Published November 17, 2016 | En Español
This is the 20th anniversary of the death of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, on Nov. 14, 1996. He was auxiliary bishop of Atlanta from 1966-1968.
When they brought his casket down the front steps of Holy Name Cathedral, I wept openly. I had known Joseph Bernardin personally for only 14 years—a short span of time in his life, but years that would prove pivotal in mine.
The first year of our association included my service to him as one of his liturgical masters of ceremony. I was teaching in the Mundelein Seminary at the time, so unlike his other masters of ceremony who were parish priests, my weekends were generally free. Then in his first year as Archbishop of Chicago, we would often spend all day Saturday and Sunday traveling throughout the archdiocese he was still getting to know. Those trips revealed to me his intensely pastoral side. He connected with parishioners and clergy with a warm and engaging style that set them at ease immediately.
On those trips I would provide him with some written background on the places we were visiting. He appreciated learning about the communities he had been sent to serve and would come to love. He frequently asked questions that betrayed an intuitive understanding of these new people and places far deeper than he could have possibly gleaned from the historical and demographic details I offered. He instinctively understood the hearts of folks, and that showed through from the moment he exited the car for each visit.
Joseph was a healer, wanting nothing more than to restore a spirit of hope to an archdiocese that had experienced some unsettling moments during the closing years of the ministry of John Cardinal Cody, the man who had ordained me to the priesthood, sent me to Rome to study, and always treated me kindly. Joseph understood the challenges that Cardinal Cody had faced, and he never criticized or demeaned him during our conversations. He was a man of compassion who always found room in his heart to see beyond the flaws and mistakes of others, including the many that I managed to reveal to him myself.
Those 14 years allowed me to experience his great capacity to listen, to evaluate, and to bring consensus to human conflict. He presided over the meetings he held with his auxiliary bishops with sensitivity and respect. He once told us that when we wear our pectoral crosses, we carry with us a depth of responsibility and authority comparable to his own.
He enjoyed a good laugh and loved to poke fun at himself and at us. He taught me by his great ability to love the Church even in moments of conflict and confusion. He often quoted the Most Reverend Paul J. Hallinan, his Archbishop in Atlanta: “The confusion is a little clearer now!”
Joseph was much more to me than simply my archbishop. He was my pastor, my mentor, my friend and brother. When he installed me as Bishop of Belleville, Illinois, it was as a father setting his son on his own with confidence, love and pride. While I was thrilled to become the shepherd to those wonderful folks in southern Illinois, I knew that it was also a moment when my relationship with Joseph was undergoing yet another transition. I was now his colleague in the service of the Church in a new way. I believe he was as proud of me as I was grateful to him.
Two more years of our association would bring me more profound insight into this man of faith. In January of 1995 Joseph asked me to accompany him to Manila to participate in a conference on the scourge of child pornography. It would be the last time we spent any significant personal time together. Like those trips to the parishes in Chicago during his first year as Archbishop, he let me in to his great pastoral heart as he worked with his ecumenical partners to address this plague and scandal.
As we traveled together from Chicago to Manila, the conversations on the plane varied widely, but they all seemed to come back around to his sincere desire for the Church to be ever at the service of anyone being hurt or exploited. As far as I know, Joseph never personally met Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was still an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires at the time, but they would have been kindred souls in their devotion to the mission of the Church.
A few months after we returned from Manila, Joseph was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Over the next several months, people throughout our nation took him into their hearts. Even more painful for him than the cancer, however, was the resistance he encountered from some members of the American hierarchy to his strong admonition that we needed to find and explore common ground to address the challenges facing the Church. Time has repeatedly proven, of course, that he was right.
So when he went to the Bishops’ Mausoleum in Mount Carmel Cemetery to await the Resurrection, I wept. I had lost my father and brother, Joseph, and the Church had lost a wise and prophetic voice.