The Common Good
January-February 1997

The Passing of a Leader

by Jim Wallis | January-February 1997

Traveling across the country during the 1996 Presidential
campaign, I saw almost no yard signs or bumper stickers with the
names of the presidential nominees on them.

Traveling across the country during the 1996 Presidential campaign, I saw almost no yard signs or bumper stickers with the names of the presidential nominees on them. Exit polls showed that the clear majority of the 48 percent turnout had little enthusiasm for either choice. Even the candidates' most partisan supporters would never have suggested that Bill Clinton or Bob Dole possessed the qualities of a great leader.

But about 10 days after the lackluster election, we witnessed a dramatically different and rather amazing drama unfolding in Chicago. After a six-month vigil with lethal cancer, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin died. The thousands of people who lined up for days to say goodbye to the beloved Catholic prelate went far beyond the confines of his own church to include virtually every religious tradition in the city, and many who claimed no religion at all. His brother bishops, meeting in Washington, D.C., left his chair empty and halfheartedly carried on their business without the one who was at the same time the most influential bishop in the country and the one who had showed the most capacity to bring them together.

The nation mourned the passing of a man who was something very rare in both church and state today—a leader. It is worth reflecting on the qualities of leadership that Joseph Bernardin exemplified.

As the rest of the country was polarizing over issues from abortion to nuclear weapons, Bernardin identified the most important religious question at stake in all the debates, namely, the defense of life. He led the way by being among the first to articulate the "consistent ethic of life" that has become so basic to Catholic social teaching. Life, he said, is a "seamless garment" that must be defended against many assaults, be they abortion, nuclear weapons, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty, or racism. Breaking apart the predictable categories of Right and Left, Bernardin's consistent ethic showed a characteristic creativity and courage in challenging ideological shortsightedness across the political spectrum and offered the possibility of a more independent and prophetic spiritual politics.

Bernardin again and again demonstrated the capacity to bring divergent views and people together. He led the bishops' committee that produced their significant and influential pastoral letter on nuclear weapons, "The Promise of Peace"—a group that included both Bishops John O'Connor and Thomas Gumbleton, who represented the church's two poles on the question. Similarly, when Rome and the American church came into conflict, it was often Bernardin who was called upon to seek some reconciliation. He seemed genuinely able to listen to people while gaining their trust as a man of great principle—his was a voice of both conciliation and conviction.

IN HIS LAST YEAR, the cardinal again showed his open and reconciling spirit by seeking to bridge the growing gaps between increasingly divergent camps in the Catholic Church, especially between the church's hierarchy and those frustrated by Rome's refusal to discuss disagreements. In the months before he died, Bernardin launched the Catholic Common Ground Project as a new effort to convene respectful and constructive dialogue on many of the pastoral issues dividing the church. Though attracting considerable criticism from several of his fellow cardinals, the new initiative brought hope to many (perhaps particularly Catholic women) who were feeling shut out. Bernardin seemed to accomplish successful dialogue both because of his commitment to Catholic tradition and his lack of fear to talk about it. He was therefore neither a liberal nor a conservative Catholic, but one who believed that tradition always could deepen and grow.

But perhaps his greatest moments of exemplary leadership came in response to two events at the end of his life. First, when a troubled young man in 1994 accused Bernardin of earlier sexual abuse, the cardinal clearly denied the allegations but refused to counterattack his accuser for fear that it would discourage genuine victims of sexual abuse from coming forward. The man later admitted that he had lied, and Bernardin ministered to him as he died of AIDS in what the cardinal called a "powerful reconciliation."

And second, when Cardinal Bernardin was diagnosed with fatal cancer he called a press conference and actually asked tearful reporters to pray for him as he would for them. He said that he thought his greatest contribution would be in the way he died. That proved to be true. He spent the last months of his life visiting with the dying in cancer wards and death row cells, bearing witness to people around the country about the meaning of death: "As a person of faith, I see death as a friend."

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died at a time when we needed his kind of leadership the most. But in showing us both how to live and how to die, he will lead us for many years to come.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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