Arts and Culture

Reflecting on the Life and Death of Cardinal Bernardin

by Father Robert Lauder

MANY Months ago, a friend gave me a copy of Eugene Kennedy’s book “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross: Transforming Our Grief and Loss into a New Life” (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003, pp. 164).

I had read several books by Kennedy and knew him to be a gifted writer. Years ago, when Kennedy was a Maryknoll priest, novelist Norman Mailer described him as the first American Catholic priest to become a genuine writer. That was high praise from one of our country’s most successful and esteemed novelists. I knew what Mailer meant. Kennedy’s prose flows beautifully, and his use of similes and metaphors to illuminate or emphasize some insight is amazing.

Holding Kennedy’s writing in high esteem and being told more than once by my friend what a great book Kennedy had written, I took the book with me on vacation last summer. If anything, my friend’s praise of the book was an understatement.

Inspiring Parallels

Emphasizing in his foreword that tragedy is at the heart of Christianity – that Jesus died young when His mission was just beginning, that after His death His followers were in disarray and yet, from this tragedy new life was achieved and a victory over death happened – Kennedy draws inspiring parallels between the suffering and death of Jesus and the suffering and death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

The book is very personal. Kennedy notes that his meditations on the cardinal’s life have come from his 30-year experience as his friend. They also have come from his reflections on the last three years of the cardinal’s life in relation to the suffering and death of Jesus.

In order to be accurate about Jesus’ passion and death, Kennedy relies on Father Raymond Brown, one of America’s finest Catholic Scripture scholars, and what he calls Father Brown’s masterwork, “The Death of the Messiah, From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on The Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels.”

What moved me most in Kennedy’s book was the obvious love that the author had for the cardinal. That love does not make Kennedy less objective but rather enables him to see more deeply into the cardinal’s personality and discover the holiness that became increasingly evident as the cardinal approached death.

There are wonderful passages in Kennedy’s book. I found especially interesting what he wrote about the cardinal’s way of relating to women. At this time in the history of the Church in this country, some women complain that priests tend to treat them as somehow inferior. Many women criticize a kind of clericalism that seems to hide the humanity of a priest, a kind of clericalism that has built into it a condescending attitude toward others, perhaps especially women. With the best intentions a priest can conceal his true identity. The collar serves to distance people rather than be a sign of service. At least this is what some women say about their experience of some priests.

Apparently the cardinal’s spirituality allowed him to be himself, confident in his own identity and ready to serve rather than to be served. Commenting on Cardinal Bernardin’s way of relating to women, Kennedy writes the following:

“And there are other women who … have never before met such a man, they bear the image of a man so at ease with himself, so transparent in his lack of defenses, so appealing in his manly way of living, that he is the love of their lives, too, leaving an image of a man who … can give so much without taking anything away from them. No, he is not an ascetic who disowns the world and its women, no, he is very much in this world, in love with it just as it is, a profoundly human man who can give and accept love without ever compromising himself or others.” (p. 89)

About 45 years ago, I made a retreat given by Cardinal Bernardin, and I recall having a positive experience. I didn’t know it then, but I suspect it now: I may have had a saint as a retreat master.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).

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