CNN Web posted
November 14, 1996
Bishops remember 'our brother Joseph'
Cardinal Bernardin, 68, was highly respected mediator
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Roman Catholic bishops remembered Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Thursday as a soft-spoken man who mediated disputes among bishops and opposing liberal and conservative church factions.
"He was a great mediator," said Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta. "I think it was his openness to listen, to be aware that everyone didn't agree with him, but he ... would listen to their concerns."
[Goedert] Bernardin, 68, leader of Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics, died of cancer early Thursday at his home, surrounded by friends and family.
"Our brother Joseph is at peace," said Bishop Raymond Goedert, announcing the cardinal's death. "As Christians, we believe Cardinal Bernardin at long last begins a new life."
The bishops, many of whom had known Bernardin for decades, marked his passing with a prayer as they opened the final session of the annual fall meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, president of the conference, an office Bernardin once held, asked God to "open the arms of your mercy to your faithful servant, Joseph. Welcome him forever into the presence of Christ."
Pilla read a message of condolence from Pope John Paul II, who wrote,
"I'm confident the example of the cardinal's devoted service ... will inspire all who knew him to ever greater fidelity to Christ."
The senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States, Bernardin underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in June 1995, and announced August 30 that the cancer had spread and was inoperable. He gave up his day-to-day duties October 31. Bernardin was highly respected by leaders of all faiths and sustained a powerful voice on various spiritual matters.
Shortly before his death, Bernardin wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court to speak out against assisted suicide.
"I am at the end of my earthly life," Bernardin said. "I know from my own experience that patients often face difficult and deeply personal decisions about their care. However, I also know that even a person who decides to forego treatment does not necessarily choose death."
Bernardin's most searing moment of national attention came in November 1993, when he was accused of having sexually abused a young man, Steven Cook, years earlier while Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati. Cook recanted the accusation and reconciled with Bernardin before dying of AIDS last year.
Ironically, Bernardin had established a system for dealing with sexual accusations against priests that was considered a model for other dioceses. His vindication after calmly declaring his innocence and willingness to forgive Cook mitigated damage to the church's image from priest-abuse scandals.
"His transcendence of the personal clerical abuse charges will take on almost epic proportions when people review the priesthood in our times," said Martin E. Marty, a religious historian at the University of Chicago.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Bernardin was ordained a priest in 1952 and steadily rose through the ranks in the church hierarchy in Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta.
In 1966, he was named the youngest bishop in the country and two years later was elected general secretary of the influential National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that position, he coordinated the historic reorganization of the American church as part of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope John Paul II in 1983 elevated Bernardin to the elite College of Cardinals. At the time of his death, he was the senior cardinal in the United States.
As cardinal, he represented the American church at numerous high-level policy councils in Rome. In 1983, he received the Albert Einstein Peace Award for his work as chairman of a NCCB Committee that prepared the pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."
An advocate of the progressive wing of the church, Bernardin during his final months launched Project Common Ground, an effort to address "increasing polarization" within the church.
"While these are not new realities, in the past year I have come to see them in a new light," he wrote in August. "When one comes face-to-face with the reality of death in a very profound way as a cancer patient, one's perspective on life is altered dramatically. What seemed so important before, now is seen as trivial, and what is truly important invites new commitment and a realignment of priorities."
"He gave the Chicago church a much needed renewal of spirit," Scott Appleby, a religious scholar at the University of Notre Dame, said prior to Bernardin's death. "He established a more open relationship with fellow priests. He had an inclusive style of leadership."
In June 1995, Bernardin was found to be suffering from pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly form of the disease. Surgery failed to stop the disease from spreading to his liver, and he abandoned chemotherapy treatments last month.
Bernardin's graceful confrontation with death drew praise from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
"The cardinal's courage and faith are inspirational to all of us," Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar told the Chicago Sun-Times.
When asked in his final months how he was coping with impending death, Bernardin said he was "at peace."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Chicago's Cardinal Bernardin reported near death - November 13, 1996
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Cardinal Bernardin halts chemotherapy - October 18, 1996
Cardinal prays with condemned inmate - September 18, 1996
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