Funeral Mass for John Cardinal Dearden
Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Detroit, Michigan
August 5, 1988


He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written:

“The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me, He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor”
(Luke 4:16-19).

God’s people have never been without their prophets—holy and wise leaders who are sent to bear a personal testimony to the reality of God. Their prophetic voices never speak and are never heard in a vacuum, for they are always very much a part of the historical moment in which they live. They share the same needs and the same hopes and aspirations as the people among whom they live and work. It is precisely to them that the prophets speak, bringing them the good news of all that God has done for them, giving them the hope needed to transform their human misery into joy.

Today we gather to honor the memory of one whose voice in the contemporary Church was truly prophetic. We have come to express our gratitude to God for a man who understood and accepted the challenges of the present because his vision was deep and broad enough to encompass both the past and the future: Cardinal John Dearden, archbishop-emeritus of Detroit.

It is not necessary for me to give you the cardinal’s biographical data. You have read this in the many stories which have appeared since his death. Besides, what is really important is the man himself. I want, therefore, to speak to you today about a fully human person who loved people and life. I want to trace, briefly and simply, the image of a dedicated, faith-filled man whose every moment was spent, both in word and example, convincing people that God really loves and cares for them and that, because of this, the world is not such a bad place after all.

First, the cardinal was a man of deep faith. Both in life and in death, he walked, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, “by faith, not sight.” It was this faith that gave him the inner peace and tranquility which he always seemed to possess—no matter what challenge or crisis he faced. As late as last Friday, he told a priest of the archdiocese not to be fearful about an important responsibility he had been given. “The larger the task,” he said, “the more the Holy Spirit will be given to you.” It was this faith that shaped the cardinal’s life and ministry.

The cardinal also had a great confidence in people. He was certainly not naive; he knew that people would fail, that they would not always live up to the expectations others had of them. But he also believed that there was a basic goodness in people and, if encouraged and given a chance, they would rise to the occasion. I know, for example, that he placed much more confidence in me than I deserved. When I served as his general secretary at the National Conference of Bishops in Washington, he just took it for granted that I would be able to accomplish what he expected. That gave me a motivation which enabled me to do far more than I would have accomplished on my own. But it was also somewhat frightening.

It was this combination of faith in God and confidence in people that gave the cardinal an extraordinary serenity, even when things were not going well. He did not panic because he believed that, in the end, problematic situations would correct themselves, that the grace of God and the good will and good sense of people would ultimately prevail.

Another quality of the cardinal was courage. He seldom faltered when he was convinced of the correctness of a particular decision or course of action. He was a secure, humble man who never held back because he was afraid of the personal repercussions his stand might have. Indeed, sometimes he changed his position, but not because of weakness or a lack of resolve. Rather, it was because he listened to people and was not reluctant to make a change when the circumstances warranted it. In taking difficult positions, however, he was always respectful of people. His position was always rooted in sound argumentation, not ad hominem arguments. He tried never to embarrass the person with whom he disagreed. If he felt that he had done so, he was quick to apologize.

Finally, there was an extraordinary human quality which the cardinal possessed. I did not know him when he was called “Iron John.” Whatever there was that gave rise to that title, it was—I am convinced—simply a mask for the warmth that lay underneath. He was always a gentleman and had respect and affection for a wide range of people. He could relate equally well to poor and rich, young and old alike. He also had a good sense of humor and was always ready to help people see the lighter, more joyful side of life.

There was one group for whom he had a special affection, although not all of them may have realized it at the time. I am referring to his priests. He told me many times that he was blessed in both dioceses by good priests. He trusted and supported them. If any experienced difficulty, he was always kind and understanding. As president of the Episcopal Conference (which I will talk about in a few moments), one of his special interests was the priesthood study. So important did he consider this project that he asked Cardinal Krol, the vice president, to chair the committee responsible for the study. Before leaving office as president, he also saw to it that the Committee for Priestly Life and Ministry was properly staffed. The priesthood was very important to him. He saw the charity and unity which join together a bishop and his priests as essential to the life and well-being of the diocese.

As I have reflected on the cardinal’s life and ministry, one word stands out above all others. And that word is Church. He was truly a “church-man”—a man of and for the Church.

First of all, he had a great love for the Church. That love manifested itself in so many ways—his affection for and loyalty to the Holy Father; his esteem for his brother bishops; his devotion to his priests and people. He saw the Church as a family, and he was ever concerned about the spiritual and material well-being of every member of that family, no matter what his or her status might be. This esteem and affection created a climate of warmth and acceptance, even on the part of those who felt alienated from the Church.

