Pope and Card. Bernardin
Visiting with Pope
John Paul II in October
November 14, 1996
Joseph Bernardin:

Faithful servant
called home

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cardinal Joseph Louis Bernardin, the former Cincinnati archbishop who inspired trust and affection from the pews to the papacy, died early Thursday morning after a long bout with cancer.

He was 68 and had been archbishop of Chicago since leaving Cincinnati in 1982.

It was an uncommonly public death that began last year with Cardinal Bernardin's announcement that he was terminally ill and his affirmation that ''as a person of faith, I see death as a friend, as the transition from earthly life to life eternal."

Since then, his vulnerability and faith have evoked awe and underlined the gap between believers and secular American society.

Cardinal Bernardin initially went about his job with minimal concessions to the illness that killed him. In late October, however, he handed over daily duties to auxiliary bishops, leaving him free to concentrate on people and projects closest to his heart.

By early November, he was restricting his trips away from his residence and had to skip the meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops - a group he helped shape as chief of staff, president and its foremost consensus builder.

All the while, Cardinal Bernardin remained in touch with hundreds of cancer victims who reached out to him, offering or seeking comfort. These included patients who shared a cancer ward with him and to whom he gave his private telephone number.

The cardinal was a major force in the wider Catholic Church for a quarter-century, during which he won a credibility that few American religious leaders earn and retain. Not even a former Elder High School student's accusation of sodomy - later recanted - tarnished his reputation.

From the time he reached Cincinnati and began to draw wider attention, Cardinal Bernardin was bedeviled by liberal hopes that he would be the first American pope.

That wasn't to be. A Polish priest from Krakow, whom he befriended at Vatican gatherings and entertained in Cincinnati, was elected, chose the name John Paul II and proved hardier than critics and a would-be assassin imagined.

Detractors and allies argued whether the cardinal was truly humble or subtly ambitious, but there was no question about his unapologetic striving for a stronger, more pastoral church.

Thus, it was characteristic that his final legacy was a call for a series of conferences, the Catholic Common Ground Project, to ease infighting over abortion, women's ordination, contraception and priestly celibacy.

Not surprisingly, his last peacemaking impulse provoked further rancor. Liberals either applauded or accused Cardinal Bernardin of seeking obedience to teachings they questioned or rejected. A few vocal cardinals and other conservatives complained that such conferences risked reducing church teachings to the lowest common denominator and misleading the faithful.

All of which underlines the fact that teaching contentious Catholics to be civil, let alone love one another, is painful and difficult, ''and the rewards are relatively meager,'' according to the cardinal's Cincinnati successor, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk.

Such qualms aside, the son of Italian immigrants was unequaled when it came to helping Vatican officials understand evolving American Catholicism.

''I'm told my father was a great reconciler, that he didn't like conflicts and always tried to bring people together,'' the cardinal told biographer Eugene Kennedy in the new book This Man Bernardin. ''When people tell me I have similar traits, I know it is because of my father."

In the 1940s, Cardinal Bernardin's widowed mother hoped her only son would become a physician, but young priests from his hometown parish talked him into leaving the University of South Carolina for the seminary. He never looked back.

When Pope Paul VI promoted him to Cincinnati in 1972, Bishop Bernardin was a successful, well-connected young bureaucrat who had served four years as consensus-building chief of staff to the nation's bishops in Washington, D.C.

He also became the first Italian-American archbishop in this country's Roman Catholic Church and the youngest American archbishop at the time.

By the time he reached Cincinnati - his first home where Catholics were not a tiny minority - he already was known as a ''priest's priest'' for whom clergy liked to work. He had dropped the Southern accent that sophisticated mentors warned would hinder his career.

A power in Rome

In 1974, Archbishop Bernardin received a tangible measure of the esteem when colleagues elected him president of their National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a three-year term he filled by commuting between his office at Eighth and Walnut streets in Cincinnati and Washington.

The conference sent him to Rome, where he met and worked with the future pope.

''Bernardin has had a tremendous amount of clout in Rome,'' and that was the problem, complained Al Matt Jr., editor/publisher of the Wanderer, a conservative national Catholic weekly from St. Paul, Minn. He said Cardinal Bernardin led bishops who represented ''an American Catholic Church,'' something ''uniquely American and characteristic of an American political and social mind-set... and that's a bad thing."

