There have been a spate of articles lately announcing the end of the “Bernardin era” in the Church in the United States. These proclamations would be amazing in themselves given the fact that the much beloved and respected Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago will in a few months have been dead for fifteen years. They are even more amazing to me in that to my mind if there ever was a “Bernardin era” it ended in 1984 when Pope John Paul II chose Bishops Bernard F. Law of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and John O’Connor of Scranton to be archbishops of Boston and New York respectively. It was then shortly after the pastoral letter on war and peace that Cardinal Bernardin’s influence with the Pope and his curia became diminished. Likewise, in 1985, his ability to influence the appointment of bishops in the United States also diminished. During the same year, Cardinals Law and O’Connor talked Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia into hosting a meeting of the U.S. cardinals during which the newly arrived Cardinals introduced the topic of devising a strategy whereby the Cardinals might on occasion assume a larger role in American Catholic life than perhaps even the episcopal conference, might approach the generally friendly though still bristling from the “war and peace pastoral” Republican administration and power block in Washington and, if necessary, might at times offer another voice than that of the body of bishops. In other words, redirect the political spotlight from the Conference and perhaps (following the death of Cardinal John Dearden, in the ’70′s by far the leading voice in post-conciliar ecclesiology) the leading spokesman for the Church in the United States away from the Archbishop of Chicago to others. The strategy worked to a certain extent and Cardinal Bernardin was left to lead the Church of Chicago and through both a false allegation of sexual misconduct against him and his life-ending cancer, won the hearts of the Catholic people of the Windy City who turned out in record numbers to say farewell before, during and following his funeral. Like his mentor Dearden, he could however throughout his tenure in Chicago bring the body of bishops to a hush when he rose to speak in plenary assembly. Many bishops admired him. So why bring all this up?
Yesterday’s NEW YORK TIMES devoted two full pages of print to the Catholic church in the United States, most of it negative but fair reporting. However, the lone bright spot was an article about the influence on the present Governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, who in signing a bill from the Illinois legislature abolishing the death penalty, attributed his difficult and soul-searching decision to whom? None other than Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. The article written by Samuel G. Freedman in a section entitled “On Religion” and in an article entitled “Faith Was On the Governor’s Shoulders” wrote eloquently and movingly how a minister of religion can influence the public square, even long after he has died. It was another victory for the “Consistent Ethic of Life” by which the Church has challenged its own members and society to end abortion, euthanasia, poverty, nuclear war, and capital punishment. Governor Quinn was the second Catholic governor to take this brave step. Several years ago in New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson, citing his faith and the influence of present Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, did the same thing – banned the death penalty. Governor Quinn unabashedly held up at the time of signing the death penalty ban a copy of Cardinal Bernardin’s greatest book and a run-away best seller, THE GIFT OF PEACE which he wrote as a diary during his dying days. Literally from the grave came once again a brave and intelligent voice for life, for sanity, for consistency, for advocacy, for witness.
Full disclosure suggests that I let anyone who might not know that the Cardinal and I were somewhat close throughout my life at the episcopal conference, and he preached the homily at my ordination as bishop here at St. Jude’s Cathedral after breaking yet another rib in his hotel room the night prior to the ceremony. I admired him and have tried to model my ministry on the stronger points of his: collegiality, shared decision-making, respect for all and a commitment to the seamless garment of life issues. The Cardinal as successful as he became, could be sometimes conflicted and to this moment I think he might have wished if he could choose only one of two options: either the respect and trust of Pope John Paul II (as he had with Pope Paul VI) or solely being remembered as a true shepherd of God’s people and a voice for the voiceless, on occasion might have preferred the former if he could not have both. When Pope John Paul II called him a few weeks prior to his death, he was like a kid at Christmas or an employee looking for any sign of approval from his/her employer. My point is that when the major era of his influence passed, long before his death, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin spent himself for God’s people, one of whom was a young Patrick Quinn. The article can be read in full by clicking on the title above. Read it and I hope you will feel good about your church, and know that biographers and Church commentators might just need a little more time before declaring someone irrelevant or their “era ended” or maybe we should see how the present moment survives in fifteen years and whose voices or work rises from their graves. No saint to be sure, but a very good bishop for sure.