Love, as we know, begets wisdom. And Cardinal Dearden had a great wisdom regarding the Church. He understood the Church as few people do. He was steeped in its theology, tradition, and history. He understood and tenaciously defended those elements which are part of the Church’s God-given heritage. He also understood that the Church is a dynamic, living reality, always subject to growth and renewal. He fully agreed with Pope John XXIII that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another,” and that the Church “must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate” (Pope John XXIII, Opening Address, Second Vatican Council).

For this reason, the Second Vatican Council, in the cardinal’s judgment, was a great grace for the Church as it approached the remaining decades of the second millennium. He took an active part in the preparatory sessions, as a member of the commission that prepared the draft of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In particular, he chaired the subcommission which wrote the chapter on marriage and family. He told me that after the completion of the chapter, which has made such a substantial contribution to the Church’s theology of marriage, Pope Paul VI called and asked that he brief him on its content. The cardinal reviewed it with him, line by line. Subsequently, the Holy Father sent the cardinal a personal note thanking him for the leadership he had given. Cardinal Dearden often spoke about the rich exchanges that marked the commission’s meetings. Together with others, I encouraged him to make a record of this living history, but to my knowledge he did not.

The cardinal returned from the council ready and eager to implement its teaching. And this he began to do in the archdiocese. I might add that the growth and renewal to which the council called the entire Church also had a profound effect on the cardinal personally. He underwent a significant change as a result of his participation in the council.

Toward the end of the first year after the conclusion of the council, the cardinal was called to exercise leadership at the national level. In November of 1966 he was elected president of the Episcopal Conference. Together with Cardinal Krol, the new vice president, and the other officers, he was given the challenge of reorganizing the conference so that it could play the role in the Church’s life which was envisioned by the council. The implementation of the conciliar documents called for the conference to make decisions and determinations in many areas, such as liturgy and ecumenism. In a very real sense, Cardinal Dearden was the father of our Episcopal Conference as we know it. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for all he did in this regard.

In recent years, especially since his retirement, I often spoke with him about the council and its aftermath, especially in this country. Usually these conversations took place while we were together on vacation in Harbor Springs, Michigan. While he was saddened by some of the tensions and divisions which have subsequently developed, he was always optimistic because he was convinced that the council was the work of the Holy Spirit. He was equally convinced that the council’s vision of the Church was not yet fully realized, that it would take several more generations to appreciate and assimilate fully the depth of that vision.

Cardinal Dearden’s death is a great loss to all of us. I wish to extend my sympathy to Cardinal Szoka and to all the bishops, priests, religious, and laity of the Archdiocese of Detroit. My condolences go as well to the members of his family, especially his brothers. My sympathy also goes to the many friends who have known and worked with the cardinal in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, and to his classmates, especially Father Steve Towle to whom he was so close and who was with him when he died.

I cannot express adequately my own personal feelings on this occasion. For the past twenty years our relationship has been a very close one. He was both a brother and a father to me. We shared our ideas and our hopes as we worked together for the Church. He was my teacher and counselor. Above all, we were friends, and I will miss him very much.

But we must not dwell too long on the past. What is important is the present and future. Cardinal Dearden has left us a legacy which we must not forget. He saw more clearly than many of us the real challenges of our times. He understood that renewal is more than a matter of external, superficial changes; that it is basically a change of mind and heart which is much more difficult to achieve. He was realistic enough to know that we must have order, that without structure our human condition would become chaotic. In faith he accepted and took seriously his role as bishop and shepherd. But he also believed that structure was always intended to help people, to bring out the best in them and never to stifle them. By putting this conviction into practice in his own life, he opened the door of hope for many who otherwise would have been disillusioned or frustrated.

I cannot conclude without reference to another great churchman, Archbishop Paul Hallinan, whom I served as auxiliary bishop in Atlanta. Cardinal Dearden and Archbishop Hallinan were close friends, and my life, as priest and bishop, has been closely intertwined with theirs. I had the privilege of preaching the homily for the archbishop’s funeral. What I said about Archbishop Hallinan twenty years ago applies equally to Cardinal Dearden today:

There may be some who say that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps he was. But I think his genius was that he saw that time was running out. He had the courage to take a bold step—that necessary, decisive step needed to bring the Church into the mainstream of contemporary life. It is for this reason that he was a prophetic figure. It is for this reason that his influence will long be felt.

Farewell, Cardinal Dearden, farewell! May God grant you the eternal rest you so richly deserve.



Reprinted from: Bernardin, Joseph Cardinal. Alphonse P. Spilly, C.PP.S., ed. Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Vol. 1: Homilies and Teaching Documents. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press 2000. pp. 555-559.