The Art Of Dying Well

IT WAS A HUMID NIGHT IN AUGUST, AND 200 members of Congregation B'Nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim were gathered in the leafy Chicago suburb of Glenview for Friday services. Rabbi Mark Shapiro began the Me sh'bayrach, the prayer for healing, then asked the congregation to offer names of those in need. ""Cardinal Joseph Bernardin,'' someone said, and suddenly an agitated murmur ran through the congregation. Not everyone there had seen the press conference, televised that afternoon, where Bernardin had calmly announced that his cancer had returned, invading his liver, and that he hadn't long to live. Bernardin was not of their faith, but he was, for many of them, their cardinal: ""I am Joseph, your brother,'' the Archbishop of Chicago liked to say. ""Each one of us was being punched in the stomach,'' recalls Sandee Holleb, a schoolteacher who was in the congregation that night. ""We were reaching out to embrace a man who had reached out to embrace the world--and us.''

At 1:33 last Thursday morning, death came for the archbishop. It was his mother's 92d birthday and 62 years to the day that his father had succumbed to cancer. The cardinal was 68. All night long, a vigil of reporters and faithful had milled outside the cardinal's hulking red-brick residence near Lincoln Park, anticipating his end. Only 24 hours earlier, he had been well enough to nod goodbye to close friends, silently sipping a soft drink in his bed. On his last day, he took phone calls from Pope John Paul II and President Clinton. But his energy was ebbing. As news of his death washed across Chicago, those of faith and those of none went into mourning for a churchman whom they had come to cherish as Joseph, their brother.

Despite his pain and weakness, the cardinal's final week was surprisingly productive. One of his last acts was to sign off on the manuscript of a book, ""The Gift of Peace'' (excerpts, page 67), scrawling notes in the margins. There was a report on archdiocesan affairs for the Vatican, his will to review and arrangements to make for his mother, whom he had visited every day at a Chicago nursing home until he could no longer walk. He also dispatched three letters, his last as the foremost spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. In one, to the United States Supreme Court, he asked the justices to reject arguments that the dying have a right to a physician- assisted suicide. ""As one who is dying, I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life,'' Bernardin wrote. ""Creating a new right to assisted suicide will endanger society and send a false signal that a less than "perfect' life is not worth living.'' A second, handwritten note bade farewell to his fellow bishops, who were meeting in Washington, D.C., asking them for their prayers ""that God will give me the strength and grace I need each day.'' The third was a final Christmas card to his priests and friends. At his request, they were mailed early. His parting to those who came to say goodbye was to squeeze their hand, asking with his eyes that they walk his final journey with him.

In many ways, Bernardin died an enviable death. He was given the grace of three months to prepare for the end we all face, to reconcile himself with God and those he may have neglected. That day last August when he learned his cancer was terminal, he made a public promise: to use whatever time was left ""in a way that will be of benefit to the priests and people I have been called to serve.'' There were, he felt, lessons of faith yet to be learned, and lessons of dying yet to be taught. A public man, he chose to die a public death.

It was never as easy as he tried to make it look. To begin with, there was the constant pain. He suffered from spinal stenosis and osteoporosis to the point where, bending down to pick something up, he snapped a rib. ""The first lesson we learn from the cardinal is that dying is as horrible as we thought,'' says University of Chicago church historian Martin E. Marty, a Lutheran minister who regularly entertained Bernardin in his home. ""He was living with sadness and pain and doubt.'' Doubt? ""Did he ever ask "Why me?' Of course,'' says Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., a confidant of Bernardin's. ""Did he ever ask "Why so soon?' Of course.''

Indeed, like every other person who learns he has a virulent form of cancer, the cardinal had to come to grips with elemental fear. His father had died of cancer--something that had always haunted the cardinal--and now he faced the same prospect. There is a long Christian tradition, dating to the apostle Paul, which sees death as alien, an enemy, the punishment visited on humankind by God for the ""original sin'' of Adam. Bernardin had to deal with that as well. After turning to another priest, Father Henri Nouwen, a widely revered writer on spirituality who died himself last September, Bernardin gradually came to ""see death as a friend.'' The churchman who had always been confident of his control had to learn to let go, to let death be. That, too, was a lesson he passed on to others.

THEN THERE WAS THE lesson of his openness and honesty. The dying typically find it difficult to talk about what is happening to them. Bernardin refused to piously dissemble about his own fears and failing health. When he spoke, his words were without false sentiment or bravado. ""His way of death confirms that this man did not have two faces, one private, one public,'' says Rabbi Herman Schaalman, an old friend. ""He was inside with his outside, outside with his inside, which is rare.''