In that role, Mr. Matt said, the cardinal urged Vatican officials to understand that American culture affected how Catholics accepted and viewed their faith, and ''how we practice the faith.'' For instance, Mr. Matt said, Cardinal Bernardin helped liberalize annulment rules so divorced American Catholics could remarry in the church.

An admired leader

Mr. Matt's grievance was not unique, yet Archbishop Bernardin's admirers were legion.

Ohioans quickly learned to enjoy what biographer Kennedy described as their new archbishop's most prominent traits: consistency, reliability and trustworthiness.

They also came to appreciate how the archbishop's life reflected what Mr. Kennedy said was his mother's example: ''faith grounded in reality, an earthy and forgiving spirituality, gravity of purpose suffused with good humor, a modest sense of himself.''

The archbishop also pursued an active, if private prayer life, said the Rev. James Heft, a member of the Society of Mary. The archbishop ordained Father Heft shortly after arriving in Cincinnati, and when he learned that young Father Heft taught about the Christian tradition of prayer at the University of Dayton, Archbishop Bernardin said he'd like to drop by to talk.

Assuming this would involve a critique of his class, Father Heft readied all of his course materials, but Archbishop Bernardin ''wanted to talk about prayer'' itself. ''He was really interested in exploring the spiritual life."

It became a ''Jim and Joe'' relationship and a ''wonderful run of candid conversations'' that ranged from personal difficulties with prayer to books that spoke to their souls, Father Heft said.

Chicagoans had an inkling of all of this in 1982 when the Cincinnatian was assigned to their far more populous archdiocese - and they reveled unashamedly in their good fortune. At the time, many said they wouldn't be surprised if he walked across Lake Michigan to his installation.

John Paul made Archbishop Bernardin a cardinal in 1983, and the honeymoon with the people, the priests and members of religious orders never really ended, despite rocky moments over parish closings and other local issues.

The rhetorical question that Cardinal Bernardin asked at his Chicago installation had been answered in Cincinnati: ''What manner of man is Joseph Bernardin? Is he the man of faith, prayer and compassion that a diocese needs, or is he a career bureaucrat rewarded for his loyalty?''

He was ''such a sensitive and feeling and welcoming person'' that he seemed too good to be true, Archbishop Pilarczyk said.

''It was no facade," said Sister Mary Ann Barnhorn, long a leader among the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who worked closely with the archbishop in Cincinnati and the cardinal in Chicago. ''He really likes people."

Or, as Archie Bruun, who became head of Cincinnati archdiocesan social action programs under Archbishop Bernardin, put it, ''People were attracted to him. You felt very secure with him. You felt he understood you."

Mr. Bruun was not unique. The Rev. Philip O. Seher, one of Archbishop Bernardin's closest collaborators in Cincinnati, said: ''It felt good to know that someone could care that much about what you thought. It was clear that he treasured me as a person; he treasured the work I did."

Role model for others

The cardinal ''also was one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century Catholic Church in our country,'' Archbishop Pilarczyk said. He was a role model for other bishops; he demonstrated how to bear wrongs patiently and forgive those who caused him pain; he taught others how to die; ''and how to maintain your composure when everyone around you seems to be shouting at you."

Ursuline Sister Pat Brockman knew Archbishop Bernardin both as man of faith and cautious churchman.

In the early 1970s, she was on the pastoral team at the New Jerusalem Community, with its Pentecostal roots and strong peace and justice inclinations. New Jerusalem drew controversy as well as hundreds to its charismatic worship and scores to communal and sometimes-coed living in Winton Place.

Archbishop Bernardin listened to Sister Pat and her co-workers, watched and accepted New Jerusalem as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit moving in the church. He drew the community under his protection and authority without stifling its spirit, and he regularly celebrated Mass with its members.

''He was not threatened,'' Sister Pat said. ''He fathered us... He knew he did not dare close down the Spirit."

He also gave them an unused convent and school in Winton Place. New Jerusalem has prospered for the 25 years since.

''He allowed that to be and caught up with it as time went on,'' the Rev. Thomas Axe, then-pastor of neighboring St. Bernard church, recalled.

Unafraid of controversy

Archbishop Bernardin's 1980 decision to promote outspoken Judy Ball as the first woman to edit his official weekly paper, the Catholic Telegraph, also showed what kind of man he was.

