Appleton, WI

Jan 10: In Joy & Sorrow with Father Bill

I have shared many times that one of my mentors in the Catholic Church is the former Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who died of pancreatic cancer in November of 1996. He was an influential leader among our US Catholic Bishops, a former President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, a proponent of the Common Ground Initiative, which was his dream of bringing Catholics of varying viewpoints together for honest and respectful conversations. This Initiative still lives on twenty-four years after his death.

Cardinal Bernardin was also the originator of the notion that all of the life issues are interconnected, beginning with the precious life of the infant in the womb and weaving through all of the pro-life issues to the moment of natural death. This consistent ethic of life model still to this day remains a topic that is worthy of discussion among Catholics of varying viewpoints. The current Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, has taken Bernardin’s notion of the consistent ethic of life and has advocated for a consistent ethic of solidarity as well. Solidarity is the notion that the lives of all human beings are interconnected. We are all in the same boat, if you will. We are a part of a global family. Pope Francis, too, has dedicated his second encyclical to human solidarity, titling his beautiful work, “On Human Fraternity.”

One of the treasured books on my shelves is Cardinal Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace. I have mentioned this book many times, which was published shortly after his death. The Cardinal, in fact, wrote “A Personal Letter to the Reader”, in his own handwriting, that was completed just a few days before his death, and is included in the front of his book. The book is the Cardinal’s Last Will and Testament, if you will. As he struggled with his cancer diagnosis and an unsubstantiated charge of clergy sexual abuse against him, which was later recanted, the Cardinal found his love for the Lord and others deepened.

In fact, once the young man who accused him of sexual abuse admitted that he had made the whole thing up (which, by the way, is very rare in the horrifically long of list of credible charges brought against clergy), Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wanted very much to fly out to Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love,” to visit with Steven. He wanted to make sure that Steven knew that he had forgiven him. It was right around the Feast of the Holy Family, during the Christmas Season of 1994. The Cardinal celebrated Mass with Steven and here is what he said in his brief homily:

“In every family there are times when there is hurt, anger, and alienation. But we cannot run away from our family. We have only one family so we must make every effort to be reconciled. The church is our spiritual family. Once we become a member, we may be hurt or become alienated but it is still our family. Since there is no other, we must work at reconciliation.”

I remember being very touched by the Cardinal’s gesture of reconciliation and his understanding of church as family.

In the New Year, I would like to explore with you what it means to say that, “My parish is my spiritual family.” How can we deepen the sense of our parish as a family? Because we are a large family, how do we draw near and connect to a smaller group of parish members? How might we walk together and grow closer to the Lord and each other? Are we able to cry when one member of our family cries and laugh when one member laughs? How do we sustain our commitment to our parish family when uncomfortable situations arise? How do we lovingly bring our concerns or hurts or struggles to members of our parish family? How do we work through the things that are upsetting us? What is the place of the pastor in this parish family? How do we get to a place where commitment to my parish family is stronger than my difficulties or differences with the pastor? How do we create safe spaces to have conversations that help us to see the bigger picture? How do we look to Jesus and His Gospel to guide these delicate conversations?

We are well aware that we live in a nation that is deeply divided. We are a part of a Church that is deeply divided. How do we plot a course to begin to discuss these divisions and construct a bridge together? What unites us in the Lord is far greater than what may divide us!

Stay tuned for an opportunity for us to share living room conversations in parish connect groups during Lent.

Father Bill +