Flowers for a cardinal

September 10, 1996|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- You shouldn't wait until after your friends die to give them flowers, my parents used to say. Maybe that's what President Clinton had in mind when he named Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, to receive the nation's highest civilian medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in a White House ceremony yesterday.

You don't have to be Roman Catholic to like Joe Bernardin, nor to learn from him. For years he has been teaching Chicagoans how to live. Now he has much to teach all Americans about how to die. Cardinal Bernardin, 68, has inoperable liver cancer. He may have only a year to live, his doctors say.

He could have, in the language of the young, kept a lid on it. But he didn't. Within 48 hours of learning he was terminally ill, he held a news conference. The announcement shocked this very Catholic city. Just as shocking as the news is the language that he used. He spoke of his impending death as a ''gift'' and a ''friend.''

''While I know that, humanly speaking, I will have to deal with difficult moments, I can say in all sincerity that I am at peace,'' he said. ''I consider this as God's special gift to me at this moment in my life.''

''Gift?'' Say, what? Most of us cherish life so much that few of us would view certain knowledge about its end as a ''gift.'' We usually think the greater gift is not knowing. The choices such a situation presents seem too awesome for most of us to comprehend. Our ignorance is our bliss. Knowledge, we think, must be a nightmare.

''You know not the time nor the hour when the Lord cometh,'' my mother used to teach me, quoting teachings she had learned in her church. Yet, when Mom learned that her hours were growing short at age 73, she did not, as the poet Dylan Thomas counseled, rage against the dying of the light. She faced it with quiet, but determined dignity and grace -- and a surprising amount of ambition.

She vigorously cleaned the house and stocked the freezer with food. ''Company is coming,'' she said repeatedly. I didn't know what she was talking about, until after she died. She was talking about her friends and relatives who would be coming in for her funeral. Her legacy was the things she loved to do most in life -- cooking and serving others.

Perhaps Cardinal Bernardin also is laying out a legacy of the things he loves to do most in life, particularly his teaching. ''I think that maybe my greatest contribution might be the way I handle the next year,'' he said. ''I hope that will be perhaps the most effective [example to others].''

Search for common ground

Cardinal Bernardin came to town as an important healing force in huge archdiocese divided by dissension, a demoralized clergy and a disenchanted laity. His search for common ground didn't stop there. He reached out ecumenically to non-Catholics in a larger society deeply divided by issues of family and morality.

I don't agree with him on abortion, but I have never ceased to admire his moral sincerity and consistency. His respect for life does not end at birth. He is a leading national voice for a ''seamless garment'' reverence for life. He is anti-abortion, but he is just as vigorously opposed to capital punishment and to cutting off needed aid to the poor, especially poor women who so often turn to abortion as their only option. He wants to make it easier for women to be able to afford to ''choose life.''

The cardinal also has taught us a lot about grace under fire. His last appearance in the national spotlight came three years ago when the late Steven Cook falsely accused him of sexual abuse. Cardinal Bernardin's public faith was unwavering. The young man recanted his story, apologized and the two had a public reconciliation. Again, the cardinal offered others an extraordinary lesson in faith and courage.

It is easy to slip into the past tense in talking about ''Cardinal Joe.'' It is also inappropriate. He continues to add important chapters to his life. I suspect he will continue to do so as long as he can. ''If we see it as an enemy, death causes anxiety and fear,'' he said. ''We tend to go into a state of denial. But if we see death as a friend, our attitude is truly different.''

His optimism is infectious. His energy is relentless. As he dies, he teaches the rest of us how to live. This is my flower to him and those are his flowers to us.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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