Catholic cardinal. Bernardin was born in Columbia on April 2, 1928, the elder child and only son of Joseph Bernardin, a master stonecutter, and Maria Maddalena Simion. His parents had emigrated in 1927 from Tonàdico, in the Italian Province of Trent. His father died when Joseph was four, and his mother worked as a seamstress to support her two children. Bernardin was educated in Columbia’s Catholic and public schools. He entered a premedical program at the University of South Carolina, but then decided to study for the priesthood. He attended St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, and the Catholic University of America, where he earned a master’s degree in education.
Ordained in 1952, Bernardin served at St. Joseph’s Church, Charleston, and taught for two years at Bishop England High School. For twelve years he worked in the chancery of the Diocese of Charleston, eventually serving as chancellor, vicar-general, and diocesan administrator. During those years Bernardin shared parochial duties at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, saying mass, hearing confessions, and training altar boys. He was a leader in efforts to desegregate South Carolina’s Catholic schools.
Bernardin worked closely with Paul J. Hallinan, Bishop of Charleston (1958–1962), a scholarly, pastoral prelate who became Bernardin’s mentor. After Hallinan was named Archbishop of Atlanta in 1962, he secured Bernardin’s appointment as his auxiliary bishop in 1966. As a result Bernardin became the country’s youngest bishop at the time. In 1968 Bernardin was elected general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was appointed Archbishop of Cincinnati four years later and became Archbishop of Chicago, the country’s largest diocese, in 1982. Pope John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 1983.
Bernardin was a popular bishop, renowned for administrative skill and respected for his work to benefit children, the elderly, the poor, and the sick. He became a nationally respected spokesperson for American Catholicism. Often mentioned as a possible future pope, he dismissed such speculation as unrealistic. He chaired a committee of American bishops who wrote The Challenge of Peace, a 1983 national pastoral letter questioning use of nuclear weapons. An opponent of abortion, he also opposed the death penalty and assisted suicide, and promoted active efforts to alleviate poverty. He spoke out for a “consistent ethic of life,” asserting that Catholic tradition “calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn and the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate.” Concern about the spread of AIDS led him to speak out for understanding and kind treatment of people with the disease.
Bernardin worked to promote mutual respect and friendship with non-Catholics and to foster dialogue between Christians and Jews. Even as he achieved international status, Bernardin remained attentive to the church and his many friends in South Carolina. His numerous honorary degrees and awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. In 1995 Bernardin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in Chicago on November 14, 1996, and was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Chicago.
Bernardin, Joseph Louis. Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Edited by Alphonse Spilly. 2 vols. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000.
Kennedy, Eugene. Bernardin: Life to the Full. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1997. Unsworth, Tim. I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago.
New York: Crossroad, 1997. White, John H. This Man Bernardin. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1996.