Bernardin, Joseph Louis

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Bernardin, Joseph Louis

(b. 2 April 1928 in Columbia, South Carolina; d. 14 November 1996 in Chicago, Illinois), cardinal archbishop of Chicago for fourteen years; at the center of almost every major development of post Vatican II American Catholicism.

Bernardin was one of two children born to Joseph (”Bepi”) Bernardin, a stonecutter, and Maria M. Simion, immigrants from Tonadico di Primiero in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy, near Austria. Bepi died of cancer in 1934. Maria banked his insurance for education and worked as a seamstress, and for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to support her family. Bernardin cared for his younger sister and learned to prepare dinner. The family lived in a public housing project until 1951. He attended Catholic and public elementary schools, public high school, and one year of pre-med at the University of South Carolina. Upon acceptance as a candidate for the priesthood, Bernardin entered St. Mary’s College, St. Mary, Kentucky, to study Latin in a special makeup course. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. degree in philosophy from St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore (1948). Invited to complete his studies at the North American College (the traditional training ground for church leaders) in Rome, he declined because of his mother’s health.

Bernardin studied theology and received an M.A. in education from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (1952). Ordained to the priesthood by Bishop John J. Russell for the diocese of Charleston (26 April 1952), Bernardin spent fourteen years there, serving four bishops in many capacities. These included the offices of chancellor, vicar general, diocesan counselor, administrator of the diocese when the see was vacant, and chaplain at the Citadel, a military college in Charleston. He was named a papal chamberlain in 1959 and a domestic prelate in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. On 9 March 1966, Monsignor Bernardin was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta by Pope Paul VI. Upon his episcopal ordination (26 April 1966, with Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta as principal consecrator), he became the youngest bishop in the country. In Atlanta he served as vicar general and rector of the cathedral. After the death of Archbishop Hallinan in March 1968, Bernardin served as administrator of the archdiocese until the installation of the new archbishop.

On 10 April 1968, Bishop Bernardin was elected the first general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its social action agency, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), because of his administrative skills, energy, and ability as a mediator. During this period, the bishops were reorganizing according to the norms established by Vatican II, with emphasis on the collective role of the bishops, along with the pope, in governing the church. As general secretary, he served as coordinator of the reorganization until the latter part of 1972. During this term, he undertook a major study of the priesthood, which caused a great deal of controversy. (The study, in which psychological findings were written up by Eugene Kennedy and sociological findings by Andrew Greeley, was the best study ever done on the priesthood, according to priests consulted thirty years later. However, the nervous bishops did not appear eager to learn or reveal that much about themselves.)

On 21 November 1972, Bernardin was appointed archbishop of Cincinnati by Pope Paul VI, and was installed by the Most Rev. Luigi Raimondi, apostolic delegate to the United States, in ceremonies at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains (19 December 1972). He served the Ohio Metropolitan see for almost ten years. Here he joined a prayer group of younger priests, who challenged his priorities. Of swarthy complexion, he was balding and stocky and relished good food and wine. He dieted, lost the weight, and never regained it. He also began to devote the first hour of his day to prayer and meditation. Bernardin also gave away money and art objects as he went through a complete conversion.

From November 1974 to November 1977, Bernardin served as NCCB/USCC president, essentially head of the American Catholic hierarchy. On 10 July 1982, Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Chicago, the see left vacant by the death of John Cardinal Cody. His installation by the Most Rev. Pio Laghi, apostolic delegate, took place at Holy Name Cathedral on 24 August 1982. He was elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals on 2 February 1983, making him the first Italian-American cardinal.

Cardinal Bernardin oversaw the NCCB’s drafting of The Challenge of Peace, a pastoral letter on nuclear arms and American defense policy. This put him on the cover of Time on 29 November 1982. He received the Albert Einstein Peace Prize for this work in 1983. As chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, he gave an address at Fordham University in December 1983, recasting the church’s opposition to abortion as part of a “consistent ethic of life” that also opposed war and capital punishment. His expression “seamless garment,” meaning that all life is sacred and deserving of a mantle of protection, helped change the terms of the national debate on abortion.