For Bernardin, more than words, there were deeds. When he first learned that he had cancer, 17 months earlier, he began to build a private parish with no church, no doctrinal lines to cross, no geographical boundaries. His first recruits were fellow patients at Loyola University's Cancer Center, now named after him. When he arrived for chemotherapy, he refused to use a private entrance offered him. ""I am a priest,'' he explained, and he never left without visiting and encouraging all the other patients. Often, he would follow up with phone calls, letters and visits at crucial moments, delegating his duties as archbishop to his staff. Very quickly, his ""parish'' included a list of 600 others like himself. ""He was spreading hope, and an attitude of "me, too','' says Maureen Fuechtmann, director of ministry at Loyola. ""As a chaplain, I can bring compassion, but I can't bring that.'' He also made time to visit parishes to anoint the sick. And on one occasion he consoled a prisoner about to be executed, telling him that they had at least one thing in common: a sentence of death.

The death of any prominent figure inevitably invites us to confront our own. As a Christian, Bernardin approached death with the conviction that it is a ""transition from earthly life to life eternal.'' And that confidence may be the most important lesson that he--or any believer--has to teach. But, as historian Marty observes, ""a strong majority of Americans share that belief, yet they live in terror of death.'' Much of that terror is fear of the unknown and the prospect of annihilation. Clinicians can only tell us what happens to the body when death occurs (page 64). But the moment of death that matters is what happens to me.

Every major religion offers a vision of transcendence--and thus a response to life's ultimate enigma. If Jews, Christians and Muslims fear death, Hindus and Buddhists fear rebirth. Their hope is to be reborn as a well-placed human being or, preferably, as a god. Nirvana, or liberation from rebirth altogether, is a far-off goal. The law of karma holds that any thought or deed--good or evil--can be the one seed that determines whether the next birth will be as god or demon, man or moth. ""At the point of death, one of our past acts is going to be selected as the cause of the next lifetime,'' says Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhism at the University of Michigan. ""Since the moment of death is so traumatic, your final state of mind is always a reflection of the qualities you exhibited through your life.''

Muslims also believe that a good life is the best guarantee of a good death. In the Muslim popular imagination, an Angel of Death comes for the departing soul, as it did for the Prophet Muhammad. But unlike the Prophet, ordinary Muslims must confront the books of deeds of their lives and undergo judgment of heaven or hell. The ideal, says Ali Asani, a Muslim professor at Harvard University, ""is that at your last breath you are able to proclaim your submission to the one God.'' Jews share a similar desire, says Rabbi Jacob Neusner of the University of South Florida. The Talmud describes exemplary deaths of ancient sages. How did the martyred Rabbi Akiva die? With the final words of the Shema on his lips, ""The Lord is One!'' With typical simplicity, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, ""I trust the God who made me to do with me what He will.''

The Christian finds death's meaning in the figure of the suffering Savior who abandons himself in perfect obedience to the Father's will. The Christian's hope is that at the moment of death he will be able to say, with Jesus, ""Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.'' In the view of the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, death is ""an act in which the person either willingly accepts or definitively rebels against his own utter impotence, in which he is utterly subject to a mystery which cannot be expressed, that mystery which we call "God'.''

But the great religions have no monopoly on death. Indeed, increasingly in the United States, death has become the province of technicians, those who fibrillate and ventilate, trache and tube, plug and unplug. The culture itself is a monument to youth, acutely uncomfortable with aging. ""When death approaches, we are stunned and feel unprepared,'' Dr. Ira Byock, president of the Academy of Hospice Physicians, writes in his new book, ""Dying Well.'' His work, like Bernardin's final days, argues that ""good deaths can be understood and fostered.'' How? Among other things: repair relationships, respect the patient's integrity, help the dying to live as fully as possible, reduce pain, allow time and space for transcendence and ""letting go.'' In any tradition, a good life is the best preparation for a good death. Belief alone is no substitute for genuine self-abandonment. Indeed, being a bishop, and especially a cardinal, can actually hinder the kind of spiritual development needed for the peaceful acceptance of God's will. Every cleric runs the danger of turning into a ""professional holy man,'' observes Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., who served as confessor and traveling companion to Bernardin. ""He showed us saintly qualities, but he wasn't always that way.''

