May 15, 2004

The Gift of Peace
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

Bite Your Tongue -- Saturday afternoon. Years ago. A slow day in a small bookshop in New Buffalo, Michigan. Father Andrew Greeley sits quietly at a folding table, waiting to autograph his latest thriller. I remember how my Dad used to read Greeley’s column in the old Chicago Sun-Times so I pick up a copy of the novel, approach the table and say, “Good afternoon, Father.” Father Greeley smiles, nods and raises his pen. “Father,” I say, “would you mind signing this book to my Dad? His name is, ‘Jeremiah.’” Father Greeley smiles again, but after a moment he pauses his pen in mid-air and looks up at me. “Now,” he says softly, “how would you spell that?” I come this close to snapping, “Like the book in the Bible, Father!” But I don’t. I come this close to teasing, “A little more time with the Good Book, Father, and a little less time with these smutty books and perhaps you would know!” But instead I return his smile and spell Jeremiah. “Ah, yes,” Father Greeley whispers, smiling and nodding once more as he puts pen to paper. Cardinal Bernardin’s book is neither the Good Book nor a racy thriller and ‘tis hard for me -- good Irish Catholic lad I at one time was -- to find huge fault in the final words and at-death’s-door reflections of such a prince of the Church. But this memoir does remind me that it was within the warm darkness of the confessional that I learned my earliest lessons about non-fiction storytelling -- about the importance of audience (just who is that sitting on the other side of the screen?) and purpose (and why in the world is he interested in what I have to say?) With this book, Bernardin had a clear audience and purpose in mind: He was writing to his flock, attempting to redeem a reputation battered by false and ugly allegations. The Cardinal makes his case, then turns toward contemplating his final days on Earth. While he wisely observes that making peace is our great calling as humans and the one pursuit we devote no great time or energy toward achieving, Bernardin fails to see that we are raised and trained and educated and indoctrinated -- through our weakened education system, by our myth-making government and thanks to our doctrinaire religions -- to live lives schooled in fear. Given all that, peace doesn’t stand a chance.


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