“That Pope Man”: The Life & Death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)
Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Chicago archbishop whose pacific pastoral ministry of reconciliation and amity endures.
His last book, The Gift of Peace, unforgettably recounts the spiritual and physical courage he demonstrated in his last three years.
It begins with a former seminarian’s false allegation of sexual misconduct, followed by his accuser’s recantation and Bernardin’s moving pilgrimage of forgiveness to the dying man.
It ends with discovery of the pancreatic cancer that, after 17 months, would take his life.
Completed on All Saints’ Day, 1996, only thirteen days before his death, a hand-written letter to readers is its preface:
“To paraphrase Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘it has been the best of times, it has been the worst of times.’ The worst because of the humiliation, physical pain, anxiety, and fear. The best because of reconciliation, love, pastoral sensitivity and peace that have resulted from God’s grace and the support of so many people…God can write straight with crooked lines.”
With humility and wit, The Gift of Peace chronicles the joys and sorrows of Bernardin’s life. Through it all shines the gentle benedictive voice of its author.
Sr. Rachel Bergschneider, OSB, pastoral associate at St. Thomas parish in Peoria Heights, is one admirer:
“It’s a marvelous book, a great testimony to his faith that death was such a friend to him.”
Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, remembers Bernardin’s visits to the University of Notre Dame, where he assisted the Cardinal at Mass. “[He was] very kind, very intelligent and gentle. He realized near the end of his life that folks loved their Bishop and wanted him home rather than away at meetings–a good lesson for all Bishops.
“His life and death are a legacy to all the faithful. He was a good shepherd to Chicago and served the universal Church as well.”
Sr. Rachel agrees, noting his ministry for peace and the “Seamless Garment” consistent ethic of life from conception to death.
She also praised “his efforts to bring people of different and diverse opinions to a consensus through the Common Ground Project he initiated.”
Last night, Sr. Rachel appended this.
“The spirit of Cardinal Bernadin, these 18 years after his death, is exemplified in yet another servant of God’s people, Pope Francis. I can’t help but compare the two men for their gentle, generous, and compassionate presence in a world so sorely in need of such gifts. Cardinal Bernadin, for me, understood and fostered the Gospel of Jesus He grasped the work of the Church in the twentieth century as narrated by the Second Vatican Council. The Church (and the world) would do well to listen intently to his message as well as that of Pope Francis.”
Bernardin’s book first confronts the “deep humiliation” of the 1993 sexual accusation.
Former Journal Star reporter Ray Long was covering politics for the Chicago Sun-Times when Bernardin convened a press conference to address the allegation. Even though the newspaper’s religion editor was present, Long’s editors called him in to be “the hammer.”
“You know how it goes,” Long told me later. “The room was packed. No one asked any questions. So I threw him a softball, a friendly, easy one first.”
“Time was running short,” Long, sitting in the overcrowded room’s front row, recalled. “The key question had not been asked. So I asked, ‘I realize these are personal questions, but have you ever had sex of any kind?’
“Bernardin replied, ‘I’m 65 years old and I can tell you that all my life I have lived a chaste and celibate life’.”
“You had to ask the tough questions to be fair. It was a hardball, high and inside, and he knocked it out of the park.”
“I could read in the eyes of the assembled journalists that they believed me,” Bernardin wrote.
“I believed him,” Long said.
With Long (now a state political reporter for the Chicago Tribune) that day was Pulitzer Prize-winning Sun-Times photographer John White.
Several years after the Cardinal’s death, White was a guest of the Illinois Community College Journalism Association at its spring meeting at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago.
In his presentation, he showed the student journalists assembled slides of his best photographs, including the one of his colleague Long asking The Question.
I raised my hand, told him that I knew Ray from his Journal Star days here, and asked him what he was thinking when Long asked the Cardinal about his sexuality.
White paused, recalling the shock of that moment.
