A good death in solidarity with others

November 17, 1996|By Sara Engram

IN THE WEEKS before he died, Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spent some of his waning hours and energy reading a 1994 meditation on death by the Rev. Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest and prolific writer on the spiritual life.

"A good death is a death in solidarity with others," Fr. Nouwen wrote. ". . . If we live toward death as toward an event that separates us from other people, death cannot be other than sad and sorrowful event. . . . Instead of separating us from others, death can unite us with others; instead of being sorrowful, it can give rise to new joy; instead of simply ending life, it can begin something new."

Love and concern

Judging from the outpouring of love and concern from virtually every part of the Chicago community he had served since 1982, Cardinal Bernardin's death this past week has indeed prompted something new, or at least something all too rare.

The reaction went beyond the usual mourning for a public figure. Cardinal Bernardin was revered as the nation's longest-serving, active Catholic prelate and was a renowned peacemaker between various factions of the diverse family of American Catholics.

But he also transcended the bounds of his own church.

During his illness, people of all religions would ask how "our cardinal" was doing. At his death, Jews were planning a memorial service, while African-American Baptists were also paying tribute to a man they had come to consider their friend.

Spiritual strength

Reading Fr. Nouwen's meditation provides a clue to the spiritual strength that lay behind this public lesson in living and dying.

A friend of the cardinal, and of hundreds of people who had encountered him or his writings, Fr. Nouwen had spent the last several years of his life working with the mentally disabled in Toronto and pondering the questions that inevitably arise as one meets the limits of mortality.

Fr. Nouwen died suddenly in September with little of the concrete warning which so dramatically shaped the final months of the cardinal's life.

But the title of his slender volume, "Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring," is an apt description of the cardinal's life in the days since he announced in August that his pancreatic cancer had resisted all treatment and that he had only a year or less to live.

If his grace under pressure had been a lesson to others, his approach to his final days could best be described as a gift, a lesson that, in dying, life can be lived at its fullest.

That gentle lesson is sorely needed in a world obsessed with staying forever young and always in control.

It was also a lesson in finding strength by reaching out to other people in a culture more often concerned with preserving boundaries, whether in politics, religion or everyday life.

As reporters traveled to Chicago to chronicle the public dying of a public churchman, the cardinal told them of the freedom he found as he came to terms with his own mortality.

He had always feared several things, he said. One was cancer, which had killed his father when the cardinal was still a young boy. One was being falsely accused of a serious offense. And one was death.

Three fears

After a career which made him the only American prelate to be seriously mentioned as a candidate for the papacy, he found himself confronting all three.

First, a former altar boy claimed that he had "recovered" memories of being sexually abused by Cardinal Bernardin. The cardinal steadfastly denied the charge, and later, when the man recanted, he visited him as he was dying of AIDS in a gesture of forgiveness.

Then he learned he had pancreatic cancer. Initial treatments brought some hope before the cancer returned, and he could no longer avoid facing his own death.

Sense of relief

But having faced all those fears, he talked of an enormous sense of relief, a hard-won freedom from fear. In turn, that freedom liberated him for the solidarity with other people's suffering of which Fr. Nouwen wrote.

As his disease progressed, Cardinal Bernardin found himself drawn to other cancer patients, people who faced the same fears and physical indignities, people who knew the ache of hoping for a miracle but the need for courage to accept whatever comes.

By the time he died, the list of fellow cancer patients with whom the cardinal was in contact had reportedly grown to 700 people.

Meanwhile, the example of his life and death spread far beyond even that band.

Living well is an art. But as the cardinal has now shown us, dying well is a gift beyond price.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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