''I'm sure he knew he was going to get some heat,'' Miss Ball said.

The archbishop never interferred with her news or editorial decisions, Miss Ball said, although that mutual confidence was tested when some Chicagoans claimed there was a plot to affect the next papal election by replacing conservative Cardinal John Cody with the more liberal Archbishop Bernardin.

Archbishop Bernardin asked Miss Ball how she was going to handle that emerging national story. His face showed he was ''bracing for bad news,'' Miss Ball said. Confident that ''it was my decision,'' she told him it would be in the next edition. It was.

In many ways, the churchman was ascetic and humble, and his mother, Maria, helped keep him that way. At his 1972 installation in Cincinnati's St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, he recalled his mother's words from his 1966 ordination as the nation's youngest bishop:

''Now, Joe, when the ceremony begins, walk straight and don't look too pleased."

And despite the titles and the influence, Cardinal Bernardin was above all a priest. On a September trip to Rome, to discuss his successor with the pope, the cardinal and aide Monsignor Kenneth Velo made a visit to the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi.

The pair went to one chapel, presenting themselves as priests who wanted to celebrate Mass. An Italian monk shooed them away, saying it was not a good time. They went to a nearby chapel, where an English-speaking German priest gave them permission.

Cardinal Bernardin donned his scarlet hat and other vestments, then ducked outside for a moment to fetch something. The German priest looked at Msgr. Velo with wide eyes.

''A bishop?'' he asked.

''More,'' the monsignor said, shaking his head. ''A cardinal."

Word quickly spread throughout the monastery that the famous Cardinal Bernardin from Chicago was present. An invitation to lunch ensued, along with an offer from the Italian monk to have mass at his chapel anytime.

His brush with scandal was as ironic as it was incredible.

Cardinal Bernardin was a pioneer among Catholic bishops trying to deal more compassionately with victims of sexually predatory priests and with priests accused of abusive behavior.

In 1993, a gay man dying of AIDS, Steven Cook, accused him of sodomy at the archbishop's Cincinnati residence in the mid-1970s when Mr. Cook was in a pre-seminary program.

The cardinal's responses were characteristic. He invited reporters in and told them, ''The allegations are totally false. I am 65 years old, and I can tell you that all my life I have lived a chaste and celibate life."

Then he offered to pray for and with Mr. Cook.

Months later, Mr. Cook recanted, saying hypnosis-prodded memories were untrustworthy. The priest and his accuser finally met and prayed together.

''It was a manifestation of God's love, forgiveness and healing which I will never forget,'' the cardinal said.

''I wanted to look into his eyes and ask if he did it,'' Mr. Cook explained. ''He said, 'I did not abuse you,' and I believe that he did not abuse me."

Mr. Cook also counseled the cardinal on living with terminal cancer. ''He told me he was praying for me,'' Cardinal Bernardin said. ''He had some idea of the suffering I was experiencing."

Key to his success

Archbishop Bernardin ''was politically astute,'' Father Seher said, ''but he wasn't motivated by politics."

During his time in Cincinnati and as head of the bishops' conference, he wanted good ideas, and he wanted to know how to make them work and what opposition he would have to disarm, Father Seher continued. ''He always knew where the bumps would take place."

Consensus was such an instinct that when people suggested Archbishop Bernardin was part of a Vatican cabal to topple Chicago Cardinal Cody, Cincinnatians scoffed.

''Conspiracy and Bernardin just don't go together,'' said the Most Rev. Carl Moeddel, then a priest in archdiocesan offices and now Cincinnati's auxiliary bishop. A secret plot would have been impossible because Archbishop Bernardin would have begun by polling colleagues on what to do, Bishop Moeddel said.

On the other hand, such painstaking polling could be ''maddening,'' Bishop Moeddel recalled - especially when, as director of finances, he wanted a prompt decision.

While consultation and consensus-building were slow and tedious, Bishop Moeddel said, he learned from Archbishop Bernardin that it is ''eventually more effective.'' Few who dealt with the cardinal mistook this process for weakness or vacillation. He was at ease with authority, comfortable with power and never lost sight of the fact he was the boss.

Critics of the cardinal

Yet, this openness could cause problems with natural, if prickly, allies. For instance, some hard-line Ohio anti-abortion activists turned on the archbishop when he refused to bless their single-issue test for political candidates.

