An Interview With Archbishop Joseph Bernardin


An Interview With Archbishop Joseph Bernardin


December 5, 1974

The following interview is edited and excerpted from an extraordinary, three-hour interview which Archbishop Joseph Bernardin granted to this reporter in Cincinnati on Nov. 14th, just before he left for Washington, to attend the meeting which elected him NCCB president. Much of our conversation dealt with circumstances or problems peculiar to the Cincinnati Archdiocese and so is omitted here.

Before answering questions Archbishop Bernardin wanted me to have a number of documents which, he said, “would reflect my thinking in certain areas and things that I have done.” Some of these documents included (one) his pastoral letter titled Prayer in Our Time, (two) his letter to the priests of the Archdiocese commanding obedience to the Vatican decree on First Confession-First Communion, (three) another letter to his priests commanding uniformity with the April 11th, 1973, statement of Franjo Cardinal Seper regarding the indissolubility of marriage, (four) several statements on religious education, and, of course, (five) his evaluation of the book, Love, Sex, and Marriage, which led to the book’s being removed from a Cincinnati Catholic high school.

In this last connection, Archbishop Bernardin was at pains to correct an error contained in a letter to The Wanderer by John Mulloy. “I noticed in one edition of The Wanderer that Mr. Mulloy of Philadelphia, said, ‘What’s all the fuss about? Because the Archbishop’ — if I remember correctly — ‘didn’t say the books had to be removed.’ Well, I did say that they had to be removed.… I met with the people and said, you know, ‘I want it done by such and such a time.’ So, I just wanted to clear that up.”

To start the ball rolling, I asked Archbishop Bernardin if he would give us a synopsis of his background, education, etc.

“I’ll be happy to sort of run down the whole thing. I’ll go all the way back to my birth. My mother and father were born in northern Italy in the province of Trent — not in the city of Trent but in the province — in a town called Priniero. My father and four of his brothers immigrated to this Country. They were stonemasons. Some settled in the Philadelphia area; some settled in Columbia, S.C. After they had been there for several years, they went back and got married and brought their wives over. I was born in Columbia, S.C., and went to Catholic grade school there. I had to go to a public high school because in those days the only Catholic high school was a small girls’ academy and they wouldn’t let boys in. My father died when I was six years old. My mother brought up myself and my sister, who is four and a half years younger than I. Then I started off as a pre-med student for one year at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. It was there that I decided to become a priest. Because I had had no Latin, the Bishop at that time, who was Bishop Walsh, who later became the Bishop of Youngstown, sent me to St. Mary’s College in Kentucky, which at that time was specializing in belated vocations. They had a very good Latin course. I took Latin thirteen times a week, twice a day, six days a week, and once on Sunday. And at the end of that first year, which would have been my second year of college, they decided I had enough Latin to go into philosophy. So I was sent to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, where I got my B.A. degree in philosophy.”

Q. Did they teach philosophy in Latin in those days, or had they given it up by then?

A. “No, they had already given it up. The most we had was that the basic textbook was in Latin.”

Q. Do you remember which text that was?

A. “It was Boyer, Carolus Boyer. But except for that one basic text, which we were all required to have, most of the other books that we used were in the vernacular, in English, and all the lectures and everything by that time were in English. So, I’m at a slight disadvantage, in that sense. Those who went to school in Rome, where they continued the Latin lectures much longer, and of course those older than I, who went to school in seminaries where they lectured in Latin, they would have a greater ability than I to understand the spoken language, although I’ve developed some ability.

