He encouraged Catholics to seek ‘common ground’

By Steven Millies
Sunday, November 13, 2016

The world has changed in the 20 years since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died.

There has been a papal resignation, we have had two papal conclaves and four presidential elections. Cardinal Bernardin died in a pre-9/11 world. We had Internet in 1996, though no one dreamed of smart phones or social media. Twenty years is not so long, except for all of the ways that it is.

So much distance has grown between us and those days when the global church joined the city of Chicago to keep vigil and mourn for the cardinal. Maybe we should ask: Why does Cardinal Bernardin still matter?

Any answer to that question must begin with the public witness of spiritual courage Cardinal Bernardin gave during his final illness. Only moments after he got the news that his cancer was terminal, he was calmly resolved. He told his friend and aide, Msgr. Ken Velo, “I have to show the people what I’ve been teaching them all these years.” The whole world watched him do that — the cardinal’s inner circle and his closest friends, as much as those of us who only saw him on television. His faith was real.

Cardinal Bernardin’s book “The Gift of Peace” was published after his death. In it, he recounted with grace and candor his final illness and a false allegation of sexual abuse. He described how “the good and the bad are always present in our human condition and, that if we ‘let go,’ if we place ourselves totally in the hands of the Lord, the good will prevail.”

As Cardinal Bernardin had received this gift of peace, he shared it with us in his final months. For readers of his book, he still shares it today.

But there is more to it. Joseph Bernardin lived a rich and active live in the church and in the world for 68 years before he died.

Joseph Bernardin’s faith was in the Gospel, and in a hope that all women and men should live together in justice. As much as his ministry in the church was marked by dialogue and the search for common ground, Bernardin lived those values as an American citizen.

When President Bill Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom, he called Cardinal Bernardin “one of our nation’s most beloved men,” for the decades he had spent as “an eloquent advocate for justice, peace, and human dignity.” Those preoccupations brought him beyond the four walls of the sanctuary, out into the world, throughout his life.

The cardinal marched in the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., signed one of the earliest documents written by a Catholic bishop against the war in Vietnam, and his leadership challenged the Cold War policies of the Reagan administration.

As much as he was a Catholic bishop, Joseph Bernardin led an exemplary American life. He challenged Catholics and non- Catholics alike to deepen our commitments to this nation’s most essential promise — the value of each human person. He pressed national leaders and Catholics to adopt a consistent ethic of human life, one that celebrated the dignity of every moment of human life from conception to natural death. He also stressed how that dignity should be central to our concerns in the times between the extremes of life’s beginning and ending. Cardinal Bernardin’s challenge still sits before us 20 years later.

Of course, Joseph Bernardin was a man of the church. Ordained a priest 10 years before the Second Vatican Council, he made the difficult transition from the church of incense and Latin prayers to the church of vernacular liturgy and folk Masses. He embraced the council, and his leadership helped Catholics find their footing while the church changed around them.

Even as the council became a source of division among some Catholics, Cardinal Bernardin worked to bring people together. We remember his Catholic Common Ground Initiative, launched only weeks before his death in 1996, where he urged Catholics to “leave behind whatever brings discord” in the life of the church so that we might “walk in communion” with one another.

But common ground was not a new idea for him. In his 1984 pastoral letter to the Catholics of Chicago, he wrote of “Our Communion, Our Peace, Our Promise.” We all belong to the liturgy, and to the church, and to the Lord, together. There is no other way.

Twenty years later, we still need Cardinal Bernardin’s voice that says these things. It is a voice that speaks healing words to division. It is a voice of courage that says what needs to be said. It is a voice that engages in dialogue by speaking truly and sincerely, but quiets itself while someone else speaks so that they can be heard. It is the voice of “a faithful follower of the Lord,” as the cardinal’s friend Father Scott Donahue summed up his life.

Ever ancient, ever new, like the church in which Cardinal Bernardin believed, it is a voice we each are called to use today.


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