In the Footsteps of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Day 1, “The Middle Ground”

In the Footsteps of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Day 1, “The Middle Ground”

“To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 11/06/2010)

I have gone on pilgrimage a couple times before: during my spring break in 2015, I went with a few classmates to El Salvador, to walk in the footsteps of the famous Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran bishop who was a staunch opponent of violence & injustice, a fierce defender of the poor and downtrodden. Romero was murdered while celebrating mass on March 24th, 1980. I visited his place of birth, his places of ministry, the seminary which he had oversight of, the cathedral & many parishes he had direct contact with, and of course, the Hospital of Divine Providence where he served and was assassinated in. Given my love for social justice and desire to serve God’s people in areas of nonviolence & solidarity, I found Romero to be a good model of faith, life, and ministry.

A few months later, in July 2015, I went on another pilgrimage- this time to New York City, which is about an hour & a half away from my hometown. I went on July 31st, the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, and visited different Jesuit parishes & institutions in the city, culminating in a “healing mass” that evening at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan. As someone who has explored Ignatian spirituality for a number of years now (and currently studies theology at a Jesuit university), I used that time in NYC as a personal retreat during a long and tiring summer, a time to really sit back & spend in prayerful reflection with the Lord.

Currently, I am in Chicago. Admittedly, this was my second choice. I originally wanted to go on an Ignatian-style 5 day silent retreat, but there was no room remaining, and the other retreat I could’ve attended was during the academic year & conflicted with my weekend work schedule. Needing a spiritual recharge before the spring semester, I decided to look elsewhere. Given a fortuitous turn of events (a cancelled Memorial Day trip which gave me airline ticket vouchers I needed to use by February 2017, meeting an Xavierian Missionary priest with connections in Chicago, the hospitality of the Spiritan Fathers here, etc.) I am currently writing this in a cozy, warm room in the St. Ambrose Church rectory, in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chi-town. Why am I in Chicago during a near-polar vortex, where temperatures are a balmy 10 degrees?

My experience of 2016, and a deceased cardinal of the Catholic Church.


I don’t think I will shock anyone but stating that 2016 was a tumultuous year, especially in the American political arena. Whatever your political inclinations are, the fact remains that our country is as divided as ever. Republicans vs Democrats, “liberals” vs “conservatives”, mainstream media vs the ‘alt-right’ Breitbart- all of these point to deep divides among the American people, making some wonder what is so “united” about the United States of America.

I was at work one day, and a random thought crossed my mind- the gentle, smiling face of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. My mother, being a huge fan of his, of course had books written by him scattered throughout my house, which became familiar sights as I was growing up. But who the heck was he?

Appointed as the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1982, Joseph Bernardin immediately became the shepherd to one of the largest cities in the country. Home to nearly 2.5 million Catholics, Chicago is one of the most prominent places of American Catholicism, given the city’s illustrious history of European immigration and now diversity of peoples. Even today, you can walk into the hundreds of Catholic churches in Chicago, where you will experience masses celebrated in several languages, including English, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Swahili, (etc.) to name a few.

Cardinal Bernardin entered the Catholic spotlight at a very turbulent time, a time not too different than today. Culture wars began to grow stronger, as the reception of the Second Vatican Council (held in the early 1960s) grew more controversial. How the Church was to engage the modern world was something that had a variety of opinions. “Liturgy wars” emerged as guitars, folk music, and contemporary innovations crept into Catholic worship. Outside of the parish, however, there was no respite from the battles. Political and religious debates raged on, especially on issues regarding abortion/contraception, drugs, capital punishment, Cold War, and a general ‘coming to terms’ with shifting demographics in urban and suburban areas.


Cardinal Bernardin is most well-known for two things- his ‘common ground’ initiative, and his famous “seamless garment” ethic of life. Cardinal Bernardin, seeing the Church grow divided over issues of theology, liturgy, and culture, desired to unify the Church faithful on both sides of the spectrum. He represented the “middle ground”, where dialogue could be cultivated, while not surrendering unchanging Catholic truths. As a proponent of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, Bernardin sought to bring healing, bridging the increasingly-polarized groups in the Church/

He was met with resistance from both sides of the ecclesial-political spectrum. For conservatives, Bernardin represented a dangerous position, one rooted in fear & mistrust. Some cardinals, such as Cardinal Bernard Francis Law of Boston, thought that by establishing this “Common Ground Initiative”, liberal groups would seek to dismantle Catholic doctrine in a world already and increasingly hostile to the Catholic faith. Law’s position was complemented by Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, who, after the establishment of the initiative, said “ We cannot achieve church unity by accommodating those who dissent from church teaching.”

