The Seamless Garment of Life

June 10, 2011

When Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin was dying of cancer, Chicagoans responded as they did when they heard that President Roosevelt had died. The announcement brought the city of broad shoulders to its knees. The Tribune quoted the Cardinal as saying he faced death with peace and that it was a gift from God.

Jeremy Langford, a young editor from Loyola Press, was working with the cardinal on a memoir that after Bernardin’s death would become the inspirational bestseller The Gift of Peace. Jeremy asked the cardinal, “Did I misunderstand what you said to the press? Was the gift from God knowing when you are going to die or the sense of peace?” The Cardinal smiled and answered, “Many people misunderstood. It’s interesting, isn’t it? We can understand cancer but peace is less comprehensible.”

After his death not only Chicagoans but Catholics everywhere would remember Joseph Bernardin for teaching us how to die with dignity. Few would remember how he taught a whole world to live with dignity through his profoundly Catholic idea, the Seamless Garment of Life. Isn’t it interesting? We can understand the inevitability of death, but the sanctity of life is less comprehensible.

Here is Cardinal Bernardin’s gift to the world.

The Seamless Garment of Life is not a theory but a principle that all life is sacred, from womb to tomb, in the unborn and the dying, in the murderer on death row and the mother in a coma, in the soldier in Afghanistan and the homeless family in Iraq, in the child abused by a pedophile and the pensioner who can’t afford a doctor, in the oil-poisoned Gulf and the coal mines of Pennsylvania, in the Arab and in the Israeli. “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area,” said Cardinal Bernardin, “eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy.”

The Seamless Garment of Life is not a religious belief but a spiritual understanding that all of us are one.

I stay Catholic because the Church has a consistent ethic of life. The seamless garment is not always comfortable, but it fits all sizes.

Today’s post is excerpted from my book Why Stay Catholic? Unexpected Answers to a Life-Changing Question.


Fran Rossi Szpylczyn June 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

The Seamless Garment of Life is brilliant and is one of so many things that I love and loved about +Cardinal Bernadin. I was in Chicago right after he died and the love for him by the people of the city was apparent.

I love what you say about the potential discomfort of said garment but it does fit all and with dignity.

Why is this so under used by so many in the so-called (and I say that with due respect) pro-life movement? We are all called into balance and equilibrium through and in Christ Jesus and that is what the seamless garment is… whether you are fighting the death penalty, euthanasia, abortion, hunger, slavery. I could go on and on but will stop there.

Mike June 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm

You say it just right, Fran. Thank you.

Catherine June 10, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Speaking of the real McCoy, Cardinal Bernardin was a true Christian. I can say his seamless garment idea was very persuasive to me on the left. It was a challenge to both right and left. This idea, and he in general, always served to remind us that our faith runs much, much deeper than politics, or certainly should. Love was his byword. He remained as one who serves to the very last. His voice is very much missed and needed. Thank you for bringing him up.

Mike June 10, 2011 at 6:22 pm

You’re welcome, Catherine. Thanks for reading the blog and talking back.

Bob June 11, 2011 at 9:07 am

We moved from Chicago shortly after Cardinal Bernardin was installed so I never got a personal sense of the man. However, the grace and dignity he displayed when he was falsely accused by a sick young man was marvelous. He won friends then and even more so later when he forgave the man after he finally admitted he’d made up the whole story. He was quite a man.

Mike June 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm

So true. When he forgave the man, Berardin said,”We cannot run away from our family. We have only one family, so we must make every effort to be reconciled.”

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