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Steven P. MilliesNovember 12, 2021
The late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin is pictured with children in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy John H. White)

“Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?”

Chicago came to a stop on Nov. 20, 1996, as Father Ken Velo offered the homily at Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s funeral Mass, recalling the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It was a different time in the church. Over 1,300 mourners had gathered, including Vice President Al Gore and other members of the Clinton Administration, just weeks after Clinton had given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cardinal Bernardin. Thousands more lined Chicago’s streets.

I can recall watching the funeral live from Washington, D.C., where I was a graduate student. Though the church was divided in those days in an argument over the meaning of the Second Vatican Council, and there were tensions between the church and the world about political and social questions, the Catholic Church in the United States was still facing confidently toward the world, and Cardinal Bernardin had been one the church’s most welcoming faces.

What can explain how the archbishop of Chicago’s death captured such wide attention?

Journalist Peter Steinfels would remember that day of the funeral several years later, writing, “This was a Catholicism alive and rooted, public in its service to the city.” The passage of years changed things, he wrote, and “Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.” Steinfels wrote that in 2003.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was an improbable icon for that ecclesiastical moment, and perhaps for any other. He was born in 1928 in Columbia, S.C., to parents so recently emigrated from Italy that they discovered their pregnancy while on their voyage to the United States. Ordained in 1952 and made diocesan chancellor by 1956, he experienced a rise that was swift and a little improbable.

Joseph Bernardin was the only Catholic bishop produced by the Diocese of Charleston in the 20th century. His unlikely path toward the highest levels of the Catholic Church resulted from an unstable period that saw four bishops in Charleston between 1958-1964. Father Bernardin’s rare administrative gifts made him indispensable; by 1966 he was auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, the youngest bishop in America.

His ministry brought him from marching in Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession and signing a pastoral letter against the war in Vietnam during the late 1960’s, to the nuclear arms race, the AIDS crisis and the rise of globalism in the 1980’s and 1990’s. His cancer diagnosis and eventual death on Nov. 14, 1996 may have been the last event in the world to have captured the religious imagination of Catholics, other believers and nonbelievers.

What can explain how the archbishop of Chicago’s death captured such wide attention?

To some degree it was the man himself, including the way he suffered cancer and died so publicly with moving dignity. But there was also something else: Cardinal Bernardin’s life and ministry bore witness to something important that our church and our world have forgotten, a way to be fellow believers that was not complicated by angry cultural and political arguments. That way of being believers was a message for the rest of the world which said that commitments to peace and justice were possible across differences. Cardinal Bernardin’s life was a testament to the possibility of sharing a common ground, and the hope that disagreements can be set aside to pursue consensus wherever it might be found.

Cardinal Bernardin’s life was a testament to the possibility of sharing a common ground, and the hope that disagreements can be set aside to pursue consensus.

We focus on differences today in the church in a way that obscures important agreements. The way we remember Cardinal Bernardin offers a useful example. The relationship between Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bernardin was one of the most consequential collaborations in 20th-century Catholicism, despite the assumptions that are made so readily about the liberal cardinal” and the conservative pope.” The two had met in the 1970’s while they were archbishop of Cincinnati and Kraków respectively. Years later, in 1982, John Paul told him “I am placing all my hopes in you” when he sent Bernardin to Chicago.

Cardinal Bernardin shared quite a lot of common ground with Pope John Paul II, including a consistent opposition to abortion. That common ground was reflected in John Paul’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae,” which adopted Cardinal Bernardin’s framework of a consistent ethic of life into the papal magisterium (“Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good.”).

By 1996, Bernardin observed that differences among Catholics had begun to grow to the point of dividing parishes and families in ways we would find familiar today. With Msgr. Philip Murnion, Cardinal Bernardin announced the Catholic Common Ground Initiative (aBernardin Center program today) just weeks before his death, with hopes to leave a legacy of dialogue in the church he knew he would not live to see. Five U.S. cardinals blindsided Bernardin and attacked the Common Ground Initiative in the days after it was announced. As Bernardin met the end of his life, the door had been closed on dialogue among U.S. Catholics. It was a dark moment.

I think often about what people close to Cardinal Bernardin told me about those last weeks while I was researching the biography I wrote about him. In different places and at different times, I heard the same thing from three different people: a false allegation of sexual abuse in 1993 had hurt Bernardin terribly, and his cancer diagnosis was a devastating blow. But the wound that stung when he died was that attack on the Common Ground Initiative. Nothing else cut so deep. In part, it was a sense of betrayal. But beyond the betrayal, as Bernardin’s biographer, I have often wondered whether what also haunted him in his last weeks was a sense of dread about the future of the church and our country.