For liberals, reception of Bernardin varied. Some viewed him as not going “far enough” . Others thought his views on abortion and euthanasia (fierce opposition) were too “antiquated”. As mentioned before, Cardinal Bernardin’s other claim to fame was his defense of the “seamless garment”, a consistent ethic of life which held issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, torture, poverty, racism, nuclear war, and other violations against the dignity human person as fundamental to ANY discourse regarding the “pro-life” movement. Bernardin won liberal support in some of these areas, but many disagreed with his views on issues of sexuality & “reproduction rights”, by being unflinching in his opposition to the direct termination of life in the womb.

Ultimately, Bernardin’s dream of a united Church in America was never fully realized. His efforts were also curtailed by allegations of sex abuse by a former seminarian (which were later proved false). His health declined, and he suffered from pancreatic cancer- losing the battle in 1996. His writings on his own suffering and coming to terms with death was made famous in the work, “The Gift of Peace”.

Even in death, he is still the target of ad hominem attacks — a quick Google search of “Cardinal Joseph Bernardin” results in at least two major attacks against him, including one accusing him of being a “satanist”. In 2011, popular culture commentator George Weigel applauded the “end of the Bernardin era”, an era of “culturally-accomodating Catholicism”, an obvious pot-shot to Bernardin’s work in inter-religious dialogue, ecumenism, and social justice. These results and more articles, commentary, and blogs seek to discredit his seamless garment ethic and common ground initiative. Archbishop Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, was met with Internet applause from conservatives when he criticized the “seamless garment” approach to life issues, saying that abortion and euthanasia “stand alone”… “among the evils and injustices in American life in 2016.”

And yet, hope remains. With the election of Pope Francis to the papacy, the seamless garment has been given new life. As the Catholic news website “Crux” reported earlier this fall, both Pope Francis and his pick for cardinals & bishops signal a return to Bernardin’s example. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chicago itself, with the appointment of Cardinal Blaise Cupich, an American prelate who is considered “progressive” by many conservative websites, including Life Site News, which criticized him for barring his seminarians (when he was Archbishop in Seattle) from protest-praying in front of Planned Parenthood, as well as calling issues of unemployment and hunger as areas of “pro-life” concern. Pope Francis and his picks for the Cardinlate both reflect a return to the “Bernardin era”, where bishops are to act as shepherds first and judges second, where priests and those involved in pastoral ministry are called to “smell like the sheep”, and where the Church becomes a place of mercy & reconciliation before a place of dogmatic pronouncements & exclusion.

Regardless, my 2017 New Years resolution stands, which included my resignation from Internet/Church “gossip” & polemical debates. I won’t go into the different areas of issues facing the Church, but I will say one thing- Bernardin’s legacy is something that current American bishops should take note of and follow.


As mentioned before, I am in Chicago. I am here to both spiritually “recharge” before the requirements & responsibilities of the spring semester emerge. I have retired from the “Church gossip” game, and am trying to grow closer to Jesus, who is the merciful face of the Father. My desires to go deeper into theological studies and pastoral ministry are being cultivated by the wonderful professors, student colleagues, and programs within my current graduate school at Boston College. My discernment continues, albeit slowly & gently, to see where God is drawing me to serve Him and His people. And now, more than ever, as 2017 begins, I hope to model Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in my academic, social, and pastoral work. And so, I journey through Chicago, to churches, shrines, places of pilgrimage, and will spend time in prayer & reflection. For my guide, I have “The Journey to Peace”, by Cardinal Bernardin & edited by Alphonse P. Spilly, C.P.P.S and Jeremy Langford. I have faith & trust in God that He will be present in these upcoming five days and will guide me closer to Him as I meditate upon the personal reflections of such a holy and venerable cardinal.

I invite you all to join me spiritually, as I walk in the footsteps of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Please pray for me and all those involved in pastoral ministry, that we may experience Christ with the same enthusiasm as this late Chicago cardinal did.

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