A message from Father Nick 86

Ethic of life (ncregister.com)

Exactly twenty-five years ago, on 14th November 1996, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died of pancreatic cancer. Previously Archbishop of Cincinnati, he was then Archbishop of Chicago and a leading figure in the Catholic Church in America. He faced his death with courage and serenity.

Among the conflicting voices we hear from the Church in the United States today – not so very different from those in our own country – we miss a note of inner peace. So much public discourse seems to be conducted in a spirit of anger.

Patience was a particular quality of Cardinal Bernardin, and a willingness to work with strongly opposed groups. This was especially important in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, when some Catholics resisted its vision for the Church. He was deeply committed to Catholic social teaching and produced a book-length letter on The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and our Response, condemning nuclear warfare. Actively ecumenical and supportive of Chicago’s first black mayor, he said quite simply, “Racism is a sin”.

He was pro-active in dealing with issues of clerical abuse and prepared to learn in all aspects of his life – not least in spiritual matters. He described being influenced by his own young priests to spend more time in prayer. But he was also realistic about the nature of our encounter with God. Speaking of this greatest mystery of all, he said,

God reveals himself to us in so many different ways – in prayer, in the celebration of the sacraments, but also in the daily lives of people. If you’re constantly looking for God elsewhere, I don’t think you’ll ever find him. If you’re willing to find him here and now – in the present circumstances of life – then your chances are much better.”

Of course, he was called upon to face the AIDS crisis, to which he responded with characteristic compassion, providing residential care for sufferers and granting them a dignity often denied to them. Without ostentation, he arranged for the Gay Choir of Chicago to sing at his funeral.

His death put the final stamp upon a life of service. A colleague said of him, “I know of no other bishop who has given so much for so long so lovingly and willingly.” In this month of the Holy Souls, it is good to learn that he approached death in a positive way. He described how he was helped to do this by the priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen.

Shortly before he died,” Bernardin said of Nouwen, who was also terminally ill, “he spent over an hour talking to me about being friendly with death. If you see death as a friend, you begin to talk with your friend, and little by little some of the fears begin to dissipate. At that time, I was going through daily radiation and I was not feeling so well. I needed to be reminded that if you see death as a transition, if you see death as incorporation of the Paschal Mystery…then why should you not see it as a friend?”

We can find hope in that for ourselves and for our own “Holy Souls”. May we learn to live by the Gospel, and may they rest in peace.