WHETHER HE WAS MEETING A bishop or a parish priest, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, offered the same homely greeting: “I am Joseph, your brother.” On Nov. 14, when the influential Roman Catholic leader died at 68 after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer, he left a legacy of civility and compassion that touched admirers of all faiths. “He was a great man, yet a common person,” says Rev. Donald K. Barrett, pastor of the Harvey, Ill., Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, one of some 250,000 mourners to attend a three-day visitation at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral before Bernardin’s Nov. 20 burial.
Joseph Bernardin Jr. lived, and died, with dignity. The son of poor Italian immigrants who settled in South Carolina, he came to Chicago as archbishop in 1982, where he would win praise as a peacemaker and face the most trying days of his brilliant, 44-year church career. In 1993, former seminarian Stephen Cook accused him of sexual abuse. Bernardin calmly denied the charges until his accuser recanted four months later—and then said mass for Cook, who died of AIDS in 1994. Bernardin was diagnosed with cancer just six months later and faced the disease with candor. “Sometimes we accomplish the greatest good when we are suffering,” he said last summer.
Bernardin’s widowed mother, Maria, learned of her son’s passing on her 92nd birthday. In Italian-accented English, she expressed a belief shared by many. “He’s in paradiso,” she said.