Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin said he interprets his appointment to cardinal by Pope John Paul II this week as an "affirmation" of his leadership in opposing nuclear weapons. Appearing at a Chicago news conference after the appointment on Wednesday, Bernardin then turned to another of his longstanding causes, helping the poor, asking well-wishers to stay home and donate money to the poor and jobless instead of traveling to his Vatican ceremony next month.
The 54-year-old archbishop of the 2.4-million member Chicago Archdiocese heads the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' (NCCB) Committee on War and Peace, which has issued a draft pastoral letter declaring nuclear weapons and some U.S. strategic policies to be immoral. The full NCCB is scheduled to vote on the nuclear issue in May.
"I think that this could be interpreted in a general way as an affirmation of what our committee is attempting to do," said Bernardin, the only American among 18 men named to become new cardinals Feb. 2 at the Vatican.
The archbishop understated the personal significance of the honor, telling more than 1,500 followers gathered for a thanksgiving Mass in Holy Name Cathedral on Chicago's Near North Side that it is one to be shared by the people in the archdiocese.
"There is surely a personal dimension to the cardinalate, and I am deeply moved by the appointment," he told the gathering. "But in the final analysis it is the Church of Chicago that is being honored. It is your dedication that makes the difference."
Bernardin took over leadership of the church's largest American archdiocese in August, succeeding Cardinal John Cody, who died last April at 74. Cody, at his death, was under investigation by a federal grand jury for allegedly diverting up to $1 million in church funds to a lifelong friend. The inquiry ended with his death.
Bernardin follows four consecutive Chicago archbishops who were given the title of cardinal during their tenures in the city since 1915.
But the swiftness of Bernardin's appointment just months after he took over the dispirited Chicago archdiocese was unusual. Cody's appointment as cardinal came two years after he was appointed archbishop of the archdiocese in 1965.
Bernardin said that the most "appropriate way to commemorate" the liturgical ceremony is to forgo a traditional church-sponsored charter flight from Chicago to Rome, with its large contingent of friends and well-wishers.
Because of the "poor economy and the large number of people out of work," the archbishop said, he is setting up a charity fund and asking people to contribute to it the money they would have spent on travel to Rome. The proceeds will be evenly divided between the pope's worldwide charities and Chicago archdiocesan charities, he said.
Bernardin was born in Columbia, S.C., to Italian immigrant parents--his father was a stonecutter. The young Bernardin spent two years in a pre-med program at the University of South Carolina before studying for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1952 and became a bishop in 1966, serving as auxiliary bishop in Atlanta.
He became archbishop of Cincinnati in 1972, becoming the youngest Catholic archbishop in U.S. history. As archbishop there, he shunned the traditional bishop's mansion to live in a modest three-room apartment over a church.
In 1968, he became the first general secretary of the newly formed NCCB, making him the hierarchy's top executive.
One of the most prominent of American Catholic bishops, he has been a moderating force in the NCCB in drawing up a document on the moral objections to nuclear war. The bishops will meet in Chicago in May to revise their second draft of their document.
Bernardin is considered a traditionalist on church doctrine but more progressive on social issues.