From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Cardinal Bernardin

Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . A human being is a self-transcending being.

Viktor Frankl

In March of 1995, Cardinal Bernardin traveled to Israel with a group of Christians and Jews. The trip was coordinated by The American Jewish Committee, the Archdiocese of Chicago and The Jewish Federation with the cooperation of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and The Spertus Institute. While he was there, the Cardinal delivered a speech at Hebrew University, for which he received the university’s Honorary Fellowship.

In his speech, the Cardinal detailed years of Christian theology regarding anti-Semitism. He said that the Catholic Church must acknowledge guilt for that terrible legacy which resulted in hatred, bigotry and ultimately, the Holocaust. He repudiated any remaining anti-Semitic practices or teachings in Catholicism, calling them “sinful,” and asked all Christians and Jews to recommit to fighting anti-Semitism in all forms and at all levels.

Finally, the Cardinal suggested ways that Christians and Jews could, together and separately, further the cause of positive relations. He called upon Christians to teach about anti-Semitism, increasing awareness of Vatican II’s rejection of anti-Judaic theology. And he asked Jews to reconsider the way they thought about Christians and the Church. He asked that Christian-Jewish dialogue be made a vibrant reality with the goal being to ensure peace among all peoples.

The speech was a watershed. As a result, the archdiocese and the Jewish organizations that worked together on the Cardinal’s trip decided to sponsor a lecture every year commemorating Cardinal Bernardin’s speech on Mt. Scopus.

I attended the first lecture in March 1996. An incident that occurred there at the Palmer House between Cardinal Bernardin and me changed the way I thought about him forever.

In my job at The American Jewish Committee, I handle interreligious affairs. So I had had some correspondence with the Cardinal and been involved in some planning sessions with him. He knew my name but not much else about me. Or so I thought.

When a friend of mine, Rabbi James Gordon of Congregation B’nai Sholom in Buffalo Grove, asked me to introduce him to the Cardinal at that lecture, I agreed. We both had a lot of respect for Cardinal Bernardin, and as he had just completed a round of treatment for his cancer, we approached to offer our good wishes.

As I introduced Rabbi Gordon, I mentioned that we had been praying for the Cardinal’s continued good health and that he looked well. He took my arm as he answered me, looking into my eyes to thank me for my good wishes. I noticed that a line had formed behind me to speak to the Cardinal so I tried to extricate myself and by way of excusing myself, I said something I’m in the habit of saying, “Good-bye, be well, Rab . . . .”

Then I looked around for the floor to open to swallow me up. I had just called the Catholic Archbishop, “Rabbi.”

But he only smiled and said, “That’s okay, Marsha. You can think of me as a Catholic rabbi.”

Later, at the reception following the speech, Cardinal Bernardin sought me out. I had spent most of my time there hiding behind potted plants trying to avoid his gaze because I was still embarrassed. But I couldn’t escape him because he had something to say to me.

“I know you are an observant Jew,” he told me. “And I know that ‘Rabbi’ was just the most reverent, respectful thing you could think of to say to me. Thank you.”

There wasn’t anything I could think of to say, then. I have no idea how he knew that I was an observant Jew. Somehow, he had made it his business to find out.

The cardinal was the kind of man who cared less about how others viewed him than how they viewed themselves as a result of anything he might have said or done. He was respected and respectful, and while all cardinals are due the deference that goes with the job, he earned it.

There are some traits that some people possess that blur the lines that traditionally divide people—the lines of religion or ethnicity. Kindness of heart and generosity of spirit are two of those traits and Cardinal Bernardin embodied both. As a result, his life touched us all. So did his death.

He laid the groundwork for the Catholic Church to accept complicity for the Holocaust, insisting that it be taught in every possible Catholic venue—in schools and from the pulpits. He preached “courageous honesty”— that anti-Jewish theology must be acknowledged and atoned for, that anti-Semitism was a sin.

As the Archbishop of Chicago, he accomplished a lot. He affected the lives of millions of people, influencing how they think, pray and act. As a man, the kind, caring human being that he was, Cardinal Bernardin affected the life of at least one observant Jew.

The word “rabbi” means teacher. And as Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he never knows where his influence ends.” I called him “rabbi.” And so he was.

Marsha Arons

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