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.
Giuseppe Bernardin, Cardinal Bernardin’s father, succumbed to cancer in 1934. Joseph was six years old.
Bernardin attended the University of South Carolina for one year as a pre-med student in 1944-45 before discerning his vocation to the priesthood.
Joseph Bernardin was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Charleston (South Carolina) on April 26, 1952 by Bishop John Russell at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Columbia, SC.
Bernardin attended the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council as an observer in 1965, at the invitation of Charleston Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler.
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.
Joseph Bernardin was received into the Order of Friars, Minor (Franciscans) and took a Franciscan habit in May, 1972.
In December, 1974 Bernardin was elected president of the United States Catholic Conference/National Conference of Catholic Bishops for a three-year term.
On February 2, 1983, Pope St. John Paul II elevated Bernardin to the College of Cardinals.
A committee of bishops chaired by Cardinal Bernardin published a pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” on May 3, 1983.
Cardinal Bernardin offered the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University on December 6, 1983, his first public presentation of the Consistent Ethic of Life.
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.
Bernardin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 8, 1995 and underwent surgery on June 12. Apparently cancer-free, Cardinal Bernardin begins his “cancer ministry.”
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.
Doctors discovered that Cardinal Bernardin’s cancer had returned on August 28. The cancer had spread to his liver and was inoperable.
Cardinal Bernardin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House on September 9, 1996.
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.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin entered his final rest peacefully at the Cardinal’s Residence in Chicago on November 14, 1996.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996) was archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until his death. Shortly before he died, he entrusted his legacy to a Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union. He wrote, “I am very pleased that you will continue my legacy and ecclesial vision, which are based on the teaching and reforms of the Second Vatican Council.” Today, CTU continues Cardinal Bernardin’s ministry of reconciliation and peacemaking, interreligious dialogue, leadership development for the Catholic church, the consistent ethic of life, and the search for common ground in the church and the world. More than one hundred CTU graduates have been Bernardin Scholars, supported by a scholarship as they have studied Cardinal Bernardin’s life in order to continue his ministry through their own. Dr. Steve Millies is the fourth director of The Bernardin Center.