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“Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?”

November 13, 2016
Msgr. Ken Velo's homily at Cardinal Bernadin's funeral mass
April 2, 1928 – November 14, 1996
Funeral Mass on November 21, 1996
Cardinal Bernardin
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the son of Italian immigrants who rose to become the senior Catholic Church leader in the United States. Joseph Bernardin died on November 14, 1996 after a 17-month bout with pancreatic cancer. Cardinal Bernardin was a man who bridged differences of race, politics and religion, weighing in as a mediator on the great issues ranging from nuclear war to AIDS education and prejudice. His last major effort was the Common Ground Initiative to foster dialogue with Catholics from all stripes, streams and spectrums. He tried to teach us the importance of dialogue. He ardently desired to make common ground holy ground. In a very memorable Pastoral Letter on the Liturgy (1984) “Our Communion, Our Peace, Our Promise,” he wrote:
“At this table we put aside every worldly separation based on culture, class, or other differences. Baptized, we no longer admit to distinctions based on age or sex or race or wealth. This communion is why all prejudice, all racism, all sexism, all deference to wealth and power must be banished from our parishes, our homes, and our lives. This communion is why we will not call enemies those who are human beings like ourselves. This communion is why we will not commit the world's resources to an escalating arms race while the poor die. We cannot. Not when we have feasted here on the "body broken" and "blood poured out" for the life of the world."
Cardinal Bernardin spent his final months assuring those around him that he was at peace with himself and with God. Days before his death, he wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it not to allow doctor-assisted suicide. As he was dying in, he wrote a moving, personal testament, The Gift of Peace, which speaks powerfully about life and death (pp. 152-153):
“Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar. I will be home.”
His funeral Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles on November 21, 1996 before 1,300 friends, religious leaders and politicians, followed two days of mourning during which more than 90,000 people filed past his casket in Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral in an around-the-clock visitation. Many of the 1,300 inside the cathedral wept as Msgr. Ken Velo told human and spiritual anecdotes about the Cardinal. Hundreds who wouldn't fit inside the church stood outside in the cold, listening to the service over loudspeakers.
"The homily of this Mass has been given over the months of his illness," Msgr. Velo told mourners. "Didn't he teach us? Didn't he show us the way?" Msgr. Velo, who often served as Bernardin's chauffeur, ended his very moving homily addressing some personal words to his former boss: "Cardinal, eminence--you're home, you're home."
I can only imagine Cardinal Bernardin’s joy in heaven as he now sees his efforts for dialogue and a common ground initiatve begin to bear fruit in the Petrine Ministry of Pope Francis. I am sure that the Cardinal rejoiced last September 2015 as the Suceessor of Peter and the Bishop of Rome addressed the Bishops of the United States of America in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC:
Pope Francis continued his theme of dialogue in his very moving address to the Bishops of the United States, gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2015. The Holy Father said that dialogue is not limited to political activity outside of the Church, but also within the Church. To his brother bishops he presented a portrait or job-description of shepherds – and indeed for each one of us:
“It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The “style” of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant “for us”.
“…Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).”
“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia (boldness), the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.”