In Chicago, Cardinal Bernardin inherited an archdiocese in chaos. Several hundred priests had resigned, vocations were down, population shifts had decimated many parishes, and morale was low. He had to close or consolidate churches and schools, many of which were more than 100 years old. Sexual abuse of young parishioners by some priests became a matter of public knowledge. In 1991 he took action and established Policies and Procedures to be Followed in Cases of Accusations of Sexual Abuse. A fitness review board for priests was also instituted. Many other dioceses adopted this program. Then, in November 1993, the cardinal himself became the target of sexual abuse charges. He turned the allegation over to the review committee and, standing alone, answered every question asked him at two news conferences, denying the charges. His accuser later recanted, and Bernardin traveled to Philadelphia to pray with the man just before he died of AIDS at the end of 1994.

In March 1995, Bernardin made his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, with a delegation of Catholic and Jewish leaders from Chicago. There he met with Israeli and Palestinian officials and spoke out against his church’s silence on the Holocaust. In May 1995 he received the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, considered by many to be the most prestigious Catholic award given in the United States.

Bernardin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and underwent surgery in June 1995. In an interview, he said that he had grown up with three fears: fear of death, fear of being falsely accused of something serious, and fear of cancer. Then, all three things threatened him at the same time. After speaking with his friend and fellow priest Henri Nouwen, Bernardin began to look upon death as a friend. “You begin to talk with your friend, and some of the fears dissipate.” As he underwent chemotherapy, he began an additional ministry to hundreds of cancer patients and to the dying.

In August 1996, Cardinal Bernardin announced the Catholic Common Ground Project to promote dialogue among American Catholics who disagree on church issues. Severely criticized for this by the cardinal archbishops of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., he responded, “Who says there is no dissent in the church?” Two weeks later, he learned that his cancer had returned and was terminal. His doctors informed him that the chemotherapy was not working, and he stopped the treatments.

President Clinton awarded Bernardin the Medal of Freedom, the government’s highest civilian honor, in September 1996, saying “in a time of transition in his church, his community, his nation, and the world, he has held fast to his mission to bring out the best in humanity and to bring people together. Without question, he is both a remarkable man of God and a man of the people.”

Shortly before his death, Bernardin wrote to the United States Supreme Court about doctor-assisted suicide: “Our legal and ethical tradition has held consistently that suicide, assisted-suicide, and euthanasia are wrong because they involve a direct attack on innocent human life.” But, he continued, an individual has the right to avoid extraordinary medical treatment when it is futile or unduly burdensome.

Under Pope Paul VI, Bernardin was appointed to the Sacred Congregation for Bishops (1973); to the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications (1974); and con-suitor for the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1978). Pope John Paul II appointed him to the following curial groups: the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law (1983); the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (1983–1988); and the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (1984). He was a delegate to, and served on the council of, the Synod of Bishops from 1974 to 1990.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was a skilled mediator and troubleshooter. Cool in controversy, he was warm and affable in his personal contacts, with a good sense of humor. He spoke Italian, Latin, English, and Spanish and liked to walk, cook, swim, and attend the symphony and baseball games. A careful planner, he slept only six hours a night, using the other hours for his writing. The post Vatican II church was often divided over issues such as human sexuality, the role of women in the church, and priestly celibacy. The Vietnam War, the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned contraception, the abortion struggle, and racial tensions, were major issues during his tenure. His was a strong voice on pro-life issues, nuclear weapons, peace, and the politics of wealth and poverty. He developed models for cutbacks in the schools and churches of Chicago, dealing with clerical abuse, and dialogue between priests and laity. And he supervised the reorganization of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Without him, the American Catholic Church would have been vastly different. Bernardin died of pancreatic and liver cancer, at the age of sixty-eight. He is buried in the bishops’ chapel at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Chicago.

Cardinal Bernardin’s papers are in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center, Chicago, Illinois. The Consistent Ethic of Life (1988), includes ten of his major addresses, as well as response papers from a symposium. The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections (1997), was finished two weeks before his death. The Word of Cardinal Bernardin, edited by Paolo Magagnotti (1996), is a collection of his works and addresses. John H. White’s photographs of the Cardinal, with text by Eugene Kennedy, are contained in This Man Bernardin (1996). Kennedy, a long-time friend, also wrote Bernardin: Life to the Full (1997) and My Brother Joseph: The Spirit of a Cardinal and the Story of a Friendship (1997). See also Tim Unsworth, I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago (1997). Magazine and journal articles include Kenneth L. Woodward and John Mc-Cormick, “The Art of Dying Well,” NewsweeK (25 Nov. 1996); Jeffrey L. Sheler, “I See Death as a Friend,” U.S. News and World Report (25 Nov. 1996); an interview in the New York Times Magazine on “Death as a Friend” (1 Dec. 1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune (all 15 Nov. 1996).

Mary Nahon Galgan