What is essential?

A number of years ago, my father-in-law gave me a copy of what he said had become one of his favorite books: “The Gift of Peace,” by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin.

In it, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, dying from rapidly advancing pancreatic cancer, writes with tender mercy about his approaching death.  He also writes about the scandal that enveloped the last years of his life: the man who accused him of sexual abuse, later recanted, dropped the charges, and made peace with the cardinal — and returned to the sacraments — just weeks before his own death from AIDS.

I pulled the book off the shelf last night and leafed through it for the first time in many years and my eyes fell on this passage below.  So often, God gives us the advice we need, and the inspiration we seek, if only we ask.  This seemed to speak to me:

To close the gap between what I am and what God wants of me, I must empty myself and let Jesus come in and take over.  I have prayed to understand his agenda for me.  Some things stand out.  He wants me to focus on the essentials of his message and way of life rather than on the accidentals that needlessly occupy so much of our time and efforts.  One can easily distinguish essentials from peripherals in the spiritual life.  Essentials ask us to give true witness and to love others more.  Nonessentials close us in on ourselves.

It is unsettling to pray to be emptied of self; it seems a challenge almost beyond our reach as humans.  But if we try, I have learned, God does most of the work.  I must simply let myself go in love and trust of the Lord.

When the hand of God’s purpose enters my life, however, it is usually not from the front, as I have always expected, but from the side, in murmurs and whispers that not only surprise but soon empty me beyond anything I could imagine.

Wise words from a man who, on more than one occasion, came to understand why it necessary to let go and let God …


  1. Oh Greg, this is beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Greg. I read Cardinal Bernadin’s book years ago while on retreat in Houston. I remember one morning reading the passage about his reconciliation with his accuser and openly weeping. After that I made the best confession I have ever made because I felt I could totally trust God.

    We need more servant leaders like Joseph Bernadin. There are some, I would put my bishop in that category. It is nice to once again be bowled over by grace

  3. Cardinal Bernardin, though deceased, is one of those people who still gives me real hope for the Catholic church. If a church can produce someone as thoughtful and compassionate such as this man, yes, that church still has a real connection to Christ.

    I reread The Gift of Peace last fall; I think I’m going to put it on my reading list every couple years. Real food for the spirit, and completely connected to modern life as well.

  4. So true. I’ve always admired Cardinal Bernardin and as a young person took heed to his call to struggle against violence and cruelty in our culture, in the seamless garment teaching, that the Church cares for life, “from womb to tomb”, to care for the vulnerable, no matter the cost to ourselves.

  5. Having had Cardinal Bernardin in Cincinnati prior to going to
    Chicago, many have a different view of him and his legacy here. During his time here, there was a strong shift to the left. This was true especially with the seminary where only those seminarians with left leaning and often dissenting views were accepted. Conservative priests found themselves in remote parishes while the plum positions in the better and more lucrative parishes went to those who had strong liberal beliefs and they soon started ripping apart many old and wonderful churches. It was soon policy that if you wanted to do anything in the church, you had to go to their hand selected advisor who pushed for change even when those areas were not being considered such as moving the tabernacle. Also the people who worked in the dioceses office were continually left of center and conservative views supported by clear cannon law were rejected aside. It was the age of the clown mass and liturgical abuse and of course we had a legacy of priest who later committed homosexual abuse with teen boys as targets.

  6. Greta, I should never be amazed that ultra-conservatives in the church are threatened by Bernardin’s legacy and will find an opportunity to run him down. But somehow, I still am amazed.

    (By the way — the pedophilia problem wasn’t “homosexual abuse.” It was child molestation. If you want to denounce child molestors, by all means, please do. But don’t confuse them with people who happen to be gay.)

  7. romancrusader says:

    The John Jay study disagrees with you. Do your research before you start mouthing off.

  8. romancrusader says:

    This is the same Cardinal Bernadin who launched the “Common Ground Initiative” but the other Cardinals at the time refused to go along with it. The presumption behind the initiative was that liberal and conservative Catholics should get together and dialogue about such matters as the legitimacy of dissent in the Church. But there really is no common ground between Catholic who differ on this matter. The Church does not allow dissent about such such tea dings as, for example, the absolute evil of artificial contraception. Yet many Catholic theologians think dissent against the teaching of the Pope is legitimate. I suppose in liberal Catholic circles one might still hear of the common ground approach. But there is no such thing in authentic Catholic teaching Deacon, and you just remember that.

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