He was born in Columbia, South Carolina to immigrant Italian parents on April 2, 1928, and brought up in the Faith as his parents had been brought up. His father was a stonecutter endeavoring to keep the proud tradition alive but death called him home and young Joseph and his widowed mother and sister, in order to make ends meet, moved in with relatives. Despite these economic hardships and the loss of his father, he was more determined to fulfill his father's dreams of having a priest for a son. After struggling through his minor seminary in Charleston he turned the corner and excelled in the major seminary at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore receiving his degree in Philosophy in 1948. In 1952 he received his Masters in Education at Catholic University in Washington D.C. just after being ordained on April 26th in the Diocese of Charleston by Bishop John J. Russell. He was assigned various pastoral assignments in the Diocese and teaching at Charleston's Diocesan Catholic High School for the next fourteen years until Pope Paul VI appointed him the Titular Bishop of Lugura and Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta at the age of 37, the youngest bishop in the country as of March 4, 1966 when he was named and 38 when he was installed on April 26, 1966 - the fourteenth anniversary of his ordination. Two years later he was named General Secretary of the United States Catholic Conference on April 5, 1968.
On November 21, 1972 the Holy Father tabbed Bernardin as the next Archbishop of Cincinnati to replace the deceased Bishop Paul F. Leibold who had died on June 1st of that year. He was installed as Archbishop of the Queen City on December 19, 1972 where he remained for ten years. During that time he became more outspoken and his voice began to be heard with more acceptance by those frustrated with the conservative approach of the older bishops and the Pope. More groups were trying to effect the changes of Vatican II and it was during this time that Bernardin gained his reputation as a liberal standard bearer with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, especially after he had been elected President of the NCCB in 1974. He was credited with being the "guiding spirit" behind several of the bishops' initiatives over twenty-two years which, in retrospect, is not always a compliment. Too many used him to foster their own dissidence for he was a loving, accepting prelate. Some say too accepting in regards Church matters. In fact, Alphonse J. Matt Jr., also a recipient of the TOP 100 CATHOLICS OF THE CENTURY honor and the editor-publisher of The Wanderer notes that Cardinal Bernardin had maybe too much clout in Rome in the seventies. As the leader of the "American Church" he advocated the American way of thinking which was "uniquely American and characteristic of an American political and social mind-set...and that's a bad thing." To this day Matt blames Bernardin for pressuring Rome to ease annulment rules which has made it too easy for Catholics to find loopholes out of marriages.
On July 10, 1982 Pope John Paul II appointed Bernardin to replace Cardinal John Cody who had passed away on April 25th of that year. Archbishop Bernardin was installed in Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago on August 25, 1982. Less than six months later, in keeping with the fact Chicago has always had a cardinal, he was included in the Holy Father's Consistory of February 2, 1983 and created a cardinal priest. From that time on his influence became widespread as the liberals rejoiced that "their man" was in control. We doubt Cardinal Bernardin felt that way or liked labels such as that though he was quoted as saying, while picking out his tomb at the Bishops' Mausoleum in Mt. Carmel a few months before his death and requesting to be next to Cardinal Cody: "I've always been a little left of Cody." Truer words were never spoken for Cardinal Cody was an archconservative who kept all records secret and faced fierce opposition and sharp criticism from the media and the growing modernist bloc among the clergy of Chicago. It is said many rejoiced at Cody's death and Bernardin's appointment which, many to this day maintain the Pope had no choice because of pressure from the U.S. Bishops. Whether that is true or not, we do know the Holy Father replaced Bernardin after his death with someone of a more conservative bent but one who also was understanding like Bernardin in Cardinal Francis George, OMI. It was a surprise and shock to the radical modernists who weren't exactly dancing in the streets at the appointment of this relatively unknown prelate from Oregon who actually was born and reared in the windy city.
