Priests must understand own weaknesses to really help flock, says bishop

IMAGE: CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

By Peter Finney Jr.

Gerald F. Kicanas was rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of
Chicago in the 1990s when then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was falsely accused of
sexually abusing a minor seminarian during his previous tenure as archbishop of

The agony of having to
endure those humiliating charges — the accuser later recanted, removed
Cardinal Bernardin’s name from his abuse lawsuit and reconciled with him —
changed Cardinal Bernardin forever, Bishop Kicanas told the Louisiana Priests’
Convention in a keynote speech Sept. 21.

But he changed in a way
that strengthened his reliance on God in everything he did, said the bishop,
who heads the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, and is the former vice president of
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“When as priests we are
in touch with our own weakness, only then can we enter the pain and brokenness
of others,” Bishop Kicanas said.

Cardinal Bernardin died
in 1996 of pancreatic cancer.

“His name (was) on the
headlines of every area newspaper,” Bishop Kicanas said. “I remember getting a
call from the cardinal two days after the allegation became public. He said
that he was concerned about the seminarians. He worried what they might be
thinking, how they might be feeling. He asked if he might come out to the
seminary and say some words and maybe answer any of their questions.”

Bishop Kicanas said
Cardinal Bernardin visited Mundelein the following week and spoke directly with
all the seminarians in a large, tiered room.

“As we entered the room,
everything quieted down,” Bishop Kicanas recalled. “You could hear a pin drop.
The cardinal gave a brief comment, and then he asked if they had any questions.
Well, no one said a word. Finally, one of the seminarians cautiously raised his
hand and asked, ‘What has it been like for you?'”

Bishop Kicanas said
Cardinal Bernardin “paused for a seemingly interminable time” and finally said,
“I was totally embarrassed, totally. Here I am, the cardinal archbishop of
Chicago, accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, my name on the headline of
every newspaper, even in my (family’s) hometown in Italy. I was totally embarrassed.

“I went home that night
all by myself,” he continued. “I entered my home and walked up the
darkened staircase to the second floor where my room was. I entered the room
surrounded by all the honorary degrees and gifts that I had been given by so
many. I prostrated myself on the ground as if I were naked.”

Bishop Kicanas said
Cardinal Bernardin told the seminarians that “at that moment of utter weakness,
I experienced the Lord present in my life in a way I had never ever experienced

The “irony of the spiritual
life,” Bishop Kicanas said, is that when “we lose our life, we find it; and
when we hold on to our lives, we lose it.”

“That experience of utter
weakness and the cardinal’s later diagnosis of pancreatic cancer made him
totally vulnerable,” Bishop Kicanas said. “But something happened to him as a
result of these two devastating experiences. He became so sensitive to the hurt
of others.”

At one of the healing
services being conducted around the archdiocese before the cardinal died,
Bishop Kicanas said, he was celebrating Mass for an African-American community
when “right in the middle of Mass … a woman came up the stairs of the dais.”

“The priests
concelebrating panicked and tried to get her to go back to her place,” Bishop
Kicanas said. “But the cardinal invited her to his chair and listened to her
cry for help. His own encounter with weakness made him no longer merely an
administrator, but now a pastor, a shepherd who like Christ felt compassion for
the flock, harassed and helpless.”

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Finney is executive editor/general
manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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