On Friday, August 30, 1996, I listened to the news conference at which Joseph Cardinal Bernardin shared with his Church, the public, and friends around the world that he was dying of pancreatic cancer and probably had less than a year to live. He said that he had placed himself in the hands of God and was at peace. At the end of the news conference, Cardinal Bernardin made a request of those present and of all those watching and listening. He asked his “extended family” of metropolitan Chicago to pray for him, to stand in spiritual solidarity with him in the days and weeks ahead, and that he in turn would pray for us and for our families.
As he concluded his remarks, I felt tears begin to moisten my eyes, a tightness grip my chest, a tremor in my vocal chords that comes when you want to speak, but instead you cry. I began to realize that Joseph Bernardin was beginning his final passage from this life to eternal life, and, that sooner than anyone wanted, he would be gone from us through death. I prayed:
O God, your days are without end and your mercies cannot be counted. Make us aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life, and let your Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. I pray this day for your servant, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, that when he shall have served you in this generation, he may be gathered to his ancestors, having the testimony of a good conscience, in the communion of your Church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a holy hope, in favor with you, our God, and in peace with all humanity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (adapted from Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 208.)
In praying for him that August afternoon, I also began to remember the various occasions and ways in which Joseph Bernardin was friend, teacher, and brother in Christ; always by example, in his words and gestures.
He came to First Lutheran Church, Harvey, in late September, 1985 to join with Illinois Synod, LCA Bishop Paul Erickson, the members of First Lutheran and 185 lay and clergy leaders from Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches in the south suburbs to enjoy a fellowship dinner and then to gather with 1,000 plus citizens and community leaders at Thornton High School to inaugurate the Regional Employment Network. This regional employment network was initiated in and through the local churches in response to the thousands of jobs lost due to steel plant closings and the downsizing of steel related manufacturing companies. Joseph Bernardin was there as a brother in Christ to show his care and concern for local people in their time of unemployment and underemployment, and to encourage our local efforts in assisting people toward re-employment.
During the month of April, 1987 it was pure joy and total surprise to receive the following letter dated April 23:
Dear Pastor Knutson,
I have just learned that you are celebrating the 95th Anniversary of the First Lutheran Church. I know that Bishop Gregory will be delivering a sermon at the church and want you to know of my own best wishes and congratulations at this important milestone. I pray that the Lord will be with you and the members of your church in the days and years ahead.
At this Easter season, may we be renewed in our efforts to love the Lord and live the Gospel. With cordial good wishes, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archbishop of Chicago
This letter, now framed, was written on his personal stationary. It is a lasting reminder of a man called Bernardin, who always was a brother in Christ, a friend, and a teacher of the Way of Jesus.
And who among us in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod will soon forget that memorable spring afternoon of May 19, 1989 when Lutherans, Roman Catholics and ecumenical guests gathered at St. Alphonsus Church in Chicago to hear this declaration (Preamble, L/RC Covenant):
Believing in the will of the Lord Jesus Christ that we “all may be one,” recognizing our common baptism in the name of the Trinity, and encouraged by our common witness in worship and service as our people come together in faith, we, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and Bishop Sherman G. Hicks, in the name of the members of our respective local communions solemnly enter into this Covenant.
By this Covenant with ELCA Lutherans in Chicago, Cardinal Bernardin set the ecumenical standard forelating with Lutherans throughout the USA. His own study of the US and International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogues, gave him the theological and spiritual foundation which led to his personal commitment to work for this significant ecumenical relationship. His legacy to us is one of prayerful intercession that the Holy Spirit continue to lead and guide the Archdiocese and our Metropolitan Chicago Synod toward greater unity, and, in faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yes, a brother, a friend, a teacher, he was also a man of humor and wit. When the South Suburban Action Conference (an ecumenical church based community organization of 39 Baptist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Disciple congregations) gave birth to its New Cities Community Development Corporation in the fall of 1989, it was Joseph Bernardin who brought the 1100 people in attendance to a moment of laughter and applause when he said, “It’s so good to be here in Flossmoor, Illinois at this Cathedral of Joy Baptist Church. I come from a Cathedral Church too, but it is often the center of protest not joy, so it’s really good to be in this joyful place on a peaceful and hopefilled occasion”. He went on to remind us in his prepared remarks that our concern for affordable housing for middle income and lower income working families, the need to rehabilitate vacant and abandoned properties making them habitable once again, was all part of the church’s responsibility in being a faithful steward of God’s Word and God’s world.
All along the way as Archbishop of Chicago, he was a friend, a teacher, a brother in Christ, always leading by example, through words, and with gestures. So too at the very end of his earthly pilgrimage, in written form through his personal reflections called: The Gift of Peace, he gave us a lasting testament, a gesture of love. In the meditation which follows, Cardinal Bernardin gives us a foundational insight in Christian spirituality leading to closer communion with God, so fitting for this issue of Let’s Talk. In tribute to him and with thanksgiving to God for his servant ministry and leadership, we hear Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in his own words:
God speaks very gently to us when he invites us to make more room for him in our lives. The tension that arises comes not from him but from me as I struggle to find out how to offer him fuller hospitality and then to do it wholeheartedly. The Lord is clear about what he wants, but it is really difficult to let go of myself and my work and trust him completely. The first step of letting go, of course, is linked with my emptying myself of everything—the plans I consider the largest as well as the distractions I judge the smallest—so that the Lord really can take over.
St. Paul’s description of Jesus’ mission is never far from my thoughts: “though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
To close the gap between what I am and what God wants of me, I must empty myself and let Jesus come in and take over. I have prayed to understand his agenda for me. Some things stand out. He wants me to focus on the essentials of his message and way of life rather than on the accidentals that needlessly occupy so much of our time and efforts. One can easily distinguish essentials from peripherals in the spiritual life. Essentials ask us to give true witness and to love others more. Nonessentials close us in on ourselves.
It is unsettling to pray to be emptied of self; it seems a challenge almost beyond our reach as humans. But as we try, I have learned, God does most of the work. I must simply let myself go in love and trust of the Lord.
When the hand of God’s purpose enters my life, however, it is usually not from the front, as I have always expected, but from the side, in murmurs and whispers that not only surprise but soon empty me beyond anything I could imagine.
(The Gift of Peace pp. 15-17)