Finally he said:
“I had a hard time forgiving him for a long while. Finally I realized that instead of trying to hurt him, he was offering him a way for the Cardinal to be exonerated.”
Br. Donald Houde, CSV, who was an English teacher and later principal at Spalding Institute in Peoria and worked in the Chicago Archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education while Bernardin was Archbishop, was likewise there:
“He was calm and ready to follow the regulations that he set up for any priest who was guilty of that misconduct. We who knew the Cardinal were numb in our unbelief. We were in awe of his courage. He went higher in our esteem. Time and agony followed, and I was there when he held the press conference telling reporters with the same dignity that the young man admitted that he had lied. He then told us he visited the young man and forgave him.”
Of that moment, when his tearful accuser apologized for the untrue allegation and accepted his offer to celebrate Mass with him right then, Bernardin wrote: “Never in my priesthood have I witnessed a more profound reconciliation.”
Jim Croegaert, a retired hospital chaplain who served at Presence Resurrection Medical Center from 1998 to 2014 and likewise a Peoria native now living in Evanston who was also a Spalding English student of Br. Houde as I was, remembers queueing for hours to pay his respects to Cardinal Joe.
Yesterday he wrote:
“I re-read this, Mike, and it holds up well, although also, of course, Bernardin’s legacy finds new air in Pope Francis, a kindred spirit. (Ironically, many thought Bernardin might someday be the first American Pope.)
“I will always remember taking the train downtown and waiting in line (it stretched entirely around the block) to view his body and pay respects. I was not, of course, at that time a practicing Catholic, but I had such a strong sense of him as pastor.He was pastor to the entire city and suburbs, not only to Catholics but to everyone.
“[Wife] Janalee’s great-aunt lived in Columbia, South Carolina, and I remember we attended Sunday mass once in the parish where Bernardin had grown up in. Reading the bulletin, Bernardin was a common parish name.”
“But striking to me was the thought of him growing up Catholic there where Catholics were such a minority, and ending up in Chicago where a white Baptist was more rare than white-tailed deer and where the Church he led was a most significant –perhaps the most significant–player in the political game.”
“A sign of that was all the police who were present at the viewing. I also remember that it was really cold waiting in line, a November night not too unlike now. But people were patient and determined to pay respects to someone they loved.”
On Nov. 14, 1996, the day after Cardinal Bernardin died, Croegaert, a Dove Award-winning singer and songwriter, wrote this poem which appeared as liner notes on his album In Between:
“I was running by the lake
My favorite part of my run
Usually I turn off
radio or tape
Listen to the waves
Breathe the air
But this evening they were talking
This evening they were talking
about the Cardinal
who died last night
and I heard
between and through the words and
feet on pavement
waves on shore
“This was a holy man, this
was a true shepherd
for all of us, all
And as I turned
away from the lake back
toward home my eyes
were moist with my
Croegaert’s were not the only eyes that were moistened when death came to the Cardinal.
Benardin’s decision to fully disclose the news of his cancer required even greater fortitude. He was “dying publicly.”
His chronicle of his ordeal in The Gift Of Peace is frank but spare. Gentle jokes pervade what could be a grim account. He finds himself serving as an unofficial chaplain to some 700 fellow cancer patients, including the little girl who said, “I want to see that Pope man.”
“Suffering and pain make little sense to me without God,” he declares, “only in terms of their redemptive, salvific qualities. My decision to go through my cancer in public has been to share a simple message: faith really matters.”
Concluding his book, Bernardin wrote, “I am both exhausted and exhilarated. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace”
“Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying….But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder.
“It is quite clear I will not be alive in the spring. But I will experience new life in a different way.”
“I will be home.”
This brave book is a precious portrait of a single soul’s triumph. In a full life of dedication to his faith and his faithful, Joseph Bernardin saved his best for last.
Br. Houde remembers him:
“He was a holy man. He was shy. He was very kind to people. He was always very well prepared for the tasks ahead of him–yes, even death.”