CHICAGO (CBS) — Joseph Cardinal Bernardin is being remembered this week, 15 years after he died following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Bernardin died on Nov. 14, 1996, at the age of 68.
Born in Columbia, S.C., to recent immigrants from northern Italy, Bernardin originally planned to become a doctor and enrolled in premed classes at the University of South Carolina. But he later decided to join the priesthood, and transferred to St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore.
He was ordained in the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., in 1952, and had a meteoric rise through the Roma Catholic Church in America, becoming the youngest bishop in America when he was named an auxiliary bishop in Atlanta at the age of 38.
Bernardin later served as Archbishop of Cincinnati for 10 years, before being appointed by Pope John Paul II to serve as Archbishop of Chicago following the death of John Cardinal Cody in 1982.
At the time, the Chicago Archdiocese was in a state of chaos, plagued by allegations of financial mismanagement that had led to a federal investigation against Cardinal Cody. It was Bernardin who was tasked with healing those wounds.
Bernardin became known for what he called a “consistent ethic of life,” and spoke against abortion, euthanasia, modern warfare and capital punishment alike, the Archdiocese recalls. He spoke out regularly against violence around the world, from Lebanon and Israel to Northern Ireland.
Bernardin is also credited with helping Chicago to deal with the emerging scandal of sexual misconduct by priests, and he urged other bishops to follow suit.
Some bishops fought Bernardin on the issue of pedophile priests because they didn’t want anything mandated on them. As CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine recalled back in 2006, the bishop that fought Bernardin the hardest was Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, who ultimately resigned in disgrace amid allegations that he had covered up sexual abuse by priests.
Among Bernardin’s greatest challenges was dealing with a false sexual abuse allegation that was brought against him personally in 1993. His accuser, former seminarian Steven Cook, later recanted, and Bernardin prayed with him.
“I consider that God used me as an instrument,” Bernardin said at the time.
Bernardin was tested again a couple of years later with a battle against cancer. But as he underwent treatment, Bernardin also began a ministry directed toward cancer patients, and penned book, The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections, which became a New York Times bestseller following its release two years after his death.
“He taught us how to live, how to forgive, and how to die,” former Bernardin aide Monsignor Ken Velo said in 2006.
Francis Cardinal George celebrated a memorial mass at Holy Name Cathedral Friday, remembering Bernardin and members of the clergy in the Chicago Archdiocese who have died in the past year.