by Daniel Klimek October 8, 2010
During the twentieth century, few men have garnered as much respect in both the Roman Catholic Church and in secular society as the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the former Archbishop of Chicago, a leading Church intellectual, and a passionate advocate for peace, social justice, and the dignity of human life.
The reverence that Cardinal Bernardin gained, for his life and his work, was evidenced by the honor he received from both religious and civil leaders. Pope John Paul II made him the archbishop of the preeminent See in America, the diocese of Chicago, and shortly thereafter, the Pope inducted him into the College of Cardinals, giving him greater responsibility over Church matters in Rome. Similarly, in a ceremony held at the White House on September 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Cardinal Bernardin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by an American President onto citizens who've made significant contributions to their communities and their country. Among the others who were honored that day, alongside the Cardinal, was Rosa Parks, the great African American civil rights advocate whose bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 arguably started the Civil Rights Movement.
Cardinal Bernardin's work included serving as the first General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and United States Catholic Conference. In this role Cardinal Bernardin served as the head of an Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace, which drafted the book-length pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. This eminent work challenged the morality of nuclear deterrence and inspired an international debate on matters of war and peace. He also worked as a major voice promoting ecumenical dialogue with other faith traditions, hoping to reach reconciliation with all of God's children. He also worked as an advocate for peace in the Middle East, between Israelis and Palestinians, and peace from war in the greater world. He was also an activist in the fight against aids and numerous life issues. As a deep thinker, Cardinal Bernardin's most famous intellectual contribution to moral philosophy came when he delivered his idea of a consistent ethic of life – or, the “seamless garment of life,” as the view is often called. This idea, developed in a series of lectures that the Cardinal gave at Fordham University in1983, encompasses a political, religious, and ethical ideology which elucidates that all human life is sacred and must be defended at all levels of society. Thus, for one to be truly pro-life, the individual must fight against abortion, the death penalty, unjust warfare and militarism, nuclear weaponry, euthanasia, social economic and political injustice, and any form of human rights violations.
What few people may know is that Cardinal Bernardin even took his message of social justice to Bosnia-Herzegovina, hoping to protect Medjugorje, the Bosnian village wherein six young people reported experiencing apparitions of the Virgin Mary since 1981. Cardinal Bernardin authored an article about Medjugorje in 1992, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, in The New World, the Archdiocesan paper of Chicago.
In this article, which was written shortly before Easter of that year, Cardinal Bernardin recognized the devastating destruction of the wars and he also recognized the need to protect Medjugorje, seeing the Bosnian shrine as an oasis of peace and hope for a wounded region – seeing Our Lady's presence there.
He wrote: “Located in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the small village of Medjugorje. It is a place of pilgrimage for millions of people who wish to honor the Blessed Mother under her title as the Queen of Peace. All have been welcomed at Medjugorje: Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jew and any others who wish to pray there. If we wish to translate the hope of Easter into our world, we must do what we can to help the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
Cardinal Bernardin recognized Medjugorje's spiritual impact as being not only a place where millions of Catholics have traveled to honor the Mother of God and deepen their religious lives, but is was also a place where people of other faiths were welcomed and treated respectfully. This was vital to the Cardinal not only because he was a major leader in ecumenical dialogue, trying to promote the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in our world, but also because the wars in the former Yugoslavia saw great religious and ethnic division and conflict – throughout the region, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics all fought against each other. In Medjugorje, on the other hand, Cardinal Bernardin saw something else: peace, peace, peace among people of all faiths. While the work of Satan appeared to be taking over the Yugoslavian regions, in Medjugorje the work of God was evident.
Cardinal Bernardin explained: “Medjugorje has been an oasis of peace in an increasingly stormy desert. There are no military installations there, no barracks, no communication centers, no industrial sites. Medjugorje has declared itself 'an Open City,' a combat-free zone of peace. However, now the forces of war threaten Medjugorje itself. Such mindless violence must stop!”