And speaking of the windy city, Chicago is where many of the more modernistic trends and movements were hatched, again many believe because of the cardinal's moderate, loving manner not to offend anyone that many took advantage of him and latched onto his pallium or coattails, so to speak, in an effort to legitimize their concerns. This includes We Are Church, Dignity and Call To Action to name a few of the more well known abusers. The more they elevated Cardinal Bernardin to this plateau the more he himself felt the need to represent them and to campaign for their cause and the "Americanization of the Church." This first came to light with his "Common Ground Project" in which he called for tolerance among all groups. With all his wisdom, it was not a wise move for it opened Pandora's Box as more radical groups came out of the woodwork and more bishops signed on to his radical ideas.
While his politics were questionable, his loyalty to Rome, devotion to God and His Holy Church were never called into question. He was a strong man of prayer. By his own admission, he hated to get up early in the morning but felt it necessary in order to have quiet time for prayer. Everyday the first hour of his day was devoted exclusively to the Almighty from the day he was appointed bishop to the day he died. "What I have found as time has gone on is that the effect of that first hour doesn't end when the hour is up. That hour of prayer unites me with the Lord for the entire day." On the Rosary the cardinal said, "I also pray the Rosary because it brings into vivid images some of the high points in the Lord's life and ministry as well as that of His Blessed Mother. It's a real help. Some people think it may be repetitious, and in a sense it is. But it keeps you focused on the mysteries of the Lord, Joyful Mysteries, Sorrowful Mysteries, Glorious Mysteries."
The strength of prayer was what he had to fall back on when in the early nineties he was sensationally charged with pedophilia by a former seminarian in Cincinnati when he was bishop there. At that time the bishop's quarters were on the same property as the seminary in Norwood which since has been abandoned and turned into a beautiful center in honor of the Blessed Mother called Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Center headed by Father Leroy Smith. But because of the proximity of the seminary and bishop's quarters back then and the media's lust for smear campaigns, Cardinal Bernardin was unfairly accused, plastered in all the papers and the nightly news. His response, a mild-mannered denial. "The allegations are totally false. I am 65 years-old, and I can tell you that all my life I have lived a chaste and celibate life." He even offered to meet and pray with his accuser Steven Cook, a young man dying with AIDS. When Cook finally admitted under cross-examination that he had lied, the cardinal never said "I told you so" but rather chose to forgive his accuser just as Christ did on the cross "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
If anything Cardinal Bernardin was a man of compassion, seeking to be a true shepherd to all his flock, gravitating toward the sheep who were hurting most. Perhaps this explains his liberal tendencies. Whatever is the case, you could see this compassion and the total peace that came over him when he realized he was dying of cancer in 1996. He traveled to Rome to meet with the Holy Father to discuss his successor and made a side trip to Assisi where he knelt before the tomb of Saint Francis and requested to say Mass there. One of the Franciscan sacristans started to question him without realizing he was a cardinal. All the time the cardinal never pulled rank. When the sacristan was informed by another who knew, he couldn't help the cardinal enough. Cardinal Bernardin, instead of being incensed, was grateful. During his final days he made an effort to console others while overlooking his own pain, offering it up in reparation. His last week he wrote an impassioned letter to the Supreme Court entreating them to uphold the Sanctity of Life. All his life Cardinal Bernardin was a strong advocate for pro-life and human dignity. His last homily was on entreating the people not to fear death but to regard it as a gift. With cameras whirring away and the national press in his face, he calmly replied, "As a person of faith, I see death as a friend...if we say that we are putting ourselves in the hands of the Lord, then we can't hold back...we have to be willing to let go." He did so on November 14, 1996 when liver and pancreatic cancer took his life and an entire nation mourned. Plaudits flowed from the man on the street to the Holy Father, from national leaders and celebrities to distinguished Princes of the Church.
