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Pope Francis’ approach reminds Catholic church leaders of Cardinal Bernardin

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Updated: December 11, 2013 6:09AM



Pope Francis is raising the spirit of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, say some local and national Catholic church leaders, who see parallels between the two as the 17th anniversary of Bernardin’s death approaches.

From Francis’ statements on poverty, church divisions, inclusiveness, relations with non-Catholics and the role of women, the leaders cite similarities with Bernardin, who was once named the most influential religious leader in America by U.S. News and World Report.

Francis has prioritized helping the poor and called for compassion over condemnation when discussing polarizing issues of abortion, homosexuality and contraception — issues with which he warned the church can’t become obsessed. He has called for new balance.

Bernardin, who became archbishop of Chicago in 1982 and died Nov. 14, 1996, created the Catholic Common Ground Initiative to lessen divisions that weaken the church. It seeks to facilitate respectful dialogue that values diverse perspectives and fosters understanding in finding common ground, which personified Bernardin, said those who worked with him.

The initiative had conservative critics who viewed Bernardin as too accommodating and not vocal enough on abortion. It was launched near the time of his death and never gained widespread momentum.

Bernardin also is known for his “consistent ethic of life,” a philosophy that calls for the protection of all human life and promotes human dignity. It calls on the church to be involved in a range of social and economic justice issues, while critics view abortion as the top priority.

“Pope Francis has used the image that the church is to . . . be with and caring for those who were in any way marginalized,” said the Rev. Michael Place, who was Bernardin’s counsel for policy.

Bernardin was quoted in a 1988 Sun-Times article saying, “We are convinced that we cannot have a just and compassionate society unless our care extends to both sides of the line of birth.

“We must protect the basic right to life and . . . promote the associated rights of nutrition, housing and health care which enhances the lives we have saved. . . . No one issue can exhaust the moral significance of our public policy concerns.”

The Rev. Jeremiah Boland, administrator of Holy Family Parish in Chicago, says he “gets the feeling that the cardinal is a ghostwriter of some of Pope Francis’ talks because [Francis is] linking life issues all the time. It seems there’s a parallel sense of the role of the church in the world.”

Under Bernardin, Boland was the director of priest personnel and chairman of the Presbyterian Council.

Francis has voiced the need for a greater role for women in the church, which Bernardin took action on during his leadership, noted Sheila McLaughlin, director of the Bernardin Center.

“Cardinal Bernardin probably had more women in senior leadership positions than any archbishop at that time,” Boland said.

Bernardin was the first president of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. “He had a deep commitment to ecumenical relations,” Place said.

Francis has called for greater dialogue and mutual respect of other faiths. Bernardin and Francis share “a deeply pastoral approach,” said Massimo Faggioli, who this year gave the annual Bernardin lecture at the University of South Carolina. “They are not ideologues.

When Bernardin led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, drafting pastoral letters on peace and economic justice, “that was a collaborative process,” said the Rev. Joseph Fiorenza, retired archbishop of Galveston-Houston. “That I see very much in Pope Francis’ style.”

Bernardin believed the curia, the church’s governing body, “should be there to extend the ministry of the bishop of Rome as one of service” not control, and that bishops collectively “have a real authority,” Place said.

Under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, “there was movement toward centralization,” Place said. “With Francis we see movement back to a rich theme of collegiality.”

What might the parallels signal for the U.S. Catholic Church?

Those known as the Bernardin bishops “have been marginalized in the U.S. Conference, which has taken more a turn to certain conservative issues, the culture wars, if you will,” said the Rev. Al Spilly, who served as Bernardin’s assistant and helped him finish his last book.

Whom Francis names as bishops will signal whether changes will come, Spilly said.

Email: fknowles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @KnowlesFran



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