“In any case, to go on with the curriculum, from there I went to Washington, Catholic University, but I was a seminarian at Theological College and I did my four years of theology. While there I also got a Master’s degree in School administration. I was ordained on April 26th, 1952, for the Diocese of Charleston, which included the whole State of South Carolina, therefore my home in Columbia. I was ordained in my home parish in Columbia. For the first two years after ordination, I was a teacher at Central High School in Charleston, Bishop England High School. The first year I was also an assistant at one of the parishes, St. Joseph’s. The second year, I was transferred to the Cathedral. I continued to teach but I lived at the Cathedral and helped with parish work there. Then I lived at the Cathedral the rest of the time that I was in Charleston. After the second year I was taken out of the high school and I was assigned to the Chancery Office. And I was in the Chancery Office or in diocesan work for the next twelve years. During those twelve years I served in the following capacities. (Before I give you all these jobs, I would like to say that in small dioceses, where you have a small number of priests, frequently the priests have to wear many hats at the same time.) But in any case, during that time, I served as vice-chancellor and then as chancellor. The whole twelve years I was either vice- chancellor or chancellor. The last two years, I served as vicar- general. For five years I was a Newman chaplain at the Citadel, a military college. For several years, during that time I was diocesan vocations director. For five years, while somebody was away studying, I was director of Catholic Charities. For ten of those twelve years, I was secretary to the Board of Consulters. For nearly ten of those years I was also director of Catholic Cemeteries. I also did some tribunal work as needed. That’s about it I guess.”

Q. So that brings us up to about when?

A. “1966., It was in 1966, I was appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta. The reason for that appointment — well there were other reasons too, but — Archbishop Hallinan, who by that time had become ill with hepatitis, had been Bishop of Charleston from 1958 to 1962. And that’s when he got to know me, and I guess it’s because of that relationship that he ultimately requested that I be assigned. I was in Atlanta for two years. I was consecrated a Bishop on the anniversary of my ordination, April 26th 1966. I served there in two capacities; as Auxiliary, and did the things that an Auxiliary normally does, and I was also pastor of the Cathedral Parish, which at that time was the largest in the Archdiocese. And I got some very good parochial experience during those two years, because even though I was an Auxiliary, as an active pastor I became involved in many different things.

Then, about the time Archbishop Hallinan died I was chosen as general secretary for the Bishops’ Council in Washington. That was April of 1968. He died the 27th of March; already the decision had been made that I was going to Washington, but it wasn’t announced until two weeks after his death. I was elected administrator of the Archdiocese of Atlanta when the Archbishop died. Then I was appointed to Washington, and they told me I had to do both jobs. So, from mid-April until mid-July, when Archbishop Donnellan came,

I spent the first half of the week in Atlanta and the second half of the week in Washington. But in July of 1968, I moved to Washington completely, and I remained in Washington until December of 1972, when I came here as Archbishop. I was installed here on the 19th of December, and I hope to remain here forevermore.”

Q. Did I see something you had written about Archbishop Hallinan?

A. “No, what you saw was a compilation of talks that he had given and I had written the foreword (more than a foreword, sort of a little review). I think it was Days of Hope and Promise. And, really, basically, it was an elaboration of the funeral homily which I gave when he died. Sure, I changed it a little bit, but most of the ideas were from that general homily. There have been some of the Archbishop’s friends who at one time encouraged me to write a biography on the Archbishop. But I really didn’t have the time to do it, so I sort of settled for this compilation. It was put together by Fr. Vince Yzermans; he used to be editor of the Sunday Visitor, and now he’s a pastor, I think, in the Diocese of St. Cloud. Well, I worked with him. I made these talks available to him and he’s the one who put them together and got someone to publish it. Then I wrote the foreword to it.”

Q. Were you at Vatican II, were you a peritus there or something?

A. “No, I was not a Bishop yet, and I did attend the last session with Archbishop Unterkoefler, who became the Bishop of Charleston in February of 1965. And he invited me to come over, but not as a peritus (because I wasn’t a peritus). But he thought it would be good experience for me, What I didn’t realize until later was that even then, I think, there was some talk between him and maybe other authorities about the possibility of my going to Atlanta, of being named a Bishop, I guess. So I think he was anxious that I be there, just to get the feel of it. So I went and stayed the whole time, as I attended every session. I was there with many of the periti, but I was simply there to help him, more as a secretary, and also to learn myself.”

Next week: Some diagnostic questions. Click here for Part II

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