Archbishop who inspired nation in life and death

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It was the most public of dyings - yet somehow Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, suffused his own with a dignity, serenity and faith that made the last months of his life a national inspiration.

"Heaven's a little better place today," said one parishioner from the city's West Side when he heard of his death.

The highest-ranking figure in the US Catholic church died early yesterday at his home after an 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He had surgery in June 1995, but after an initial remission announced in August that the disease had spread and had become inoperable. A fortnight ago, he gave up his duties in the archdiocese.

Even so, the Cardinal remained active until the end in the great moral debates of his day - including a patient's right to assisted suicide, an issue now taken up by the US Su- preme Court and which he opposed vehemently. "I am at the end of my earthly life," he wrote to the Court on 7 November, "and I know from my own experience that patients face difficult and deeply personal decisions about their care ... but creating this new `right' will endanger society and send a false signal that a less than `perfect' life is not worth living."

The Archbishop died with his sister and friends by his bedside, having received telephone calls on his final day from President Bill Clinton and the Pope, who thanked him "for everything he had done for the archdiocese of Chicago and the universal church", according to a Vatican spokesman. During 14 years as a cardinal, representing the 2.3 million Catholics in Chicago, perhaps his most valuable service was as a builder of consensus and compromise on issues which set liberal US Catholics at odds with Rome - among them birth control, women priests and Aids.

Moderate and quiet-spoken, the 68-year-old Cardinal commanded respect from all quarters of his church and beyond. Nothing, however, became him more than his handling of sexual molestation charges brought by a former seminarian, Stephen Cook. Mr Cook, who died of Aids last year, recanted his story and was publicly forgiven by the Cardinal. Despite his embarrassment, he was stoic and serene throughout the ordeal.Cardinal Bernardin had come to terms with mortality. "We can look at death in two ways - as an enemy or a friend," he said in September. "As a person of faith, I see death as a friend."