As the cardinal himself came to realize, his very success on the ecclesiastical fast track nearly caused his spiritual life to derail. The son of poor Italian immigrants, Bernardin grew up in the South. His first cassock was hand-sewn by his mother, who became a seamstress after her stonecutter husband died when Joseph was 6. At 38, he became the youngest Catholic bishop in the United States. ""Don't look pleased with yourself,'' his mother warned before he received his bishop's miter.

Bernardin was good at administration and was named the first general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, created in 1967 after Vatican Council II. The bishops--especially the cardinals--were not accustomed to acting collegially, but Bernardin was expert at reconciling differing opinions and egos. In 1972 Bernardin was appointed Archbishop of Cincinnati. Two years later he was elected to head the American Catholic hierarchy and became a fixture of the World Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Up to that point, Bernardin had been more administrator than priest, an ecclesiastical negotiator always on the fly. In the early '80s, he chaired a committee of bishops that produced a knowing and nuanced updating of the just-war theory for the nuclear age that put the Roman Catholic hierarchy in conflict with the Reagan administration. But the public and private man were not in spiritual sync. Pale and hugely overweight, he was the very image of the self-indulgent prelate. Sensing that something was wrong with his life, he asked a group of parish priests if he could join their prayer group. They accepted him but immediately challenged his priorities. ""They asked him if his life was Christ-centered or centered on the Church Bureaucratic,'' says Eugene Kennedy, Bernardin's close friend and biographer. The archbishop took their challenge to heart. He lost weight and began rising each morning at 5 to devote the first hour of the day to prayer and meditation on Christ.

HE WENT THROUGH A REAL adult conversion, says Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg. ""He gave away money, objects of art and other things he felt were concerns that were more materialistic than spiritual.'' In 1982 he was appointed Archbishop of Chicago, then the largest Roman Catholic see in the United States. Six months later John Paul II named him a cardinal.

The priests of Chicago, an independent bunch not much given to accepting authority, soon found they had a different sort of leader. In his first address to them, Bernardin said, ""I hope that before my name falls from the Eucharist prayer in the silence of death you will know well who I am. You will know because we will work and play together, fast and pray together, mourn and rejoice together, despair and hope together, dispute and be reconciled together. You will know me as a friend, fellow priest and bishop. You will know also that I love you.'' And then came what was to be his signature line: ""For I am Joseph, your brother.''

In the 14 years that followed, Bernardin continued to shape the public face of American Catholicism. In a far-reaching speech in 1990, he defined for Roman Catholics the ""seamless garment'' ethic, which united church opposition to abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, poverty and the nuclear-arms race in a ""consistent ethic of life.'' But it was only in the last three years, many of his friends and fellow bishops believe, that Bernardin the man finally experienced the kind of spiritual liberation all Christians hope to achieve.

In November 1993, a former seminarian from Cincinnati, Steven Cook, charged on television that Bernardin had sexually abused him years earlier. Bernardin's ministry, his priestly vows, his integrity, his entire life had been called into question. Calmly, without rancor, he stepped before a crowded press conference and denied the charges. Cook later recanted; his ""recovered memory'' of abuse turned out to be false. And in 1994, when Cook was dying of AIDS, Bernardin said mass for him and anointed him in a tearful reconciliation. More than that, he restored his accuser's dignity.

For Bernardin, the Cook episode was a painful purgation, a public stripping to the flesh that left him with only his faith to rely on. Less than six months later, he learned he had cancer of the pancreas. And just when he thought that surgery had put him out of danger, an examination in August confirmed that resurgent cancer cells were now destroying his liver. This time there would be no reprieve. He could see all the way to the end of his life. And the end, he knew, was near.

In a final act of churchmanship, Bernardin launched Project Common Ground, an effort to heal the rift between American Catholics of the left and right. But among the nation's cardinals, only Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles stood with him. As his fax machine brought word of blistering criticism from the cardinal-archbishops of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Bernardin responded with wry humor. ""Who says there is no dissent in the church?'' he said.

Last weekend the flags of Chicago flew at half mast for the cardinal. On the front steps of his red-brick mansion, mourners left mementos: notes of condolence, snapshots of the cardinal, Jewish memorial candles. Two workers for the city's Streets and Sanitation Department stopped their truck to leave a clutch of flowers. On a wall, someone drew three crosses and scrawled in chalk, THANK YOU JOSEPH. In dying, Cardinal Bernardin gave new and authentic definition to a phrase he feared had lost its meaning. Death with Dignity.

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