Obituary: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin

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The Independent Online
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's death surprised few of the millions of Americans who had shared his illness since June 1995. It was then that the prelate announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and would undergo surgery.

The 27th US bishop to be appointed cardinal since 1875 and the first Italian-American to head a major diocese, at the time of his death Bernardin was the senior active American prelate among the country's more than 350 bishops.

Nationally, Bernardin strongly influenced Catholic teaching on pro-life issues including nuclear weapons, the pursuit of peace and abortion. As a national administrator, he supervised the reorganisation of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and was attempting to fine-tune the conference even more at the time of his death. He was always viewed as a consensus- builder, a problem solver. He had progressive instincts but they were tempered with a burning desire to maintain a clear sense of unity with the Vatican under Pope John Paul II, known for its retrenchment into pre- Vatican Council theology and ecclesiology.

Bernardin was born in 1928 in Columbia, South Carolina, a city less than 2 per cent Catholic. His parents were from the village of Topadico in the valley of Primiero, located in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy.

He attended both Catholic and public elementary schools, public high school and, for one year, the University of South Carolina, where he was enrolled to study medicine. Encouraged by classmates, he entered and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy in 1948. In 1952, at Catholic University in Washington DC, he completed a Master of Arts in Education.

On 26 April 1952 he was ordained for the diocese of Charleston, assigned to a parish and to a teaching position at a local high school. Within two years he moved to the Charleston chancery.

Bernardin became a philosophical and political disciple of Bishop Paul Hallinan. In 1962, John XXIII appointed Hallinan as the first archbishop of Atlanta. Four years later, Bernardin followed him there as an auxiliary bishop. He was only 38 and the youngest bishop in the country.

By 1968, Bernardin was named general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and served in that position until 1972, when he was named Archbishop of Cincinnati. He was elected to a three-year term as president of the Bishops' Conference in 1974-77. In 1982, he became Archbishop of Chicago and was made a cardinal the following year.

Not long afterwards he introduced the concept of the Consistent Ethic of Life, or the "seamless garment", as it became known popularly, into the Catholic vocabulary, giving speeches at leading Catholic universities to explain his thought. The "seamless garment" metaphor, though not fully developed, basically holds that all life is sacred. It embraces ecological issues, spousal and sexual abuse, mercy killing, capital punishment - all the issues concerning life.

In 1983, he chaired a committee that released the pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response". It took issue with some US nuclear weapons policies, but offered a conditional approval of the American nuclear arsenal. The pastoral called for a bilateral halt in the development and deployment of new nuclear weapons, and was an upset for the Reagan administration.

During the mid-1980s the issue of priest sexual abuse of minors became widespread in the United States. Bernardin himself became entrapped in the web of abuse charges in 1993 when a former Cincinnati seminarian, Steven Cook, made accusations about Bernardin. The charge devastated the cardinal. He called it the most painful experience of his life - more painful than coming to terms with his cancer diagnosis. "Everyone can get cancer. It's natural. But being accused of sex abuse can destroy your credibility," he said.

By February 1994, Cook had recanted and Bernardin had been vindicated. Bernardin travelled to Philadelphia to pray with his accuser and forgave him just before Cook's death from Aids.

Sensing his own days limited and the Church divided, Bernardin decided to undertake what he called the Common Ground Project. In August 1996, he released a statement titled "Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril", calling for open dialogue. The cardinal's announcement of the project was met with much criticism from his fellow bishops. Cardinals Law (Boston), Hickey (Washington), Maida (Detroit) and Bevilacqua (Philadelphia) issued strong statements that made it clear that dialogue had no place in a church which dispensed truth unilaterally. Bernardin was hurt, but continued with his efforts.

On 9 September Bernardin was one of 11 prominent Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the government could bestow on a non-military citizen. President Clinton called the cardinal "one of our nation's most beloved men and one of Catholicism's great leaders."

Bernardin lived with the hope that his cancer would stay in remission, but he was always preparing for bad news. A weakened Bernardin, who thrived so much in the public eye, stayed in seclusion during the last two weeks of his life, seeing few people. During his last day, he spoke by telephone with Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton, who offered their prayers, while his sister and friends sat and prayed at his bedside.

Much of Bernardin's final months were spent comforting other terminally ill cancer patients. During his hospitalisation he had come to know other patients. "I felt like a priest again," he said. He clearly enjoyed his new ministry. Within months, he found himself corresponding with more than 600 other cancer patients.

Thomas C. Fox

Joseph Bernardin, priest: born Columbia, South Carolina 2 April 1928; ordained priest 1952; Archbishop of Cincinnati 1972-82; Archbishop of Chicago 1982-96; created Cardinal 1983; died Chicago 14 November 1996.