Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, one of the nation’s most talented and respected Roman Catholic leaders whose skillful diplomacy helped mediate some of his church’s more explosive issues, died of pancreatic cancer Thursday in his Chicago home. He was 68.
Once called a potential papal candidate, Cardinal Bernardin earned worldwide admiration for the grace and equanimity with which he faced his impending death.
Toward the end of his life, Cardinal Bernardin made cancer patients a focal point of his ministry, and in so doing, he became an inspiration for others confronting terminal illness.
The son of working-class Italian immigrants, Cardinal Bernardin rose rapidly to the upper echelons of the Catholic Church hierarchy and was the prime architect of the U.S. bishops’ landmark 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear weapons.
He revitalized and unified the archdiocese of Chicago, the nation’s second-largest, which had suffered under his autocratic and apparently corrupt predecessor, Cardinal Richard Cody.
Cardinal Bernardin endured and rebounded from a false charge of sexual molestation and, in a remarkable and poignant moment, reconciled with his accuser.
In a church that has become increasingly divided between liberal and conservative factions, Cardinal Bernardin chose a centrist road, remaining faithful to Roman Catholic teachings while striving to encourage greater pluralism and tolerance.
He eloquently explained his church’s opposition to abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia in an argument he called a “consistent ethic of life,” in which he argued that the core of Catholic ethics is the protection of life from conception to natural death.
In a 1996 speech at Georgetown University, Cardinal Bernardin said: “I remain convinced that our witness will be more effective, more persuasive and better equipped to address the moral challenge we face, if we witness to life across the spectrum of life from conception until natural death, calling our society to see the connection between caring for life and defending it.”
Joseph Louis Bernardin was born April 2, 1928, in Columbia, S.C., to parents who had emigrated from northern Italy. His father was a stonecutter who died of cancer when Cardinal Bernardin was 6. His mother supported the family by working as a seamstress.
Cardinal Bernardin lived during the Great Depression in a largely Protestant neighborhood, attended public schools and intended to be a doctor when he enrolled at the University of South Carolina. But his experiences working in a Catholic hospital caused him to change direction and seek the priesthood.
He received degrees from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and the Catholic University of America in Washington, and he was ordained a priest in 1952 in the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. He served the diocese until 1966, rising from assistant pastor to administrator of the diocese. In 1966, at the age of 38, he became the nation’s youngest bishop.
After two years as auxiliary bishop in Atlanta, Cardinal Bernardin became the first general secretary of the newly organized National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a post he held until his appointment as archbishiop of Cincinnati in 1972. Two months into his tenure, he gained national attention when he called for an end to U.S. bombing in North Vietnam.
In Cincinnati, Cardinal Bernardin gained the reputation that would follow him throughout his career: a leader who held firmly to his beliefs, but always listened to those who disagreed with him.
He was elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1974, spearheading his church’s opposition to abortion, helping to strike down the penalty of automatic excommunication against Catholics who divorce and remarry, and launching a church consultation movement that eventually evolved into a reform campaign.
After 10 years in Cincinnati, Cardinal Bernardin was appointed archbishop of Chicago to replace Cardinal Cody who died in April 1982 after a divisive 17-year reign that left many priests and lay people embitterred and resentful. At the time of his death, Cardinal Cody was under investigation for transferring church money to a cousin and her family.
Dignified, correct and unassuming, Cardinal Bernardin’s personality helped him heal the wounds in Chicago. He visited black, Polish and Mexican parishes. He reminded parishioners in a hardscrabble, white neighborhood in Cicero that blacks are also people of God. And he reversed a decision by his predecessor to close a white, ethnic parish struggling to stay afloat on the overwhelmingly black South Side.
Still, Cardinal Bernardin was not fearful of making difficult and unpopular decisions, closing 51 parishes in the archdiocese because of financial problems.
He was given the red hat of a cardinal in Rome in February 1983. Later that year, Cardinal Bernardin was the main force behind the U.S. bishops’ historic letter condemning nuclear war as unacceptable under any circumstances and calling for a halt to the nuclear arms race. “The church must be a participant in the process of protecting the world and its people from the specter of nuclear destruction,” Cardinal Bernardin said. “Silence in this instance would be a betrayal of its mission.”
One of the darkest moments of his distinguished career occured on Nov. 12, 1993, when he was accused of sexual molestation by Steven Cook, a former seminarian in Cincinnati. “To have the whole world be told that you allegedly abused someone, to have it go around the world on CNN, to have the doubt be planted, it was really humiliating,” Cardinal Bernardin said of the days following the allegations.
Ironically, it was Cardinal Bernardin who in 1992 unveiled what was widely regarded as the church’s most comprehensive policy for investigating priests accused of molesting children. By winter 1994, Cook recanted the accusation, saying his memory had been flawed. He and Cardinal Bernardin met during a private Mass in Philadelphia, where the cardinal gave Cook a Bible.
In June 1995, Cardinal Bernardin had a malignant pancreatic tumor surgically removed, a profoundly searing experience that changed him, making him less hesitant, less guarded and quicker to smile and laugh.
He unleashed heated reaction in August 1996 when he announced an initiative to promote dialogue on some of the most contentious church issues, including the role of women, the shortage of priests and human sexuality. He said dialogue among competing factions was necessary to overcome “a meanspiritedness” that threatened church unity.
A few days later, Cardinal Bernardin announced that his cancer had returned and spread. His doctors told him he had less than a year to live.
“We can look at death as an enemy or a friend,” Cardinal Bernardin told a hushed Chicago news conference that reduced even hardened journalists to tears. “We tend to go into a state of denial. But if we see it as a friend, our attitude is truly different. As a person of faith, I see death as a friend, as the transition from earthly life to life eternal.”
He leaves his mother, Maria of Chicago, and a sister, Elaine Addison of Columbia, S.C.
A funeral Mass will be said Wednesday in Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.
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