The Common Good
July-August 1998

Cardinal Virtues

by John Carr | July-August 1998

Bernardin's journey of faith.

The day Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was buried, I was representing the U.S. Bishops Conference in South Africa. I deeply regretted missing the funeral of a bishop who had become a mentor and friend. As we met with leaders of church and government in South Africa, it sometimes seemed like Chicago. So many shared their remembrances of Cardinal Bernardin and their sense of loss. How could someone touch so many so far away?

Bernardin, the PBS documentary produced by Frank Frost and Martin Doblmeier, helps answer that question. In an age when ecclesial leaders face so many doubts and challenges, Cardinal Bernardin opened hearts and minds by the way he lived and died, served and led. Most people know him for his dignified response to false charges of sexual misconduct and for the faithful way he lived with and died from cancer. This production places both these struggles in a broader and deeper context of personal faith and public ministry.

This is not an easy task. The producers had no special access or final interview. But they have pulled together from photos, news clips, and interviews an hourlong biography that is admiring and accurate, rich in detail, and sweeping in its coverage of Cardinal Bernardin’s life and ministry.

The program initially focuses on his roots—he was raised in the American South by a hard-working Italian immigrant widow. It follows the young priest as he was shaped by Vatican II and in turn helped shape the U.S. Bishops Conference into a new instrument of collegiality and public witness. It documents how his leadership was shaken and formed by the racial traumas of the ’60s and the abortion debate of the ’70s. It reports how Bernardin led the American bishops to challenge U.S. policy on nuclear arms. The producers address, but do not dwell on, the difficulties he faced when his actions in the 1976 presidential campaign led to accusations of political partisanship and the pain resulting from closing Chicago parishes and schools.

The program follows—occasionally with melodramatic camera work—the stunning personal accusations of sexual abuse, his candid denials and ultimate vindication, and his reconciliation with his accuser. Cardinal Bernardin had a reputation for "not saying grace without a text," but to see him facing the cameras, without notes or prepared statements, answering intensely personal and even humiliating questions, was evidence enough of his innocence for those who knew him. His prayers, compassion, and forgiveness for the person who put him through this ordeal were an amazing display of Bernardin’s faith in action.

inally, he taught us how to die. His struggle with cancer—its discovery, remission, and recurrence—served as a tragic chance to practice what he preached. He turned his illness into an opportunity for ministry.

BERNARDIN’S ADVOCACY of a "consistent life ethic" took on growing urgency as his own life came to an end. He journeyed to an Illinois prison to meet with a convicted murderer days before his execution. He advocated universal medical care and warned against corporate profits overwhelming the human dimension of health care. At the end of his life, he smiled weakly at the headlines reporting his final written appeal to the Supreme Court to reject a right to assisted suicide.

No one-hour show can fully address the seeming paradoxes that surrounded Cardinal Bernardin, but this production helps viewers understand the principles that guided him. A cautious person, he became a courageous leader. A Southern gentleman, he made racial justice one of his enduring passions. A consummate and careful bureaucrat in the best sense of the word, he pushed the bishops’ conference into uncharted territory on war and peace and the consistent defense of human life. The ultimate consensus builder, his last cause—the "Catholic Common Ground" project—became a source of celebration and some division. In his last days, he journeyed to Washington to accept the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton and to protest Clinton’s veto of the partial birth abortion ban. A quintessential man of the church, he touched people far beyond the structures of the institution he served.

This documentary concludes with vivid images of Chicago’s farewell to their cardinal and the words of Father Ken Vello—the "regular driver" in the words of Bernardin’s mother—who was with him through all this, and then brought the cathedral to tears and laughter with his warm, funny, and gutsy funeral homily. Not many homilies can bring a documentary to a stunning and satisfying conclusion, but Father Vello does, asking over and over: "Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?" This compelling and generous documentary helps explain why the answer for so many of us is yes.

JOHN CARR is secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference in Washington, D.C.

Bernardin. Produced by Frank Frost and Martin Doblmeier. PBS Documentary, presented by Thirteen WNET, July 1998.

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