Several years ago, I was invited to a dinner party, a small one, and I knew that Joseph Bernardin would be among the guests. Naturally, I worried about all the wrong things.
A non-Catholic, I wondered what you were supposed to call the man who was then archbishop of Cincinnati. (He told me ''Father'' still sounded pretty good to him.)
And what, I fidgeted, would we talk about? (I was still young, but somehow I summoned up enough sense to listen instead of talk when I was seated next to him at dinner.)
A lot of people thought back then that this brilliant and youthful leader of the Cincinnati Archdiocese would be the first American pope, and nobody was surprised when he was named a cardinal and went to Chicago. Since he has been there, he has done precisely what might be expected of a great man who is also good.
And now he is dying. He says doctors give him less than a year.
I wish I had the chance to sit next to him again at dinner. This time, I think I would like to say some things. I wonder if he knows how important he has been to the spiritual life of people who are Presbyterian and Methodist and Baptist. Do you suppose he realizes what a stunning example of goodness he has been to us sinners of all persuasions?
In a world filled with leaders - religious and otherwise - who say one thing and mean another, Cardinal Bernardin has told the truth. Always.
He called racism worse than sin. He opposed U.S. military aid to Latin America's ruling juntas. He condemned the bombing of abortion clinics. He insisted that the Catholic church face the problem of sexual abuse by priests.
It must have been unendurable that he himself was accused of such a crime. In 1993, a former seminarian and Elder High School graduate said Cardinal Bernardin had molested him in the 1970s.
It was all very public and very ugly.
And very untrue.
A lost soul
Steven Cook recanted his accusation against Cardinal Bernardin, who ordered his lawyers not to retaliate with counter-suits. The cardinal said he didn't want victims of genuine abuse to be afraid to come forward.
Suffering from AIDS, Mr. Cook died a year ago. But not before Cardinal Bernardin, this ''prince of the church,'' flew to Philadelphia to meet with him. I do not believe that this was for any sort of ''closure'' for Cardinal Bernardin. I think he was flying to the rescue of a lost soul.
Cardinal Bernardin allowed the dying man to say he was sorry and forgave him promptly and absolutely. He celebrated Mass and gave Steven Cook a Bible. ''In every family, there are times when there is hurt, anger, alienation. But we cannot run away from our family. We have only one family, so we must make every effort to be reconciled,'' the cardinal said.
''The church is our spiritual family.''
Healing the church family
As perhaps the last project of his extraordinary life, Cardinal Bernardin has asked Roman Catholics to act like a family, a family that wants to get together for the big occasions. Customarily honest and unflinching, he says he is troubled by ''increasing polarization within the church and, at times, a mean-spiritedness.''
His Catholic Common Ground Project - a series of conferences on issues such as women as priests, birth control and the liturgy - is an effort to resolve the increasingly acrimonious differences that divide the nation's Roman Catholics.
''The unity of the church is threatened, the faithful members of the church are weary, and our witness to government, society and culture is compromised.''
And once again, this great and good man reminds us that sometimes we worry about all the wrong things.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.