In Medjugorje, when Our Lady's apparitions began in 1981, the Mother of God introduced herself as the Queen of Peace. Cardinal Bernardin knew this very well and, therefore, he knew how important it was to seek peace in the region, to protect Our Lady's call and messages. He enunciated this beautifully:
“We cannot allow the forces of war to determine the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the home of the shrine of the Queen of Peace. If we are to translate the hope of Easter into our world, we must do what we can to help the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If we are to move beyond that pain of Good Friday, we must rely on the grace of the risen Lord and the intercession of his Blessed Mother. If we are to build a new world order, then it must be based on self-determination, solidarity and peace.”
Interestingly, Cardinal Bernardin's vocal efforts to protect the devotions in Medjugorje, especially the work of the Queen of Peace amongst surrounding war, reflected and echoed not only his concerns but also those of Pope John Paul II as well. On June 17, 1992, while meeting with Fr. Jozo Zovko, the Franciscan priest who was pastor of St. James parish in Medjugorje when the apparitions began, Pope John Paul II urged Fr. Jozo to defend Medjugorje amongst the coming wars in Yugoslavia. He emphasized: “I give you my blessing, take courage. Tell Medjugorje, I am with you. Protect Medjugorje! Protect Our Lady's messages!”
In the end, these hopes for peace in Medjugorje amongst the surrounding violence, as reflected by both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bernardin, formed into reality. Medjugorje was indeed attacked. And yet, quite mysteriously, remained protected. Serbian jets were given orders to destroy the village. Yet, while flying over, the clouds mysteriously blocked their radar and the Serbs had no effect. Rocket launchers were used to attack the village, as well, yet many of the bombs did not go off. Human lives were spared in Medjugorje in such a bizarre and frequent way, that people from surrounding areas started flocking to Medjugorje, seeing the village as a refuge of peace, mysteriously protected by something higher. Medjugorje, as Our Lady promised earlier in her apparitions, is and remained an oasis of peace, a light amongst the darkness.
It is important to note that in Chicago, that eminent American diocese, the work of Cardinal Bernardin in supporting and protecting the apparitions and devotions of Medjugorje continues. Cardinal Bernardin's successor as archbishop was, of course, Francis Cardinal George, an equally charismatic leader and respected intellectual in the Church who, given his abilities, became the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a position he has held for many years which makes him the most influential archbishop in America.
Last spring, Cardinal George granted permission for Ivan Dragicevic, one of the Medjugorje visionaries, to have his apparition and share his testimony at Holy Name Cathedral, the archbishop's main cathedral in Chicago. The event took place on March 8, 2010. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance. On that evening, not only was the cathedral in Chicago packed by thousands of Catholics and countless of priests, but a great sense of joy and hope radiated through the atmosphere as thousands prayed together, expressing a deep love for Christ and Our Lady, expressing a genuine joy to be there that day. Not only did the visionary have his apparition and gave his testimony, but other influential people gave their testimonies about Medjugorje. One of them was Father Joe Noonan, a man I have met before, who is the vocations director of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Fr. Noonan's talk was called, “How God Changed My Life through Medjugorje,” explaining how for many years he lived a wealthy life, studying accounting in college and making an affluent salary afterward. Yet, it was not until he discovered Medjugorje that he found true meaning and happiness in his life, leaving the money behind and embracing a life of poverty and chastity as he embarked on a journey to become a Catholic priest, the inspiration of the vocation coming after he made his first pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Incidentally, before this pilgrimage, Fr. Noonan admits he was a lukewarm Catholic, at best – it was only after Medjugorje that he discovered a true faith and a true devotion to God and His Church.
Another one of the speakers that evening was Dr. Emery de Gaál, a priest and professor at the University of St. Mary's-Mundelein Seminary, the major seminary of the archdiocese of Chicago for training future priests. Dr. de Gaál's presentation was a lecture called “How the Church Authenticates Private Revelations.” As well as introducing the official guidelines that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith uses in such matters, the professor also pointed specifically to Medjugorje and emphasized how many influential people within the Church have supported the apparitions, as factors hinting at authenticity. He specifically pointed to the great theologians of the twentieth century, especially the French Mariologist René Laurentin and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, stressing what positive things these eminent men had to say about Medjugorje. To that list, I thought, he could have included the great predecessor who held jurisdiction of this very cathedral we were occupying that night: Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.