He was a ‘true churchman’

By Margaret O’ Brien Steinfels
Sunday, November 13, 2016

Cardinal Bernardin washes the feet of Holy Name parishioners on Holy Thursday. The photo was taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John H. White. Copyright © John H. White.

Except at confirmation, most Catholics never encounter a bishop. Having met several myself (in the line of duty as a journalist), it is hard not to feel discomfited by the public persona that comes with the office, sometimes more meeter-and-greeter than shepherd. A bishop may meet hundreds of people every week: he must remember names, previous encounters, if any, and keep in mind why he is greeting you.

At the same time, deference in laypeople often inhibits offering much beyond a brief “hello.” Regular conversation it is not. There are exceptions. In my experience, Joseph Bernardin was one of them.

I first met him in 1984. It was an election year. Bishops and politicians were at odds, and Cardinal Bernardin was invited to speak at Georgetown University. His address, titled “Religion and Politics,” touched on several neuralgic issues roiling the presidential campaign. He offered a powerful and clarifying message for the large and interested audience.

I had come from New York to hear what he had to say and was introduced to him at the reception. My former Loyola college mate, now a social-welfare advocate, Nancy Amidei, and I spent a good while talking with him. About what, I don’t precisely remember. Probably Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s name came up as well as President Reagan’s cuts to federal food programs.

Cardinal Bernardin was clearly relaxed after the talk and the enthusiastic applause. He listened to Nancy and me, he asked questions and answered ours. I am guessing he agreed with Nancy’s opposition to the food cuts. Above all, he was truly engaged in the conversation.

Stories of Cardinal Bernardin’s modus operandi emphasize his preference for consulting, delegating and conciliating. An oftencited example is his chairing the bishops’ conference committee that wrote the pastoral letter on nuclear weapons. He led his fellow bishops, who were by no means in total agreement, through a series of consultations examining the moral challenges and technical questions underpinning the role of deterrence in U.S. nuclear strategy.

The committee sought comments from experts, politicians, and pundits; they listened to both opponents and proponents. The final version of the pastoral letter stands as a historic example of the ability of religious leaders to consult and contribute their ideas on pressing national issues.

But Cardinal Bernardin was, above all, a true churchman. The church was, “his spiritual native country … nothing which concerns her will leave him indifferent or detached” (Henri de Lubac, quoting Origen). Bernardin was deeply worried about the fractious condition of the U.S. Catholic community and gave unstinting support and encouragement to the development of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

The project, organized by Father Phillip Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Center, was an effort to draw Catholics, right, left and center, into a dialogue about their chronic disagreements. Cardinal Bernardin attended the organizing meetings, sharing stories about his own struggles with the Vatican.

In spite of these, he carried on, seeming neither discouraged nor distressed. It was part of his job, it seemed, just as was listening and responding to his fellow bishops, reporters, politicians and critics, liberal and conservative, among the laity.

When the project went public in August 1996, it was immediately criticized by a group of cardinals. As a member of the project, I could see that Bernardin was deeply hurt. Yet he soldiered on, defending the group’s statement “Called to Be Catholic,” encouraging the development of the dialogue it called for and speaking forcefully for its implementation.

At the same time, he was coping with the return of his cancer — in the same spirit of equanimity as he approached everything: “We can look on death as an enemy, or we can look on it as a friend. As a person of faith, I see death as a friend, as a transition from earthly life to the eternal.” He died on Nov. 14, 1996.

On the following Wednesday, Nov. 20, Holy Name Cathedral was packed with people celebrating the life of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Catholics, Protestants, Jews — women and men, young and old who admired and loved the man — a true shepherd and for many a true friend. Everything that a funeral liturgy should do this one did. Above all, it celebrated a life of faith and hope.

After the final blessing, as the coffin with the remains of Joseph Bernardin moved down the central aisle, a Taize chant was intoned. At first, the deep voices of the clergy were perceptible only as a hum. Then the rhythm of the chant took hold and the words emerged filling the vast space of the cathedral as the friends of Joseph Bernardin joined in: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”


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