Cardinal Virtues | Sojourners

Cardinal Virtues

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.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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