As I’m writing this column, it’s Wednesday, November 14. Besides being my triplet nephews’ 21st Birthday (Oh my!), the date of November 14 always brings back the fondest of memories for the late great Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago, who passed on to Eternal Life this date, 1996. For those of us who are old enough to remember Cardinal Bernardin, we can quickly recall the gentle and caring style with which he ministered here as our pastor for 14 years. Besides having the great fortune of being ordained by him 25 years ago, I am also grateful that his good friend and confidant Monsignor Ken Velo is present with us today here at Old St. Pat’s. Many of us recall the masterful and inspirational homily that Ken Velo delivered at Cardinal Bernardin’s funeral mass, a sermon that was heard around the country. Never will I forget the procession from Holy Name Cathedral to Mt. Carmel Cemetery for his final resting place. The people of Chicago literally stopped and honored this once great leader for the church, locally and universally.
In preparation for a meeting this past Wednesday, I went back to the famous memoir The Gift of Peace that Cardinal Bernardin wrote shortly before his death in 1996. While most of this short book was devoted to the turbulent, yet Grace-filled, moments of the last 3 years of his life, there was a section about “letting go” that once again inspired me. I’d like to share pieces of that book with you here.
“Throughout my spiritual journey I have struggled to become closer to God. As I prepare now for my passage from this world to the next, I cannot help but reflect on my life and recognize the themes that, like old friends, have been so important to me all these years. One theme that rises to the surface more than any other takes on new meaning for me now—the theme of letting go.
By letting go, I mean the ability to release from our grasp those things that inhibit us from developing an intimate relationship with Jesus. Letting go is never easy. Indeed, it is a lifelong process. But letting go is possible if we understand the importance of opening our hearts and, above all else, developing a healthy prayer life. It has taken me a lifetime to learn these truths, but I want to share with you some background and one story that always stands out as a pivotal point in my life.
I entered the seminary when I was only seventeen years old, and ever since then I have been trying to learn how to pray. In those early years, I was under the spiritual care of the Sulpician Fathers at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. They had a special routine that brought us together in the evening to give us points for reflection. In the morning before Mass, we would all gather in what was known as the Prayer Hall to do the reflection. There were times when I wondered whether this was the best form of teaching, but I have to say in retrospect that it certainly introduced me to the importance of prayer and the fact that prayer is not a one-sided practice. Rather, prayer involves speaking and listening on both sides.”
He goes on to talk about how, after he was ordained in 1952, he gave a higher priority to doing “good works” than to prayer. The cardinal said that he felt hypocritical by calling others to prayer, yet it was something put on the back burner because he was so busy doing the “work” of church rather than devoting more time to prayer. After having a conversation with some priests during a dinner, he came to a new realization.
“In very direct—even blunt terms—they helped me realize that as a priest and a bishop I was urging a spirituality on others that I was not fully practicing myself. That was a turning point in my life. These priests helped me understand that you have to give what they called, and many spiritual directors today call, ‘quality time’ to prayer. It can’t be done ‘on the run.’ You have to put aside time…..I decided to give God the first hour of my day, no matter what, to be with him in prayer and meditation where I would try to open the door even wider. This put my life in a new and uplifting perspective. I found that I was able to share the struggles of my own spiritual journey with others…..Still letting go is never easy. I have prayed and struggled constantly to be able to let go of things more willingly, to be free of everything that keeps the Lord from finding greater hospitality in my soul or interferes with my surrender to what God asks of me.”
Have a great week. Please come and join us on Thursday at 10:00 am for a special Thanksgiving Day Mass with some great prelude music starting at 9:40. Know of the gratitude in my heart for all of you at Old St. Patrick’s!
Father Tom Hurley