Joseph Cardinal Bernardin: April 2, 1928 – November 14, 1996

Read an article from Bishop Kicanas on the 25th Anniversary of Cardinal Bernardin’s death

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

April 2, 1928 – November 14, 1996

On August 25, 1982, Joseph Bernardin, was installed as the Archbishop of Chicago. He was a breath of fresh air, a kind man, a priest amid people. The following month, I was ordained a deacon at the University of Notre Dame. Later in September, I met Archbishop Bernardin in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He preached at Eucharist celebrating the 125 Anniversary of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese. A deacon who was scheduled to serve that Mass became ill. I filled that role.

During the anniversary Mass, I had an idea. I thought if I could catch up with Archbishop Bernardin, I would ask him to ordain my class priests in the following April. Well, after Mass, he asked me to retrieve his homily on the podium from the arena. When I arrived back, we were alone in the same room. I asked him my request. He responded positively. I then had to go back to my superior and my classmates to tell them what I had done. They did not share my enthusiasm! As it turned out, Archbishop Bernardin did not want to ordain us before he had an opportunity to ordain his seminarians in Chicago. He later became Cardinal Bernardin.

In 1987, I accepted a position in the Office for Divine Worship in Chicago. As it turned out, I also spent three years on Bernardin’s priest council. At the time, there were 100 priests on that council. I listened to him lead and respond to criticism. I watched him support the efforts and concerns of the Archdiocese. I felt his love for God’s poor and marginalized. I watched him pray at Eucharist. His profound faith was inclusive and not harsh or rigid. He loved life and his priests and most especially the People of God. There was something very special about him as a man and as a leader.

The Office of Divine Worship was responsible for the large liturgies for the Archdiocese. Cardinal Bernardin had eight homily writers. He could not keep up with all his commitments in any given day. He wanted to make sure that what he said was accurate and inspiring. I remember filling out forms to give his writers about what to say at certain events. I felt deeply connected to him when I heard my words come out of his mouth at a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Neophytes one Easter Season.

His gifts of reverencing life from conception to the grave inspired me. His initiatives concerning the seamless garment of life were not accepted by other bishops. He worked tirelessly to support life in all its complexities, including the death penalty, homelessness, job concerns, nuclear war, and euthanasia. His willingness to step out in the rift of conflict over issues of social concern in a kind and generous many inspired so many faithful. His ability to listen was pure gift. His fearlessness loomed large to me as a young priest. In 1995, he received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, given in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society.  

He suffered much after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. While he was ill, a former seminarian accused him of abuse. Bernardin’s life became extremely public as those two issues became known. He handled his cancer and the accusation with sheer grace. The accusation was resolved before his death. I remember his face on the cover of Newsweek Magazine and the article about how to die with grace and dignity. He also received the Medal of Freedom from the White House while he was very ill.

I still have his death card in my Bible. I stare at his picture often. His voice is needed so much today, in the center of great divisions in our Church. I pray with him and for him, still hearing his gentle, slow voice in my life as a priest. Twenty-five years after his death, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, pray for us.

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