Joseph Louis Bernardin was born to parents Maria Simion Bernardin and Giuseppe Bernardin on April 2, 1928 in Columbia, South Carolina. His parents had emigrated to the United States from Italy less than six months earlier. He was baptized and later confirmed at St. Peter’s Church in Columbia.
Between April, 1968 and December, 1972, Bishop Bernardin was the general secretary for the United States Catholic Conference/National Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he led the conference’s transition into its present organization following the Second Vatican Council.
Pope St. John Paul II visited the United States in 1987 and, at Cardinal Bernardin’s invitation, made the first papal visit to South Carolina on September 11. The Holy Father stopped to pray at St. Peter’s Church in Columbia, the church where Cardinal Bernardin was baptized and confirmed.
Responding to a clerical sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Chicago, in 1992 Cardinal Bernardin established an Independent Review Board to investigate allegations of sexual abuse against children and he required the Archdiocese to report all allegations to law enforcement. The next year, he attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the U.S. bishops to adopt the same approach.
Bernardin was accused of sexual misconduct on November 11, 1993. After addressing the allegations publicly in a press conference and reporting himself to law enforcement, Bernardin was exonerated when his accuser recanted on February 28, 1994.
Cardinal Bernardin led a delegation of Chicago Jews and Catholics to Israel in March, 1995. The pilgrimage saw Bernardin make important remarks at the University of Jersusalem and at Yad Vashem.
On August 9, 1996, Cardinal Bernardin announced the Catholic Common Ground Initiative to promote dialogue among Catholics in the Church over their divisions. It will be his final initiative.
On November 1, 1996, Cardinal Bernardin inscribed the chapter headings and Introduction as the finishing touches on his spiritual autobiography The Gift of Peace. He would not live to see the book published.