A godly man, but we rarely heard his voice

November 27, 1996|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

BROADWAY, Va. -- When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died recently in Chicago, the obits for him on the television news shows were simply stunning.

First we heard a prominent African-American Protestant leader telling us about what a healer Bernardin was, how palpable was his love. Then a leading Chicago rabbi spoke of the simplicity of the man, and yet also of his extraordinary gifts in bringing people together to find the godly way through a problem.

And so it went. This person -- ''your brother, Joseph'' as he called himself -- was apparently something quite special and rare.

I expect that many shared my thoughts as I watched these testimonies: It was only when this man died that I learned that we had among us someone who was truly what for ages has been called ''a man of God.'' That his faith was Roman Catholic seemed to me, as to the non-Catholics speaking of him on television, less essential than that Cardinal Bernardin had in some way aligned himself with deep spiritual understanding.

The discovery that we had been blessed by having this man of God in our midst led me to a disturbing question: Why was his voice not before us more of the time, offering whatever wisdom or counsel he might have had to offer?

When our country was racked with the agony of our racial divisions -- during the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the first Rodney King verdict, for example -- why wasn't this righteous and humble person among those to whom the microphones turned to help us find our way to healing? During the debate about whether American troops should go to Bosnia to end the rape and slaughter there, why wasn't this godly man one of those whose voice was sought out for our national discussion?

Oh, I know, he did many things, was a prominent churchman, was not hidden in obscurity. But ask yourself: who are the 50 to 100 people that we Americans hear from the most, who have the most access to our arenas of print and broadcast to offer their views and visions?

Certainly, Cardinal Bernardin was nowhere near being on that short list. (I had never heard of him at all until, three years ago, a young man surfaced to accuse him of having sexually abused him -- an accusation that the young man later recanted as false before he died, while Bernardin, with whom he had been tearfully reconciled, said mass for him.)

Who gets our ear? We have our elected officials -- the president, of course, and a few dozen prominent senators, cabinet officials, etc. -- who are rightly on the list. Among the others there are representatives of major interest groups, the specialists and experts and analysts, the journalists. And then we have our celebrities: over the years, an American is much more likely to hear what a Madonna or a Neon Deon has to say to us than a Cardinal Bernardin.

Media access

In fact, on the list of the 50 to 100 people to whom the media give most access, is there a single one who is there because he or she is recognized as a godly person, someone whose contact with the Ground of our existence is regarded as palpable by those who come into contact with the person? I cannot think of a one.

(Billy Graham comes to mind as a possible exception, but with him, unlike Bernardin, the message seems rather confined to his particular creed: Americans know he brings the Gospel, but I cannot think of a single national issue with which we have wrestled during the years of his prominence to which Mr. Graham has chosen to speak with a clear voice that would guide or persuade us.)

What does it say about America as a civilization that the quality of godliness, or deep spiritual understanding, is not regarded as a reason someone should be given a prominent place in the conversation when we as a society are uncertain where the right path lies.

Now, don't get me wrong. On issues of the separation of church and state, I am close to being an ACLU hawk. I don't want any ayatollahs runing our affairs. But it is one thing to cherish our national heritage of creating a public space that is freed of the tyranny of established religion. It is quite another to treat spiritual vision as irrelevant to our national destiny.

For most of recorded history, vibrant civilizations have regarded the springs of spiritual wisdom as crucial to human beings finding their way. America in recent years had a man of God in its midst, apparently, and we gave him a bit part in our national deliberations. On our screens we had (I will guess) 1,000 words from Dick Armey, 2,000 from Sam Donaldson, and 500 from Michael Jordan for every word we heard from Cardinal Bernardin.

It makes me wonder.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's next book, ''Living Posthumously: Confronting the Loss of Vital Powers,'' will be published in February by Henry Holt and Co.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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