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Bernardin Remembered for Facing Challenges Head-On

November 14, 1996

CHICAGO (AP) _ Less then three months ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin gallantly faced a roomful of reporters to tell the world that his pancreatic cancer had spread and would kill him within a year.

He faced the ordeal humbly, head-on, in the style that defined the man in life and his very public death.

Bernardin, 68, the senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States and leader of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics, died Thursday at his home, surrounded by friends and family. His only sister was at his side.

Pope John Paul II mourned the loss of a great church leader and cited the cardinal’s ``dignity and hope in the face of the mystery of suffering and death.″

In more than 14 years as archbishop of Chicago _ often described as the most visible Catholic post in the United States _ the son of Italian immigrants built a reputation as a soft-spoken but skillful mediator who worked to bridge the gap between factions within and outside his faith.

He helped steer the U.S. church toward an anti-nuclear stance, and in 1987 struck a delicate balance as chief drafter of a document in which U.S. bishops said they would tolerate educational programs on how to use condoms to prevent AIDS.

On Aug. 30, he had announced the cancer had spread and was inoperable. Bernardin gave up his day-to-day duties two weeks ago. Up until then, he never avoided the most prying questions about his failing health.

Just days before his death, he wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it not to allow doctor-assisted suicide. In September, Bernardin also went to the cell of a death-row inmate who asked to pray with him before being executed. The cardinal said at the time: ``He knows he’s going to die tonight, and I know that I am going to die in the near future.″

``He was an excellent example of how Christians are supposed to live and an excellent example of how we should all hope to die,″ said Mike Polyak, 48, who attended a morning Mass honoring Bernardin.

His openness about his failing health also won praise from religious leaders and brought him to the White House, where President Clinton honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bernardin rarely raised his voice in public or dropped the humble demeanor that became familiar to Catholics in the Chicago archdiocese after he took over in 1982, when he introduced himself as ``Joseph, your brother.″

In 1993, Bernardin showed grace in handling the personal crisis he called ``the greatest period of agony and growth in my life″ _ an accusation that he had molested a teen-ager. The cardinal denied he had ever had sex, and the young man later recanted and reconciled with Bernardin before dying of AIDS in 1995.

Ironically, Bernardin had established a system for dealing with sexual accusations against priests that was a model for other dioceses.

His last major undertaking was the Catholic Common Ground Project announced earlier this year, an effort to open dialogue with Catholics who dissent from church teachings on issues such as birth control, celibacy of priests and ordination of women. Some conservative Catholics criticized the project, but others applauded his tolerance.

``Cardinal Bernardin was a loving, gentle man who led by moral persuasion and personal example, never by force or fear,″ said Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, a friend who sometimes criticized Bernardin’s more liberal views.

``The world has lost a prince,″ said Rabbi A. James Rudin of the New York-based American Jewish Committee. ``Throughout his remarkable career, Cardinal Bernardin taught us how to live our lives in faith and integrity.″

Bernardin was born in Columbia, S.C. His father died of cancer when Bernardin was 6; his mother lives in a Chicago nursing home. His only sibling, Elaine Addison, was with Bernardin when he died.

He was ordained a priest in 1952 and served 14 years in the archdiocese of Charleston, S.C. In 1966, Bernardin, then 38, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, becoming the nation’s youngest bishop. He later led the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and spent 10 years as archbishop of Cincinnati before moving to Chicago.

Bernardin was appointed to replace the late Cardinal John Cody, a doctrinal conservative with a reputation for autocratic rule. Archdiocesan officials declined Thursday to discuss Bernardin’s successor.

A funeral Mass was scheduled for Wednesday at Holy Name Cathedral.

Pam Sullivan, a 52-year-old parishioner who was treated for breast cancer eight years ago, praised Bernardin’s own courageous battle with the disease.

``I wish I had had his example then. I still look at it (mortality) with fear, until I think of Cardinal Bernardin,″ she said.

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