It is quite possible one reason he was the darling of the liberal media was because he was liberal, but his deep concern for others and social consciousness to reach out to all dissenters in his own flock and people of other faiths endeared him to many. That was the background for his proposing a Catholic Common Ground in bringing together the dissenters who clamored for reform and the staunch loyalist Catholics who were, by and large orthodox in belief. His efforts are to be lauded, but it was the demanding attitude many of the dissenting groups insisted on that made this endeavor a failure from the beginning for the Church cannot compromise on her teachings. We hope Cardinal Bernardin will not be judged by his liberal policies but more for his compassion for all and desire to seek peace among God's children. All his life he was an outspoken critic of military weaponry and tactics.
Probably the biggest loss was not felt as much in his see of Chicago where Cardinal George picked up the ball several months later, but within the ranks of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Long regarded as a liberal majority, Cardinal Bernardin was the champion of so many of the bishops who were hopeful he might be the first American Pope having been reared as the youngest bishop in the nation in 1966 and was still fairly young by episcopal standards when he died at the age of 68. With his death the pendulum would begin to swing back to the center and toward the right again and, for many who convened in Washington D.C. that November of 1966 while the cardinal lay dying, they knew it could be the last hurrah for the American Church. Among the cardinals only Cardinal Roger Mahony and possibly Cardinal Bernard Law remain who lean to the left; at the same time many bishops have grown old and are retiring with the Holy Father replacing them with young, dynamic leaders such as Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Conv., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, and Bishop John Myers to name a few of the new, loyal breed of American bishops intent on remaining faithful to Rome.
For the liberals it could be their swan song. But, in the words of Marc Anthony "we have not come to bury him, but to praise him:" ...praise Cardinal Bernardin as a man of God whose sincerity and honesty touched countless hearts and souls and not to perpetuate his legacy as a champion of liberals but rather as a champion of human dignity and the Sanctity of Life whose obedience and humility before God stood tall above all the politics that muddled his life.
According to meteorologists, the world has had more devastating disasters in the last 10 years than what was had accumlatively in the previous eighty years. Coincidence? El Nino? El Nina?
Science always tries to find a logical and natural reason. People who live by Faith and know that God has control of everything look beyond mere human reason. They look to God; they look for spiritual reasons. Afterall, it is God Who made the climates, the seasons, the wind, the earth, the oceans, the sun. NOTHING HAPPENS BY ACCIDENT. All is within the Providence of God and is either His direct Will or within His permissive Will.
So what should a Christian see in all of the disasters that are occurring? Strange as it may seem, they should first of all see the MERCY of God.
Once when Mother Teresa was asked why God took so many lives in a certain earthquake (I think in India), she replied: “Because they were ready!”
It may seem unbelievable that what appears to be terrible to us, may be an act of God’s Mercy. This will be shown to us clearly when we ourselves are in eternity.
A spiritual person sees and hears God in everything about him. He sees God in the beauty of a flower, in the sweet kiss of a cool breeze, in the strong wind of a hurricane and in the shaking of the earthquake.
As the world of today grows increasingly away from God by sin, apostasy, self-complacence and self-deification, God may well “speak” louder to be heard. The God of 1999 is the same God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. He is intricately and intimately involved in our lives and wants to be. He is not a way out in the clouds somewhere looking down on us from afar. God is a loving Father, Who cares about each one of His children and their salvation. Sometimes a good parent must do unpleasant things to TEACH his children.
In the Old Testament the Israelites were faithful to God for a time, fell into sin, were punished by God, became faithful again (for awhile) and then the cycle occurred again and again.
I remember reading the whole Bible when I was in high school. I couldn’t understand why the Israelites never seemed to learn by this cycle. I think we continue this history. How can the world grow increasingly away from God without God’s intervening to wake the world up as to its evil? Our God is a Good God! He goes after the sheep that are lost. He doesn’t rest until He has found His lost sheep.
I think we shall continue to see more disasters. That is my opinion. They may well grow in severity and extensiveness.
Our role is to remain faithful to God, receive the Sacraments frequently, remain in His Grace and pray for ourselves and others. But not to be afraid! God is in control. And He loves us!
May He bless you!