Joseph Bernardin with president Bill Clinton
Joseph Bernardin, the first Italian American Cardinal and Archbishop of Chicago.

Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996) was born in Charleston, South Carolina to immigrant parents who came from Tondico in northern Italy. South Carolina was then home to very few Italian American Catholics thereby insuring that Joseph would be in a distinctive minority. Facing hardship following the death of Joseph's father in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Bernardin family responded by his mother eking out a living working for the government-sponsored WPA and by working as a seamstress. After attending St. Peter's grammar school, Bernardin attended St. Mary's Seminary in Kentucky and St. Mary's in Baltimore where he received a bachelor's degree. He then studied theology in Catholic University of America and was ordained a priest in 1952. His first assignments included serving as a parish curate, teaching in a Catholic high school in Charleston, and serving in the chancery office where he displayed extraordinary administrative skills. In 1966 at age 38 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta, the youngest member of the hierarchy in the country. When he was appointed Bishop of Cincinnati in 1972, it marked the first time he was in community in which Catholics were not a tiny minority.

Upon becoming president of the National Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1974, he played an increasingly important role in the life of the Catholic Church in America both in his administrative role and his pastoral leadership as reflected in his publication The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. The document spoke to moral issues in the light of nuclear war and the right-to-life doctrine as a threat to humanity. Described as a cautious liberal he was regarded as the foremost consensus builder within the church hierarchy.

Bernardin made still more history in 1982 when he became the first Italian American to administer a large archdiocese -Chicago and in 1983 when Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal -the first of his ethnicity to be named to that level of the American hierarchy. How historic this was can be gleaned by realization that he was the first archbishop of Chicago of non-Irish ancestry. He served in that capacity for 14 years until August 1996 when he announced he had terminal cancer, but also stated that "as a person of faith I see death as a friend, the transition from earthly life to life eternal." He died in November 1996.

Assessments of Bernardin's role in the Church vary of course, however, there is considerable consensus that he was the most important figure in the Catholic Church hierarchy in America in the post-Vatican II period. He was considered the calm in the center of harsh controversy that revealed the need for a conciliatory mind, one that could reconcile opposing teachings as, for example, his statement regarding a "seamless garment." In this teaching he stated that the pro-life stand should be used not only against abortion but also against capital punishment. Cardinal Bernardin cherished his role as conciliator, attributing the trait to what he gleaned from his Italian immigrant father.

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