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In Memoriam: Cardinal Bernardin

November 14, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The head of Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese died last night from pancreatic cancer. He was 68. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was the nation’s senior Roman Catholic leader. He was born in South Carolina, the son of Italian immigrants. His father was a stonecutter, his mother a seamstress. At age 38, he became the youngest bishop in the nation. He also served as head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Pope John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 1983. Correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of public station WTTW in Chicago reports on the city’s reaction to his death.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Heads were bowed in churches across Chicago today, but even as people grieve for the loss of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, they were comforted by remembering the way he had faced his death.

JOSEPH CARDINAL BERNARDIN: Many people have asked me why I’m at peace, or how I can be at peace, and first of all, you have to put yourself totally in the hands of the Lord. Secondly, you have to begin seeing death not so much as an enemy but as a friend. And thirdly, you have to begin letting go. And if you can do those three things, then you experience peace.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cardinal Bernardin came to Chicago 14 years ago to minister to a flock of 2.3 million Catholics. He will be remembered for many things, but perhaps he will be remembered most for the way he died.

JOHN CARDINAL MAHONY, Archbishop, Los Angeles: In my years as ministry as a priest, of course, have been with a lot of people who have been dying, and I would say he’s probably one of the most peaceful persons I’ve ever seen at this particular stage in his life.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Those who have come to stand vigil in the cold night said he had taught them much about facing death.

GLORIA DUDAY: Perhaps in this area, we sort of need to realize death is part of life.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Just after the Cardinal learned that his cancer was fatal, he explained why he had chosen to share with the world what most people share only with their families.

JOSEPH CARDINAL BERNARDIN: (August) You are my family, and the people who are listening this or watching this, they are my family. I’ve given my whole life to this family. And I’m referring not only to the Catholic members of the archdiocese, but I’m referring to–to everyone. And so why shouldn’t I share it? And then to be more practical, if I didn’t, you’d find out anyway.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The end came shortly after 1:30 AM in Chicago. His body was removed from his home by the priests and nuns who had been with him throughout the night. Father Michael Place, the Cardinal’s theologian, said he was not surprised by the city’s reaction to the Cardinal’s death.

FATHER MICHAEL PLACE: There are not tears. There’s a sadness, because of the loss, but I think the–the response to his death is a reflection of how he died. People are experiencing it as a victory.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At a time of many divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic Church, Father Place says the Cardinal will be remembered for his efforts to bring the Church together through a project known as Common Ground.

FATHER MICHAEL PLACE: So the name of the Common Ground project was let’s–there is more that we have in common than we know, and if we are able to claim what is in common, we’ll find the source from which we can resolve or address, at least, in a better way those things which have divided us.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cardinal Bernardin will be remembered not only for his efforts to bring unity within the Catholic Church but for his efforts to reach out to other religions as well. The Cardinal brought Chicago’s leading Jewish and Protestant leaders together in an Ecumenical Council. Rabbi Herman Schaalman was one of those leaders.

RABBI HERMAN SCHAALMAN: I think the impact on the city was probably the most important, immediate motivating factor, but I think it was also an enormous side effect, and maybe that’s not even the right word, in bringing us all together. The very fact that the heads of the judicatories would know each other, would talk to each other, would meet with each other, would go and address common problems, just simply hadn’t happened before.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Cardinal did face dissension in the archdiocese–protests when he moved to close churches and schools for budgetary reasons, many in minority neighborhoods. Still, African-American priests say it was his ability to listen that will be treasured.

FATHER JOHN PIDERIT: I think about the Cardinal’s great gift of conciliation, his great concern about the various ways in which we can become centered and divided, and even confrontational, and his sense of wanting to be there to listen.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The city has had time to say goodbye to the Cardinal. At his last public appearance, the dedication of the Loyola Cancer Center renamed in his honor, the priest offered this blessing on his behalf.

PRIEST: He is our brother, Joseph. He has taught us Your ways of living and dying. We ask You now, loving God, to be His joy and gladness, to be His rest and peace.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Mass of Christian burial for the Cardinal will be held at noon on Wednesday.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now for more on the Cardinal’s life, we turn to Eugene Kennedy, Professor Emeritus at Loyola University in Chicago. His biography of Cardinal Bernardin was published in 1992. Thank you very much for being with us, and my condolences. I know you were both biographer and friend.

