Bernard C. Gerhardt; Catholic Monsignor

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bernard C. Gerhardt, 81, a Catholic priest for 54 years whose behind-the-scenes work with the Washington Archdiocese affected countless couples seeking annulments, priests seeking guidance and anyone trying to understand canon law, died Aug. 10 at George Washington University of complications of cancer.

Monsignor Gerhardt, who had lived at the rectory of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle since 1958, said the 7 a.m. Mass at the downtown church for many of those years. A practical man of regular habits, he was known among his friends and colleagues for his thoughtfulness, willingness to listen and reluctance to rush to judgment.

That trait was useful in his position on the Archdiocesan Tribunal, a type of church court where Catholics apply for annulments of marriage, where priests seeking to leave the ministry come before a judge and where issues of canon law are addressed and interpreted. His standard response was " 'Let me think about that,' " said the Rev. George Stuart, who worked with him.

Monsignor Gerhardt served on the tribunal for 37 years, holding a variety of positions including chief judge.

"One of his greatest qualities was his presence to people," said Monsignor Ron Jameson, who shared the rectory with Monsignor Gerhardt for 21 years. "His ability to just sit and listen, whether someone was talking about a problem with a marriage or about his favorite baseball team, the Orioles."

Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the archdiocese, said that Monsignor Gerhardt would always handle the "weird" calls that she received, especially those following the 1973 release of the movie "The Exorcist," when some young women were convinced they were possessed and needed an exorcism.

"He had a way of listening to people and making them feel better," Gibbs said. When distressed people approached him on the street, he would instruct them on how to feel better: Go into a Catholic Church, make the sign of the cross with holy water and quietly say a couple of the prayers that he provided. And if it didn't work, they should call him.

Monsignor Gerhardt's home church, established in 1840, has been the site of major celebrations and funerals. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1979; President John F. Kennedy's funeral Mass was held there in 1963; and each fall, the Red Mass there is attended by Supreme Court justices; members of Congress, the Cabinet and the diplomatic corps; and sometimes the president.

Asked which was the most memorable of all the communicants he has served, Monsignor Gerhardt replied, "Brooke Shields."

A native Washingtonian, Monsignor Gerhardt graduated from Gonzaga College High School. He spent two years in the Army Air Forces near the end of World War II, training as a gunner after officials determined that his eyesight was too poor for pilot's duties.

After serving in postwar Europe, he entered the seminary at St. Charles College in Catonsville, Md., and graduated from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore in 1949. He completed his theology studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1953.

He became an assistant priest at Holy Redeemer parish in Kensington and studied canon law at Catholic University from 1955 to 1958. He then was assigned to the Archdiocesan Tribunal.

In 1970, he received the papal honor, chaplain to his holiness, which gave him the title of monsignor. In 1978, he was named a prelate of honor and in 2002, he was named a protonotary apostolic, a rare honor and the highest non-bishop rank possible for a priest in a diocese.

"There was no arrogance about him," said Monsignor Thomas Duffy, his friend since seminary days. "He dealt with people who had broken marriages, broken dreams really, and he just showed a great deal of compassion and understanding. . . . He was not looking to find people guilty of something but trying to help them out."

In 1995, Monsignor Gerhardt was named chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington and appointed to the Council of Priests and the Archdiocesan College of Consultors. With the appointment of a new chancellor in 2001, he was appointed a delegate to the archbishop and a judge to the Archdiocesan Tribunal. He also has served on the Personnel Board and the Ecumenical Commission.

Survivors include his sister, Margaret Stehle of University Park.

During his long residency at the St. Matthew rectory, Monsignor Gerhardt kept a schedule so regular that it amazed his friends. He rose at the same time each day, arrived at the office the same time and left at the same time. He ate the same breakfast -- cereal, two poached eggs on toast -- six days a week, and he once calculated he had eaten 44,000 eggs. On the seventh day, he had waffles.


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