago, which he often said defined his ministry as a bishop.

The Second Vatican Council taught that bishops should pursue “social and civil progress.” Perhaps to us that sounds rather obvious, but it is a recent development that has made possible the sort of public-policy advocacy we see from our bishops so often now. Cardinal Bernardin took his role as a civic leader seriously not just on the national and world stages, but right here too.

In 1992, Cardinal Bernardin urged Cook County Hospital not to resume abortion services. In 1989, at the end of the decade of City Council Wars, when 29 aldermen opposed Chicago’s first African-American mayor Harold Washington, Cardinal Bernardin condemned the “low-key, chronic racism that manifests itself every day” in the city’s housing, economic opportunities, health care and education.

Perhaps some will be surprised that in 1986 Cardinal Bernardin voiced concerns that a proposed LGBTQ-rights ordinance did not protect the rights of religious institutions. A local LGBTQ leader said, “I am totally embarrassed and ashamed of my cardinal.” Cardinal Bernardin responded that the LGBTQ community “may write me off, but I will never write them off.”

He did not. That same year, when the Vatican obliged the archdiocese to withdraw support from Dignity, an organization for LGBTQ Catholics, Cardinal Bernardin worked with the LGBTQ community to create the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach (AGLO), which still supports LGBTQ Catholics today.

Cardinal Bernardin faced many of the problems that still confront us in Chicago. In 1989 he began closing and merging parishes because of the overwhelming challenges their upkeep presented to archdiocesan resources. In 1990, he closed Quigley South and in 1994 he sold the St. Joseph College Seminary campus in Niles because of enrollment challenges.

And of course, in 1991, following the removal of a priest from St. Odilo in Berwyn, Cardinal Bernardin embarked on what would become the most rigorous program for the reporting of clerical sexual abuse in the United States.

Yet, when most Chicagoans think of Cardinal Bernardin today, we tend to think first of his final days. Cardinal Bernardin shared his dying with the world, but we saw him here. He was on our news broadcasts, in the pages of our newspapers and he was still coming to our parishes. He also was walking the hallways of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood for his new “cancer ministry,” supporting Chicagoans afflicted with the disease that eventually would take his life.

When he arrived in 1982, he said to us, “I am Joseph, your brother.” When he died, the city stood still during his funeral on Nov. 20, 1996. News reports described mourners wearing kippahs, kente cloths and Korean mourning gowns. Chicagoans from all faiths and backgrounds had come to claim him as their own.

Even today, his name is rubbed to dullness on the plaque containing the names of Chicago’s bishops at Holy Name Cathedral. Chicagoans still touch his name today as they pass by, remembering him like a friend or, as he introduced himself to us that day in 1982, as family.



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