EUGENE KENNEDY, Bernardin Biographer: (Chicago) Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He–this was a man who was appointed bishop at age 38 and had many, many great achievements after that, including the way people in Chicago seem to feel about him. What was the key to his success?

EUGENE KENNEDY: Well, I believe Cardinal Bernardin had the great gift of being himself throughout his life. He never used artifice. He did not manipulate people, and a culture grown accustomed to an almost acceptant of public figures who depend upon public relations firms, image-making, and spin doctors to communicate their message. Cardinal Bernardin had that wonderful simplicity of a thoroughly good man, a man confident in himself, who needed none of those props, nor any of those intermediaries between himself and his people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So even after becoming a Cardinal, a prince of the Church, he remained very much a simple man?

EUGENE KENNEDY: He was the least self-conscious of men. Uh, he was simple in the Gospel meaning of that word, that his heart was pure, and his eye was single in its intention to serve human beings. He didn’t categorize them as Catholics or Protestants or Jews. He responded very much in the name of the Gospel and Christ’s message to all people in all situations. He was also an intuitive leader and mediator and became, I believe, because of that perhaps the most significant Church man in the latter half of this century.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Looking at some of the specific things he did as a significant Church man, he wrote much of the Pastoral Letter, the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter, didn’t he, in 1983, about nuclear war. Tell us about that.

EUGENE KENNEDY: Yes. That letter was called the “Challenge of Peace,” and Cardinal Bernardin was the chairman of the committee that was charged by the bishops, themselves, to draft it. And in that, he showed all the skills he had as a mediator because he had to demonstrate that he could hear very different voices. On one side of the committee, there was an activist bishop who was very much involved in peace causes, Bishop Gumbel did of Detroit, and there was also John Cardinal O’Connor of New York who had been the chief of naval chaplains. Now, to hear both of their ways of looking at this meditation on nuclear arms and peace in what was still the height of the Cold War and the Reagan build-up of arms, required a man who could truly listen and who was credible because he did convey what bumps I’d felt to the other side. They were able then to hear each other and forged together a document which attracted the attention and stirred the conscience of the entire country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The document which came out against first use of nuclear weapons.

EUGENE KENNEDY: That’s correct.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And explain the seamless garment of ethics that he talked about. What was he really trying to get at?

EUGENE KENNEDY: Well, Cardinal Bernardin introduced devotion of a consistent ethic of life. Some people do refer to it as the seamless garment. Because he wanted to identify in the life that he lived so fully that became itself symbolic of being pro-life. He wanted to identify the fact that if you are going to be pro-life, then you could not think of life as a cause in only one dimension; that you had to see that there was a connection between every one of those instances in which life might be threatened or be put at risk, and you had to make up your mind and face your conscience on all of these and not merely on one. Abortion, of course, was the principal one, as he well recognized, but he saw others about which he hoped that Catholics and others would, indeed, search their own consciences, including capital punishment, uh, food programs, and so forth. He did not hold all these as having the same moral valence, but he did feel that if we were going to look at life and be moral at all, we had to be consistent and not selective in the issues which, in fact, symbolize that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He said he’d always been afraid of three things in his life: false accusation, cancer, and death. And in the past few years, he had to face all three, didn’t he?

EUGENE KENNEDY: He did that. He was given a very unusual calling for a man who had risen to be the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. I believe his calling was to face the things that frighten all Americans, false accusation and death and illness, and to show in that way that he was in favor of life because he faced these by living directly, being honest, not dissembling, uh, not sparing himself any of these experiences. I believe he is, in fact, in himself far more than any lawsuits or court material the counter-cultural figure to Dr. Kevorkian. Uh, Cardinal Bernardin understood that suffering could be made, then put to the service of greater gains and redemption. This is part of what made him such a great and influential man. He reintroduced the notion of mature spirituality into the dialogue of American life.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He was so open about his last weeks. He said that he often found himself weeping at night. I mean, he really spoke about the details of his suffering.

EUGENE KENNEDY: Yes. I think that in many ways Cardinal Bernardin had that wonderful human character that we saw in Pope John XXIII. He did not try to tell us that nothing hurt. He was a true man, but not in the macho ethic of pretending that there were no emotions that were manifest when such things as life and death were in the scale, nor did he think that people of faith were less people of faith because in the face of death they might find that doubts or questions crept into their minds. He understood that to be a Christian or a believer of any kind, you had to embrace anything that was fully human as Jesus did.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you, Mr. Kennedy. That’s all the time. We have. Thank you very much.