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Joseph Cardinal Bernardin: 1928 - 1996

The Truth Makes Us Free

BY William Stetson

November 24, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/24/96 at 2:00 PM

 

A NOBLE SOUL and towering figure of the Catholic Church locally, nationally and worldwide has passed from the scene. He did not think of himself that way. To himself and towards others he was simply Joseph Bernardin. He was my friend. While I pray for the repose of his soul, confident that God has rewarded him for his labors, I will miss him.

The last time I was with him, a few weeks ago, he reminded me that he still intended to come for dinner at my house in spite of having to cut back on his activities because of his illness. When he came for dinner during Christmas a couple of years ago there was a large package under the tree, festively wrapped, left for him by Santa Claus. We all laughed as he undid the wrapping paper to reveal an Italian cookbook. He was that way. A quiet person, with a big heart open to all the world. He did not stand aloof on the dignity of being the cardinal archbishop of Chicago. He extended to all he met the warmth of his friendship and thus won the hearts of millions.

It was this openness to everyone that undoubtedly shaped Joseph Bernardin's most outstanding characteristic. All his priestly life he sought to reconcile differences among people that often produced unjust actions and conditions. He wanted to heal the wounded, to reconcile differences and to create consensus. This was true of his earliest efforts to eliminate racial segregation in the South where he was born. It was the case of his most recent initiative to promote understanding and reconciliation among opposing factions in the Catholic Church. While you might disagree with him on some of the positions he took, you could not doubt his compassion or sincerity.

Ordained a priest in 1952, Joseph Bernardin was formed by the Catholic intellectual currents that found expression in the Second Vatican Council. From the moment Pope Paul VI made him a bishop in 1966, he dedicated himself generously, through his episcopal ministry, to the internal renewal of the Church. With faith and love, he also sought to present the Church's message of hope to the world. As general secretary and later as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops he played a significant role in giving life and direction to that institution called for by the council, under the guidance of his mentor and friend, Cardinal John Deardon. For more than 20 years he contributed actively to the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops. As archbishop of Cincinnati and later in Chicago, the nation's second largest See, he devoted himself to the pastoral renewal of the local Church in the light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the changing circumstances of American society.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin will be the example of the quiet, faith filled courage with which he bore the sufferings of the last years of his life. First there was the calumnious accusation publicly made against him. He endured that humiliation as Jesus submitted to his unjust death, knowing that the truth makes us free. From the beginning he pardoned his accuser. In the same way he faced the truth of his approaching death from cancer with utmost sincerity, even in the public eye. He knew and bore witness to the truth that the way of the cross is the way to life. His last public statement was to bear witness to the immensity of the gift of life.

An infrequently mentioned characteristic of Cardinal Bernardin was his devotion to our Blessed Mother. A few years ago, when the largest church in Illinois—dedicated to the Mary—was in danger of being torn down as a result of the changing patterns of Catholic parochial life in Chicago, he found the way to make sure that this did not happen. Today the Church of St. Mary of the Angels, with its bright blue light and white dome, reminds the millions who pass by on the nearby Kennedy Expressway of the love of the Mother of Life. This too is a lasting part of the legacy of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

Very Rev. William Stetson is delegate vicar of Opus Dei in Chicago.