We know today that dread would have been justified. Divisions in the church have worsened beyond anything Bernardin could have imagined 25 years ago, and Roman Catholics have seen our divisions spill out into the political and social realm. At one time in American history, a Roman Catholic president united Catholics in pride and a shared sense that Catholics have something to contribute to American life, even as John F. Kennedy had told voters that, “I believe in an America...where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope.” Today, a Roman Catholic president is a source of deep division among Catholics who cannot even agree if Joe Biden is Catholic. Then again, there are good reasons to doubt that Joe Biden would unite even Catholics today if he sought instructions from Pope Francis.

I look back on what Peter Steinfels wrote about the church with all this in mind. Indeed, we have been “on the verge of an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.” The narrative of decline would be difficult to deny at this point. But the whole future is not written yet, and division does not need to be our destiny. Pope Francis has seized the occasion of the pandemic to call us back to shared responsibility and to overcome our divisions. He wrote in Let Us Dream that we must “engage with conflict and disagreement in ways that prevent us from deteriorating into polarization” by “allowing for new thinking” through “consensus-building, by debate and dialogue rather than acts of force.” We have an opportunity in this moment to choose something better, a different path.

Cardinal Bernardin had the same insight many years ago in remarks he made for the 25th anniversary of “Gaudium et Spes” at Villanova University in 1990, when he spoke of the need for “a new perspective, a new way of looking at both the church and the world, and, perhaps, even a new heart.” Only this way, Bernardin said, can we respond to the Gospel’s insistent call to stand “in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in the human family.”

Many years later it is easy to feel caught in a pervasive and consuming discouragement that our polarization cannot be overcome. But we are not powerless. We can choose, and we have guides to help us. Now on this anniversary of his death, we can return to Cardinal Bernardin as a way to imagine a way to respond to Pope Francis’s more contemporary call.

Many years later it is easy to feel caught in a pervasive and consuming discouragement that our polarization cannot be overcome. But we are not powerless.

Cardinal Bernardin often linked his ministry to the teachings and vision of Vatican II, which focused the church’s attention on the modern world. In the end, perhaps this is where we need to focus our attention too. Our long season of division, the one Cardinal Bernardin addressed in his lifetime and which has stretched many years beyond his death, began after the council and centered on the discomfort many Catholics felt then and still feel about acknowledging what is good in the world around us.

This is the source of the controversy surrounding Pope Francis’s recent restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass, and it touches the familiar arguments about religious liberty, abortion and everything that can be labeled as secularism. Cardinal Bernardin’s ministry affirmed that the church has much to learn from the world. That is true, and it is the central idea with which we need to begin. Or, as Pope Francis wrote in Let Us Dream, “The world is God’s gift to us.”

Do Catholics see the world as “God’s gift to us”? Do Catholics want a church that is “alive and rooted, public in its service to the city” and the world? If we really do, then there is much evidence to affirm that we need to make different choices. For years the church has mirrored back and even deepened the world’s divisions. That divisiveness has cost the church much of its cultural relevance and many Catholics have left perhaps because the church has begun to seem too much like a refuge for opposition to the world. But Catholics can choose a better, more constructive relationship to the world while yet bearing witness to the truth of justice and mercy, peace and love that is our faith. Now can be a moment to choose a different way.

“Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?”

A better way “calls for the best of which we are capable,” as Cardinal Bernardin told his 1990 audience. When we trust that “Jesus, who is ever present among us through his Holy Spirit, is still Lord of the universe and head of the church,” then “We have the firm assurance that...in the end his will, his plan, will prevail.” Catholics can embrace the world and yet be faithful, heal divisions while yet proclaiming what we believe. Cardinal Bernardin did it, and so have others. In this way, Cardinal Bernardin’s ministry is alive today in Pope Francis’ ministry, as it must be in every Christian’s witness who calls us to the better way.

May Joseph Louis Bernardin continue to rest in God’s peace. And, by his example, may we all come to know better what he called in his final testament, The Gift of Peace, assuring us:

When we are at peace, we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times. We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential. We empty ourselves so that God may more fully work within us. And we become instruments in the hands of the Lord.

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