They were right and the archbishop was wrong, because such statements contributed to confusion among the faithful, said Mr. Matt of the Wanderer, and this further demonstrated American Catholicism's ''tragic assimilation into the culture."

Dr. John Willke, a Finneytown physician and founder of Right to Life, agreed.

He, too, said Cardinal Bernardin's commitment to the ''seamless garment of life'' misled some activists to mistakenly equate opposition to capital punishment and other peace and justice social issues with the primacy of the anti-abortion cause.

This reduced abortion to one of many campaigns, rather than the foremost human life issue, Dr. Willke said, although Cardinal Bernardin readily affirmed its centrality when pressed.

While he always spoke with clarity, Cardinal Bernardin became an increasingly eloquent apostle during 25 years of public scrutiny.

He attributed his initial hesitancy to the natural caution that he learned as a Catholic growing up in Protestant Columbia, S.C., and to the speed with which responsibility and rank came to him.

None of this, however, kept him from openly addressing sensitive issues.

An example of this candor came during one particularly turbulent debate over church authority during his Cincinnati sojourn. Speaking to a national gathering of Catholic theologians, he urged them to confine their doubts to scholarly journals rather than airing them in the secular press, but he preferred the risk of scandal to censorship.

Similarly, he did not dissolve the archdiocesan pastoral council that emerged under his predecessor, but he reduced its clout and elevated the advisory role of the priests' senate, said William Schumacher, president of the pastoral council in the mid-1970s.

That disagreement over the laity's role after the Second Vatican Council was one reason Mr. Schumacher resigned as head of the archdiocesan social action department 18 months after Archbishop Bernardin arrived.

''I have great respect for what he accomplished in the church,'' Mr. Schumacher said, ''but I'm not one of his great admirers."

Closing the Norwood seminary and various schools also riled some Catholics and, in one case, brought the archbishop into open conflict with the Cincinnati board of education.

The archbishop's apparent inaction also frustrated women seeking greater church roles, said feminist educator Janet Kalven, a member of the Grail in Loveland. ''He was very receptive and sympathetic, and then he backed away."

On the other hand, Sister Barnhorn said, ''We knew that we had a friend in high places who believed in us as women religious, and he cared about us, and he was always approachable."

The tiny Black Catholic Caucus also found him receptive and supportive, activist Bob Davis said. ''He was very politically astute, so he paid attention to concerns and rumblings in the church."

The archbishop found a niche in the church bureaucracy for the caucus, but candidly warned caucus members that this new financial support would cost them their independence and much of their freedom to speak publicly and to lobby for change.

''Bernardin was honest about that kind of thing,'' recalled the Rev. Clarence Rivers, the first African-American priest ordained by the archdiocese. They worked together in Washington on issues affecting African Americans in the Catholic Church and Father Rivers related to his new boss not only as a brother priest, ''but especially as a black brother priest."

A cooperative man

The Rev. Duane Holm, a Presbyterian and director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, said Archbishop Bernardin's willingness to cooperate with other religious leaders and to share the spotlight with them ''really made it possible for (the coalition) to operate."

On the other hand, the Rev. Mr. Holm quickly learned not to mistake Archbishop Bernardin's famously sympathetic listening for agreement. In a discussion, ''He didn't give much away,'' and it was easy to leave thinking the archbishop had given more than he had.

A fellow coalition leader, the Rev. Paul Long, said the new archbishop was everything a mutual friend promised: ''a man of high integrity, a very liberal man, but he operates within the doctrine of the church."

All of that was in play when the archbishop and the Rev. Mr. Long, a minister at Indian Hill Church and longtime abortion-rights advocate, argued privately about abortion.

During one such conversation, Archbishop Bernardin sensed that his Presbyterian companion believed him covertly sympathetic to the abortion-rights cause.

That was quickly set right, the Rev. Mr. Long said. ''He assured me he was not just mouthing the party line. This was something he really believed.''

All of this and more has been recounted since Cardinal Bernardin confirmed that he had pancreatic cancer, that it had spread to his liver, that he had abandoned chemotherapy and that his death was imminent.

While there has been a national fascination with this public process, there is a deeper lesson in Cardinal Bernardin's example, Archbishop Pilarczyk said.

''He taught us that the art of dying means living well."

Published Nov. 14, 1996